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The Five Flavors of your Chinese formula

Have you ever chewed up a Tylenol or Ibuprofen pill? Probably not. We swallow pharmaceuticals whole without tasting them because it doesn’t really matter what they taste like–the flavor isn’t part of the experience or the benefit to taking that type of medicine. Chinese herbs are a different story. If you’ve ever taken a Chinese formula you’ll know that there is a wide range of flavors you may experience, from the most bitter to almost sickly sweet, and anything in between. If you haven’t tried a formula before, I’d like to share with you the backstory on the flavors you may one day encounter so that you can go into the experience with a little excitement and a bit more understanding.

We talk about five basic flavors in our herbal medicine: Bitter, Acrid, Sweet, Sour, and Salty. Each herb can claim at least one flavor, possibly several. Knowing the herb’s flavor is a shortcut to understanding its function in a formula. (I will add that each herb also is said to have a “temperature” ranging from very hot to very cold, which also describe how the herb works, but flavors are enough to discuss in this post.)

The bitter flavor is probably the most noticeable one in a formula. We have some herbs that are among the most bitter things you can safely put in your mouth! You know how drinking your morning coffee usually helps you spend your morning time in the bathroom? Have you heard of drinking a bitter “digestif” after a large meal? Then you already understand the bitter flavor: bitter helps things descend in the body. Taking a formula with this flavor can apply whether you need help in the bathroom, to having a hard time with phlegm in your chest, to having anxiety with panic attacks. Any time something isn’t going down in the body that should–energetically or otherwise–I think of the bitter flavor.

The acrid flavor is called “pungent” in some books. For this discussion I think it’s easiest to describe it as spicy. Ginger has this property. So do clove, nutmeg, fennel, and cardamom, any of which could show up in a formula. You already know what the acrid flavor does, having experienced it when you ate something very spicy: your face turned red, you might have broken out in a sweat, and perhaps if you had any sinus congestion it cleared up. Acrid makes things go up and out.

The sweet flavor can often get drowned out by the bitter in a formula, but it is very important and can work even in the background. One of the sweetest of our herbs is honey-fried licorice, which shows up in practically every formula. Sweet nourishes the body, restores fluids, and moderates strong actions of other herbs. There is another flavor called Bland that fits in alongside sweet. It helps to get fluids to go where they are needed, whether that be from a wet place in the body to a dry place, or just out of the body altogether.

If you have ever bitten into a lemon wedge you understand what the sour flavor does. The word is “astringe,” but sour generally holds things in, just like you purse and scrunch your mouth up when you encounter straight lemon juice. Things that need to be held in can range from abnormal sweating to urinary leakage to excess bleeding. The sour flavor also performs an energetic action when the body is irritable or energy isn’t flowing in the directions it should, softening the impulse to lash out at everyone around you and helping you to return to your calm and rational self.

Just as salt on the roads softens ice, the salty flavor can soften areas in the body where things have congealed or formed lumps, or places where things have become brittle and dried out. It might seem counter-intuitive, but water follows solvents, and when things are rich and salty water and nourishment will flow in and plump things up.

One of the cooler things about Chinese herbs is that the flavors DO matter. I hope I’ve given you the beginnings of a deeper understanding and appreciation of these flavors. When you try your first formula, chances are you’ll think it’s gross. Once you have taken several different formulas your palate will change and expand.

Have you tried Chinese herbs? What was your experience? Or have you eaten something that had a remarkable flavor that you’ve never forgotten? Leave a comment with your story!

What are yin and yang?

Yin and yang are the basic tenets of traditional Chinese medicine, yet when I am asked in clinic what they are I find myself fumbling to explain them. They are so basic and underlie almost everything I do, so much so that I don’t often question how to describe them. I wanted to give an idea of what they are and an illustration of how they work together, especially since this time of year provides such a good example.

At both their most simple and most complex, yin and yang are opposites. Everything and anything you can think of can be described as either very yin, very yang, or more commonly some degree of a mix between the two. Things which are more yin are hidden, darker, quieter, perhaps wetter. Yang types of things are bright, energetic, growing, moving, and changing. Yin is a feminine energy and yang is more masculine. Picture a hillside in the early morning: the side being warmed and brightened by the sun is more yang, and the side still dark and covered with dew is more yin.

You never have yin or yang alone–they always work as a pair. Now, sometimes you’ll have a situation where something is skewed so strongly in one direction or the other that imbalance starts to occur (and you need to visit your acupuncturist!). But one of the more interesting aspects of yin and yang is that at their extremes they begin to transform into one another. This can be explained using the example of the solstice.

The winter solstice, which we will experience on December 21, is a time of ultimate yin. We are deepest into our journey away from the sun. The days are shortest and the night is longest. We’re inspired to hibernate. But I always like to take note of the solstice because it is then, even if we can’t sense it at first, that the days begin to lengthen toward spring. Like a pendulum beginning to swing in the opposite direction, yang is returning to our lives. I find it comforting to note the couple of extra minute of sunlight we begin to receive, even as it gets colder here in Chicago. If you’re feeling the winter blues, I invite you to join me in finding and celebrating yang elements in this cold, yin-predominant season.

Autumn Refresh

Although the Chicago weather might encourage us to pretend it’s still summer, today we enter the season of autumn. Trees are slowly turning gold and we can sense the days shortening. I see this as a time of great opportunity. To me, it almost makes more sense to set a goal to give something up at this time of year, rather than on January 1. We can take inspiration from the natural world:

When the days begin to shorten in the fall, a tree responds to the lessening of sunlight and cuts off circulation to its leaves, pulling back its resources to the essential trunk and roots. The leaves dry up and fall away, and as they return to the earth they enrich the soil the tree grows from. In this way the tree survives the short, cold days of winter. It can reproduce its foliage in the spring, when once again resources will be abundant.

The tree is a metaphor, but our bodies go through a similar transition. In my practice I talk with my patients about their feelings at this time of year. Many people notice a turning-inward, an inclination to hibernation, or a desire to snuggle up at home with warm carbs. We can all understand the impulse to sleep earlier and be a little less social when the days are short. These feelings are natural because our bodies are part of nature. We don’t need to fight them, and in fact I would suggest we embrace them. There is opportunity here that I invite you not to pass up.

With shorter days comes more time for introspection and possibly self-improvement. We all have things we hold on to that no longer serve us. Whether it is a grudge, old clothes, a habit, or a hairstyle, the autumn energy can inspire us to release the old to make way for the new. As these things fall away, we may be able to see more clearly the path to further growth. Maybe take a minute today to write down a few goals for the fall season, harnessing the potential of this time. Think of it as the start of a new era, rather than the end of an old.

Cupping and Gua Sha–what are they?

In response to popular demand, I recently added cupping and gua sha only appointments to my list of services! As of now it is a half hour appointment for $40 at my treatment space on Friday or Saturday mornings.

But what does this mean? In general terms, cupping and gua sha are great for musculoskeletal issues such as sore muscles, tightness from over or under-use, and recover from injury. Both techniques physically break up stagnation and allow freer movement. For issues that go beyond the muscle layer, such as phlegm in the chest or an incipient cold or flu, these modalities can open the surface and allow the body to better return itself to health. If you’d like to learn more about each technique, keep reading!


In Chinese, gua sha translates literally to “sand scraping”.  This name more or less describes the action of gua sha.  It is a technique practiced in many traditional cultures.  The form I have learned from my studies in school uses a curved object which may be a tool designed specifically for gua sha, or may be a spoon, a small metal lid, or any other object that has the curve the practitioner wants.  A lubricant such as lotion or oil is spread over the skin that is to be scraped to protect the surface of the skin from abrasion, and the curved implement is then scraped over the skin with some degree of pressure.  The desired effect is usually some skin coloration, whether it be pale pink, red, or even darker purple tones.  It looks like a bruise, but should clear up quicker.

 Gua sha is commonly used to treat muscular soreness or tension.  The discoloration of the skin means that stagnant blood is being broken up.  Therefore it’s important to drink plenty of fluids after a treatment involving gua sha (just as with a treatment involving massage or cupping).  Gua sha can also be used to prevent or treat a cold: if you get that stiff neck that means you’re about to get sick, see your acupuncturist and they may gua sha the back of your neck to release the pathogen and relieve the discomfort.


Cupping is an ancient form of bodywork practiced in many cultures. In China, cups were once made of bamboo, and suction was created by heating the insides of the cups and pressing them to the skin. These days, most cups used are clear glass. Suction may be created by using a pump or heating the cup with a flame, and blood and qi is moved to help reduce muscle tightness and alleviate pain. Cupping may be quick and fast or cups can be left on the body longer. They can remain in one place or be slid back and forth.

Marks left by cupping may resemble bruising, but should disappear faster than a bruise, and should not cause pain. Your results will be unique—you may leave your treatment with round marks that vary in color from pale red to dark purple. The color and intensity of the marks indicate to your practitioner how long you have had the condition being treated, and other information such as your relative excess or deficient status.

Cupping should not be administered if you plan to wear clothing such as a backless dress that will expose the marks soon after your treatment, due to their sometimes unsightly nature. Family or friends might ask you about your marks—let them know they are part of a treatment that helped relieve pain, create relaxation, and improved mobility.

After your treatment, you should drink plenty of water. Just like with gua sha, avoid exposing the treated area to cold air or water at least until the end of the day.

Acupuncture and herbs are a must for flu season!

It’s getting cooler in Chicago, windows are closing, the heat is going on, and cold and flu season is here.  It seems inevitable that you or someone you know will catch a bug of some sort, and depending on how much time you have to spend around other people, odds are high you’re either going to catch it from that person, or spread a cold of your own.  Misery loves company, and the pharmaceutical and facial tissue companies of the world love cold and flu season.

Make this year different by keeping your acupuncturist in mind!  I highly recommend that my patients come in for treatment at the beginning of every season for a tune-up, and fall and spring are the two that really shouldn’t be missed.  If you have any imbalances, we can sort those out and get you strong and healthy to survive an office full of sneezing and coughing.  You might benefit from going on a formula for a week or two, because taking herbs helps extend your treatment for days longer than your acupuncture session alone.

If you’ve already started to feel that tickle in your throat, let me know that you might be coming down with something, and come in for a treatment!  We should be able to knock most colds out with some acupuncture, a formula, and maybe a few dietary adjustments.  In many cases, there was a reason you were susceptible to that particular cold, and we can talk about ways to avoid catching any more this season.  Acupuncture reduces inflammation and boosts the immune system, which will help you recover faster and feel better while doing it.

If you’re on the road to recovery but still feel fatigued, achy, or congested, make an appointment!  Chinese herbal medicine can easily treat congestion, achiness, or sore throat without the side effects common to pharmaceuticals.  There’s no reason to suffer this cold and flu season with acupuncture and Chinese herbs on your side.  Write me or give me a call if you have any questions, and book your fall appointment today!