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  • Writer's pictureAku Energija

Foundation of TCM dietary and herbology (1/4)- Four natures

Property Theory of Chinese Materia Medica (hereafter referred as Chinese herbs) is the fundamental characteristic of Chinese herbs different from modern medicines. It reflects the herbal properties associated with efficacy and formed the herbal medicine framework in the ancient classics. The theory system includes concepts like four natures, five flavors, meridian entry, direction of medicinal actions and toxicity. The property theory of Chinese herbs is one of the foundations of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). It is a multi-dimensional expression of the effect of Chinese herbs, and it is related to the clinical prescription that fully reflects the clinical effect evaluation of Chinese materia medica in a holistic, systematic, and scientific way. [1]

Four Natures of Foods and Chinese Herbs

The four natures of Chinese herbs or Si Qi 四氣 refer to the property or nature of medicinal herbs. They are cold, hot, warm and cool.

It is common sense that chewing a mint leaf can cause a cooling feeling, while chewing ginger root will produce a burning feeling. In TCM, this phenomenon is referred to as ‘cold/hot’ properties of herbs.

The warm spring, hot summer, cool autumn, and cold winter form the natural cycle of a year. According to the Daoist theory of Human-nature interaction, a gradual change in the temperature cycle is the most direct perception of the external environment for a human. The hot and warm are the Yang energies, while the cold and cool are the Yin energies. When the Yin and Yang are in balance, we are healthy. Otherwise, if the balance is broken, we are sick. Therefore, Hot and warm herbs are used to treat cold diseases, while cool and cold herbs are used to treat hot diseases. When treating disease with Chinese herbs, a practitioner must distinguish the hot or cold nature of disease and have a sound understanding of the hot and cold properties of Chinese medicinal herbs. This is essential to obtain the desired results from treatment and to avoid harmful results. [Read more: Dao in TKM] [Read more: Yin Yang philosophy and mental health]

There are some herbs known as neutral, whose property is neither hot nor cold and whose action is relatively mild. Most of our foods should stay within the neutral properties so they do not cause extremes in our body and break our balance.

Food temperature designates how it interacts with the Qi, blood, and body fluids resulting in a warming, cooling, or neutral effect. This not only has to do with the energetic properties and the nature of the foods, but with how the food is prepared or cooked. For example, roasting, broiling, and heating equate to warm while iced and raw correspond to cold. Plants that take longer to grow such as sweet potato, ginseng, walnuts are warmer foods than those that grow quickly such as cucumbers, radish, and lettuce. Warming foods can help to stimulate body functions and cooling food can help cool us down. Too much hot or warming foods can overstimulate our system. Similarly, ingesting too many raw or cold foods can slow down our digestion and put out our digestive fire. [Read more about TCM dietary advice]

A few examples of foods related to the four natures:

  • Cold: Many melons and its relatives (watermelon, bitter melon, sweet melon, winter melon, cucumber), sea vegetables (wakame, kelp, nori), dark green leaves vegetables (dandelion leaves, kale), mung bean, mint, barley, buckwheat, non-fermented tea (matcha, green tea), seafood that lives in the bottom and does not move a lot

  • Cool: Light green leaves vegetables (lettuce, spinach), mushrooms or fungus, most large fruits from tree (persimmon, apple, pear, orange, lemon, kiwi, mulberry, mandarin, pulm), vegetable sprouts, carrot and radish, tomato, paprika, celery, many herbal flowers (chamomile, elderflower, honeysuckle, jasmin, chrysanthemum, hibiscus, hops), basil, parsley, oregano, marjoram, melissa, lemon balm, verbena, millet, tofu, chestnuts, strawberry, medium fermented tea (oolong, black tea), duck, rabbit, seafood that lives closer to the surface of water or have blood

  • Neutral: Rice, soy and many beans, potato, egg, corn, black sesame, freshly cooked pork (steam or boil), licorice, sunflower seeds, almond, walnut, olive, grape, fermented and aged tea (Pu’er), human and cow’s milk

  • Warm: Thyme, nettle, rosemary, marigold, ginger, fennel, mustard, cumin, garlic, onion, pepper, wild garlic, rose, sweeter fruits (date, goji berry, raspberry, blueberry, papaya, cherry), sweet potato, sticky rice, black rice, black bean, chicken and poultry, beef, goat’s milk, internal organs of animals

  • Hot: Cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, chili, sweet tropical fruits (durian, mango, pineapple, lychee, long gan), dried fruits increase the heat nature, deep fried, baked and roasted food increase the heat nature, lamb, goat, deer or other wild red meat animals

Let Food Be Thy Medicine and Medicine Be Thy Food?

藥食同源, food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food, it means that food and medicine from the same origin of principle, not just literally means food is medicine. The property Theory of Chinese Materia Medica is exactly this principle.

Poison and medicine has only a very thin line in between, in the modern term it is a therapeutic window. So if food can be a medicine, food can also be a poison. How can we tell whether food is medicine or poison? We must look into Tao. By understanding Tao, we find the dynamics of changes and finally strive for the balance.

The wisdom of Traditional Chinese Medicine goes deep and can impact your overall health in a very profound way. In this article we have only started a brief introduction. Please follow us on the rest of the series.


  1. Yanjiang Qiao, Yanling Zhang, Sha Peng, Mengqi Huo, Jing Li, Yanfeng Cao, Zhao Chen, Property theory of Chinese materia medica: Clinical pharmacodynamics of traditional Chinese medicine, Journal of Traditional Chinese Medical Sciences, Volume 9, Issue 1, 2022, Pages 7-12, ISSN 2095-7548,


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