There are a number of Chinese herbs that you might find in your spice cabinet, including cinnamon, ginger and turmeric. However, there are also herbs in the Chinese formulary that are actually foods. This includes a group of herbs that belong to the melon family.
One of the most common and appealing foods in the Chinese herbal medicine cabinet—or in this case, your kitchen—is watermelon. Both the fruit and the peel are used to treat something called Summerheat.
In Chinese medicine, there are a number of underlying conditions that can make you sick, called pathogens. Think of a pathogen as a kind of bad weather in your body. You can have heat in the form of a fever, hot flashes or inflammation. You may have cold, which is often related to chills, slow metabolism or poor circulation. Wind is a pathogen in which there’s too movement in your body or where there shouldn’t be any. For example, tremors, tics, itch and vertigo are all examples of symptoms that can be caused by Wind. You can have dampness in the form of yeast, mucus, athlete’s Foot or edema. Dampness that sits around long enough can get boggy and turn into Phlegm that may obstruct your chest, lungs, sinuses and even your digestion. And you can have Summerheat, which is something akin to heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Interestingly, in very humid climates Summerheat can also give you a nauseous, blah feeling that’s the result of dampness mixing with the heat.
When it comes to Summerheat, watermelon is not only a moist fruit that’s easy on your stomach, but its herbal actions are to clear heat from your body and generate fluids to relieve your dehydration and resulting thirst. Really a perfect food for a very hot summer’s day!
But there’s more. Watermelon also can be used to treat jaundice, which is a combination of dampness and heat, and it can promote urination. While it may seem counterintuitive, the diuretic action of watermelon not only helps to relieve your thirst, but to gently balance the heat that your body has accumulated over the course of a really hot day. Basically, it cools you off and puts things right. Both the watermelon fruit (Xi Gua, where Gua translates to melon) and the rind of the watermelon (Xi Gua Pi) have these actions.
Other herbs that come from melons aren’t quite as delicious, and in fact might not be eaten as a food at all. They include:
Dong Gua Ren, which are the seeds from the winter melon (also called wax gourd). This is an herb that, like watermelon, clears heat. It’s also used to help get rid of phlegm and treat infections in your lung. It can be used for lung abscesses and certain kinds of pneumonia. It’s also used to treat vaginal infections due to its ability to clear heat and treat dampness.
Dong Gua Pi is the peel from the winter melon. It’s used in Chinese herbal medicine to guide out water retention, or edema, through increased urination. It also has heat-reducing properties and can be used in treating Summerheat or damp heat.
Finally, Gua Di is the stalk of the melon plant. It’s a strong herb used to induce vomiting in cases of obstruction due to food retention, the ingestion of a poison or in the case of phlegm clogging up your upper digestive tract or throat. The reality is that this herb isn’t commonly used and is contraindicated for use in children, pregnant women and those with a chronic illness or a weak constitution. However, the Chinese herbal formulary was developed over hundreds, if not thousands of years, and at one time this melon-derived herb was likely more commonly used.
Whether the delicious fruit of the watermelon, the seeds of winter melon or the stalk of the melon plant, it’s clear that over the years, the medicinal properties of melons have played a role in Chinese herbal therapy. A little tip from BodaHealth: If you’re feeling overheated and dehydrated, have a couple of pieces of watermelon and cool off. However, if you’re experiencing other symptoms or a health condition and want to know if Chinese herbal therapy can help you, give us a call. Our practitioners have extensive training and years of experience in treating patients with herbal formulas. Give us a call today to find out more.
Dr. Jeda Boughton is a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Registered Acupuncturist in Vancouver. She is also a Registered Herbologist and the founder of BodaHealth.