The ancient Chinese believed that medicinal herbs and food are of the same origin. This only means that the philosophy and action mechanism are the same, and it does not mean that everyone should eat herbs in their own way. In general, food is more tender and tastes better, while herbs are stronger and more varied in effect. However, whether it is herbs or food, when consumed improperly, both could cause imbalances and result in health issues.
In modern nutritional science, food are evaluated according to their structure, which consists of proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and other nutritional values. In the Chinese medicine dietary (which also includes herbs), the living is not evaluated according to the structure, but according to the energetic properties of the food, its flavour and movement that act on a living organism.
The movement properties of TCM herbology, also known as the theory of ascending, descending, floating and sinking refers to four directions or trends of medicinal actions. Complementary to Four Natures and Five Flavors theories, it plays an essential role in comprehensively understanding the properties of Chinese herbology and in guiding its clinical applications. [Read more: Your Body as a Garden]
Ascending means upward moving action, verse the descending downward moving action. Floating means the external and outward moving action, verse the sinking internal and inward moving action.
The theory of ascending, descending, floating and sinking is closely related to TCM systems Zang-Fu functions and their corresponding energies movement. The ascending-descending and floating-sinking effects of substances can be affected by various factors including Four Natures and Five Flavors, texture and density, processing methods, compatibility application, and the parts of the plant.
In terms of the Five Flavours, pungent flavour has upward and outward moving properties. Sour, salty, and bitter are generally downward moving. Sweet flavour is inward moving. For substance with light taste or strong aromatic fragrance, they are upward and outward moving. Those that are heavy in taste and dense in texture, they are downward and inward moving. Lighter or thinning food tends to move faster and relatively superficial; while heavier or denser food tends to move slower and go deeper.
In general, the part of the plants determines the movement properties. For example, the flowers are light and upward growing so they tend to move upwards or outwards. Meanwhile, the roots and fruits, which are heavy and dense, tend to move downwards and inwards. However, there are many other exceptions, and some foods can move in two directions, e.g. cinnamon can reach deep into the kidney system and bring fiery energy up to the heart. Seeds also go upward but first they go inward. The leaves of a plant first grow upward then eventually fall downward. In the application of leaves to plants like mint leaf, green vegetables or tea, the way of preparation will determine which kind of action we desire. We could discuss further when we make an introduction about tea in the future.
According to TCM, both foods and spices can be selected and prepared according to whether we want to raise the energy level in the body, cleanse the body or regulate it. All these characteristics are in a dynamic balance, which means it is constantly changing. We should have adjustment according to the season, cooking method, or current state of health. In order to maintain a balance in most of the time, we need each of the properties in moderation. [Read more: Qi deficiency: What is it and how do you manage it?] [Read more: Cook your food - digestive system explained in Traditional Chinese medicine]
Pathologically, diseases may develop on the superior, inferior, exterior, or interior part of the body, and may develop inward or outward. Therefore, herbs that tend to ascend, descend, float, or sink should be prescribed in line with affected area and pathogenesis.
“Treat adverse rising by inhibition, treat fallen by raising” -The Yellow Emperor’s Inner Classic (黃帝內經 Huáng Dì Nèi Jing)
Ascending herbs, capable of raising and lifting, are mainly used for sinking patterns. Descending herbs, capable of downbearing and suppressing, are mainly used for disorders due to the overflow of upward Qi or the pathogenic fire flaming upward. For instance, floating Chinese medicines mainly act upward and outward by increasing yang and are used to treat cold or dizziness due to weakness. Sinking Chinese medicines mainly act downward and inward by suppressing yang, and are used to treat hiccups, vomiting, and insomnia due to hyperactivity.
Chinese herbal property theory is a highly summarized concept of herbal nature and medicinal effect, which reflect the characteristics of herbal actions on the human body. It is a complex, logical and analytical model of mechanisms of substances intake inside the human body, and therefore, serve as the foundation of the powerful Chinese herbal medicine. [Read more: Foundation of TCM dietary and herbology (1/4)- Four natures] [Read more: Foundation of TCM dietary and herbology (2/4)- Five flavours]