Spicy Taste in Chinese medicine

The spicy taste in Chinese medicine adds lightness and energy to your diet, helping your lungs work better. You need some, but not too much!
spicy taste herbs

Spicy taste in Chinese medicine

Foods classified as having a ‘spicy’ taste in Chinese medicine benefit your Metal phase energy, ie your Lungs and Large Intestine energies.

For more on the question of what ‘taste’ signifies, click on Taste in Chinese medicine.

For more on these important subjects, click Metal Phase, Lung and Large Intestine functions.

Your Metal element, (your Lungs and Large Intestine), looks after a lot more than just your respiration. It covers your ability to obtain Qi and to use it for the health of your body, whether in your digestion or your skin or in your ability to see a wider, deeper meaning to life.

But the Chinese idea of Blood goes further too. First, the red stuff, blood, doesn’t become Blood – in the Chinese sense, until it has been mixed with Oxygen in the lungs and sent on its way by your Heart, both of which happen in your chest, the upper part of your torso.

Blood doesn’t heal and repair, moisten and nourish until your Lungs and Heart give it life. Unless those energies in your Heart and Lungs re-charge it, you won’t’ have the enthusiasm, power or ‘fire’ for life you need. A major part of this comes from your Lungs.

If you don’t eat enough food classified as ‘spicy’, or what you eat is poor quality, (or your digestion is poor): –

  • You’ll lack drive
  • Weak digestion
  • Frequent minor infections, often respiratory
  • Mucus and phlegm easily build up in your nose, sinuses and chest
  • You hold things inwardly
  • Your voice may be weaker than others’
  • Not much enthusiasm for life; tendency to depression
  • Some people may lack empathy and compassion


Why might these problems afflict you? Read up on the Metal phase.

Meaning of the Spicy taste

2500 years ago the Chinese worked this out and noted the foods that benefited the Lung and Large Intestine functions. These they described as having the ‘spicy’ taste.

Not that all such foods always taste spicy, and you must remember that modern tastes have been subverted by artificial flavours so we easily succumb to eating too much of one and not enough of another. All this makes our experience of taste rather lop-sided.

Metal - access to Heavenly Qi yet in contact with our roots, our Water phase
Metal phase, between Earth phase and Water phase

Another problem is that by labelling them ‘spicy’ we expect them to taste spicy and are baffled when they don’t. Perhaps the original authors of the text from which all this experience derives (the Huang Di Nei Ching Su Wen) might, as far as us modern people are concerned, have done better to describe these foods as ‘Metal phase’ foods.

The list below is not complete …

… and never can be because many modern foods and supplements did not exist 2500 years ago, and it can take a while for modern practitioners of Chinese medicine to appreciate the qualities of a ‘new’ food.

When taken in balance with foods of other tastes … foods with spicy taste lead to

  • Good digestion
  • Strong voice
  • Plenty of energy
  • Openness to other ideas
  • Dependable lungs and respiration
  • Healthy immunity


Other Factors change how spicy it is

Other factors also influence how spicy a given food is, such as

  • where the food is grown – for example some kinds of garlic are much spicier than others
  • its climate,
  • at what stage of growth they harvest it,
  • how long and in what way it has been stored before being displayed for sale and
  • how any artificial substances (eg foodstuffs, fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides) may have affected it.


You’ll notice that most foods listed as spicy are naturally warming. Warming is yang, and while your lungs need moistening, they don’t like yin – cold, so for lung health, avoid drinking cold liquids which take warmth from your chest and lungs as they descend to your stomach.

Cold, iced food is the same. Chinese medicine recommends that for health, you avoid cold or iced or chilled food, at least until it has warmed to room temperature or is cooked and hot to taste. In any case, chewing well imparts some warmth from your mouth before swallowing, and grinds food into smaller particles, easier to digest.

How Cooking affects Spicy taste food

Cooking alters the quality and energy of food with the spicy taste
Cooking can concentrate or dilute intensity of the spicy taste.

Then there’s the question of how you cook the food. Whatever the food’s underlying quality in terms of spiciness and temperature (ie whether warming or cooling) how you cook it changes this:

  • Baking, frying or roasting food concentrates it and usually makes it hotter. These also make it spicier, more pungent.
  • Steaming and boiling food can make it cooler and more dilute than otherwise: less spicy.


Spicy taste foods come in different forms and some are more nutritious (in terms of modern nutrition) while others benefit the way your Metal phase, Lung action and Large Intestine function work.

Craving for, or aversion to, spicy pungent food

Craving for, or aversion to, spicy food may indicate a problem with your Metal phase or element. Good acupuncture and advice should improve this.

Nowadays, manufacturers add not just salt but hot spices to snacks. Too many such snacks may imbalance how your Lungs and Large intestine function, causing Heat problems ranging from perspiration to diarrhoea. Since your Lungs ‘rule’ your skin, too much spicy food can cause rashes and dryness.

When there is too much heat in your system, you become susceptible to hot-type syndromes (including, for example, Damp-Heat, which you definitely can do without!) which can also make you irritable and touchy, less balanced, less objective than you could be.

As mentioned, too much spicy food will make you perspire. That may help keep you cool in hot climates, but in cold climates perspiration is generally inadvisable, unless from vigorous exercise, and even then, you normally cover up afterwards, quickly. So, if you always crave spicy food, get some acupuncture.

Space to Digest

If you feel heavy or slightly sedated after a meal, probably you ate too much or it lacked any spicy elements.

Five Elements or Phases
Five Phase Diagram – Copyright Acupuncture Points

(The Five Element theory suggests that you may be able to ameliorate this heaviness in several ways. One is to take some ginger or turmeric either with or following the meal – say a ginger tea; the other is to have something bitter – which is why you often like a strong coffee after a big meal. However, coffee is not all good – see my page on it.)

For long-term health, do not eat until stuffed! Leave a space. That space is vital so that when you take a deep breath – to help digestion with the extra oxygen – there is somewhere for your lungs to expand into.

Equally, when eating, sit upright, giving your stomach and intestines room. If you eat while stooping or hunched or while lying supine watching television, you probably compress the area, and you breathe more shallowly. Also, there’s less room for food to descend.

Oxygen is vital for good digestion

Oxygen is vital for good digestion. Indeed, the origin of your Lung acupuncture channel lies in your solar plexus, your stomach area. You need to give it space.

Getting used to this can be hard. Parents like to see their children eating well, knowing that under-eating for too long stunts growth, and some children never get out of the habit of stuffing themselves. Modern advertising influences us to eat more. If you are thin, you may feel you need extra food to keep you warm. If you are over-weight your stomach organ may be over-stretched so doesn’t easily tell you when it’s full. Food is usually warming but if we eat too little, or we eat cold food, we may keep eating, even when full, as our bodies strive for warmth.

After a meal, it is a good idea to go for a gentle walk for a few minutes. This helps the food descend and the exercise makes you breathe, both important for digestion.

So, take-away lessons for spicy food and your lungs:

  • Never eat until stuffed – always leave some space to breathe into
  • Chew well – this exercises the jaw muscles, through which the Stomach channel passes, so chewing readies and stimulates your stomach for the food to expect
  • Avoid cold, iced or chilled food or drink. Make sure what you consume is warm, or if it’s cold, eat or drink something warm before and after.
  • Spicy foods add lightness to food and assist digestion, and not just by stimulating your Lungs to provide more oxygen.
  • Spicy, pungent foods help clear Damp and Phlegm.
  • Too much spicy food makes you perspire, good in a warm climate, bad in a cold one.


The List of Spicy Foods

brown wooden frame with white paper

Here is a list of ‘spicy foods but! – if you skipped all the above guff, the list is not complete and you’d better crawl back a few paragraphs to find out why.

bay leaf
caraway seed
cassio fruit
chive leaf
chive seed
cinnamon twig
coriander leaf
coriander seed
daikon (mooli)
dill seed
elderflower drink
fennel seed

ginger (fresh root)

Ginger root - spicy taste in Chinese medicine
Ginger – fresh root
ginger (powder)
lemon balm
mustard leaf
pepper (white and black)
soya oil
spring onion
star anise
turmeric (curcumin)
Jonathan Brand colours

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