Nourishing Ourselves in the Time of COVID – 19
“Those who take medicine and neglect their diet waste the skill of the physician.”
I want to reach out to you during this challenging time we are living through to offer support and encouragement. In the past year I lived through my husband’s illness and dying. It was challenging, so incredibly sad and yet here I am still breathing, appreciating the beauty of the new found spring and feeling the challenge and opportunity of the extraordinary moment we are all part of.
There are things we cannot control. I could not control my husband’s rare form of brain cancer, I could not keep him alive. However, I could give enormous heartfelt care, I could connect with my community and open to their support and help and I could care for my patients, myself and my daughter.
I want to offer you the encouragement to care for yourself and your loved ones during this time with the pleasure of eating well. I offer you some perspectives on eating from the Chinese medicine perspective and with a bit of good common sense. I hope you find some things in here that are useful
In these uncertain times we are certain of one thing, we need to eat. The question is how. The other question is what do we need to eat to support our health while protecting ourselves from catching a virus.
Chinese medicine and its 3,000-year-old tradition of embedding food as medicine in the culture can teach us a lot, no matter what culture we are from or live in now. The foundations of Chinese nutritional therapy are based the principles of Chinese medicine on the observation of nature and our interaction with our environment. Each of us live in specific climates, we live through seasons and their changes and each of us has a unique physical constitution and condition. These considerations are important to consider when making food recommendations.
This article will provide you with general guidelines from a Chinese medicine perspective on food and eating to support your health during this time of the coronavirus in this seasonal transition to spring.
From a Chinese medicine perspective COVID- 19 is a warm disease with wind heat pathogens that transmit easily. The virus will attack each of us differently and is dependent upon our underlying health condition, our energetic vitality and constitution. A key tenet of our health from the Chinese medicine perspective is the condition of the stomach spleen axis responsible for digestion (the stomach) and transformation and assimilation (the spleen). If the stomach digestive capacity has been compromised by poor quality food and stress consequent spleen qi is diminished.
The development of illness after infection with the virus is also dependent upon the underlying condition of dampness accumulation which can transform into obstructive phlegmIf our health is compromised due to poor underlying health conditions, stress, overwork or fatigue we become more susceptible. Our protective qi is diminished and our immune system is taxed.
So what do we do? First things first, we need to remove those obstacles to cure which are interwoven in our lifestyle and the foods we eat:
- Stress is inevitable during this time. However, we can learn to manage and lower our stress response with exercise (walking, biking, yoga, strength training, tai chi or qi gong, swimming), meditation practices, any artistic outlet, being out in nature. Stress can lead to anxiety, insomnia, physical tension, reactivity and mood swings.
- Improve sleep. Poor sleep is a tremendous burden to your immune system. If you are having trouble with sleep try a hot bath before bed. Add in calming herbal teas such as chamomile, chrysanthemum, skullcap, lavender or licorice.
- Move your body. Movement is crucial to moving the lymphatic system and moving fluids through the body. Gently exercise is just fine. Do what makes you feel good; dance, walk, do yoga, tai chi or qi gong, bike or swim.
Foods to avoid that stress the body:
- Avoid foods that contribute to a warm and damp condition in the body such as spicy, greasy, fatty or creamy foods (rich sauces, ice cream), heavy dairy usage, shrimp, sugar (including artificial sweeteners) and alcohol.
- Foods that can be hard on digestion such as raw and cold foods, which require an enormous amount of stomach qi to break down.
- Cooking methods: Avoid fried foods, heavy grilling or the overuse of heavy animal fat in cooking
- Avoid overeating. Overeating taxes our digestive system the center of good health in the body. Overeating happens for so many different reasons and it can be hard to change. Here are some ways to work with it:
- See if you can serve yourself from the stove. Make a plate and stop after eating that plate.
- Chew. Chew. Chewing well slows down everything, is calming to the nervous system and helps the digestion of food. Try chewing your food at least 30 times and you will start to note a big difference.
- Breathe in and breathe out, over and over again. This is enormously calming to the whole body.
Foods that support health:
- Eating regular meals. Even if your meals are small regular eating is important. Blood sugar regulation reduces stress on the endocrine system and digestive system
- The rainbow of colors on your plate. Include foods that have all the colors: orange/yellow, red, green, green and more green, beige, blue or black.
- Foods that are easy to digest and are nourishing such as lightly cooked vegetable broths or soups or congee (a rice soup made with ratios of 1 cup rice to 12 cups of water cooked slowly for 2 hours).
- Foods of a neutral thermal nature such as whole grains, beans and legumes, carrots, winter squashes, nuts and seeds, mushrooms of all varieties.
- Vegetables: radishes, daikon, scallions which all have a pungent and dispersing nature.
- Fruits eaten whole are hydrating and cleansing. Pears have an affinity for the lungs are sweet, slightly sour and cooling. Apples are sweet and sour, hydrating and support the stomach and spleen.
- Fermented Foods are eaten throughout the world and are among the oldest and easiest methods of food preparation. Some fermented foods include sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, kombucha, natto, kefir, and yoghurt. These foods are filled with probiotics and support the promotion of beneficial bacteria to the gut a key component of the immune system.
- Vinegar – Vinegar adds dimension to cooked greens and bean soups. Added to meat stews it helps in the digestion of the fat. Vinegar is sour and sweet and is not a beneficial food if you are getting sic
- Nutrient dense foods such as eggs (a very nourishing food), avocado, good quality fats, fish (not shellfish), nuts and seeds, non-gmo tofu and tempeh, beans and legumes. Honey is nourishing and fortifying.
- Sea Vegetables add minerals and trace minerals to our body that are important. Try the spectrum of sea vegetables such as nori, dulse, kombu, wakame, arame, sea palm and hijiki. All coastal cultures have included sea vegetables into their diet.
- Herbs and spices found in your kitchen cabinet are a treasure trove of medicine. Cook with herbs and spices to add flavor, increase palatability and medicinal effect of your cooking. Basil, thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, turmeric, cumin, coriander, ginger (fresh or dried), black pepper (in small amounts) or dill are all aromatic and stimulate digestion as well as helping to dispel dampness in the body.
- The following herbs and medicinal foods also add to the strength of your immune system when you are feeling well (not when you are sick):
- Astragalus is best when you are healthy and can be added to soups and stews or teas. It is very woody so cannot be eaten. You can order astragalus by the ounce through Vital Compass in NE Portland.
- Mushrooms including button and cremini, shitake, maiitake, oyster , cordyceps and other varieties are well known for their immune boosting properties. Add them into soups, stews, stir-fries or roasted they are delicious and add umami deep flavor into your cooking.
- Red dates and goji berries nourish qi and blood. These can be added to teas, soups and stews. These too can be ordered through Vital Compass.
- Herbal teas are nourishing, soothing and flavorful Try making your own with peppermint (pungent and cooling), chrysanthemum (pungent and cooling), nettles (cooling, slightly drying, nourishes blood), rose petals (warming and gently pungent and are relaxing) are a few ideas to try.
Feeling overwhelmed already and not sure where to start? The list above is long and you might be asking how you can implement all of this at once.
First, don’t worry. If you can, start by eliminating those foods (or just a couple of them) which obstruct healing and diminish the strength of your immune system.
Here are some supportive ideas to help:
- Ask a friend to join you in making some of these changes. Support during these times is crucial.
- Don’t know how to cook? Why not learn how! Go online where resources abound.
- Check out my book Nutritional Healing with Chinese Medicine: + 175 Seasonal Recipes for Optimal Health for more in depth learning on Chinese medicine and food, over 175 seasonal recipes and resources for food.
This article is meant to provide you with another perspective on how we can nourish and protect our health through the food we eat. The Chinese have a saying, “food heals and medicine is food.” There are many traditions that honor nurturing life and the food we eat and how we eat is one of the most powerful. Let’s do what we can to nurture and nourish ourselves in this time.
Ellen Goldsmith, M.S.O.M., L.Ac., Dip. C.H.
A note: The information here is not meant to provide medical advice. For a more individualized plan consult your medical provider or acupuncturist.
Ellen Goldsmith, MSOM, L.Ac., Dip. ChInese Herbalist is author of the book, Nutritional Healing with Chinese Medicine: + 175 Recipes for OptimalHealth, a book to help people understand and put the nourishing wisdom of Chinese medicine into everyday lives, where it matters most; the kitchen. Ellen was co-founder of Pearl Natural Health, a naturopathic, acupuncture and Chinese medicine clinic in Portland. She is on the faculty of the National University of Natural Medicine’s College of Classical Chinese Medicine and the Nutrition Program and the faculty of the Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine teaching Chinese dietetics. She maintains a private practice in Chinese medicine, lectures widely and lives in Portland, Oregon.