Lots of people will confess that they have a sweet tooth. In fact, craving sweets is fairly common, and even those people who don’t have a craving for sweet foods often like to finish off a large meal with a sweet bite or two. While eating sugar has gotten a bad reputation, there’s actually a reason you may want something sweet after a meal—it may actually help your digestion.
In Chinese medicine, different flavors address the health of your organ systems. If you have a strong craving for a particular flavor, it may be an indication that the corresponding system is out of balance. For example, if you crave sour foods such as dill pickles and lemons, it may be a clue that your liver system needs some help.
Sweet is the flavor that’s associated with your digestion—your stomach and spleen in Chinese medicine. If you have a powerful craving for sweets, it’s likely that your digestion needs some attention. And if you think about it, the food you eat is broken down through your digestion into glucose, a form of sugar that gives your body the energy it needs function. So if you’re craving sugar, it may suggest that your body is craving nutrients and your digestion or your digestive energy needs some help. Knowing the importance of sugar to your overall health and metabolism, it’s no surprise that there are herbs in the Chinese formulary that are sweet in flavor or made from sugar. They include:
Honey or Feng Mi. Honey may be added to a number of formulas and is also be used in the preparation of some herbs. For example, when used in formulas, licorice is usually honey fried, as it sweetens the formula and offsets some of the properties of the licorice.
In Chinese medicine, honey is used as a moistening laxative for dry stools and constipation. Its sweet properties are also helpful in treating stomach and spleen deficiencies, and is often added to formulas to protect the patient’s digestion. As an herb, honey is also used in formulas to treat dry coughs as it helps moisten your lungs to suppress coughing. It may also be used in a topical treatment for wound healing, as some research indicates it has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. It’s important to note that the quality and properties of honey may vary, based on the flowers that it’s made from.
Barley Malt Sugar, maltose or Yi Tang. This herb is ideal for supporting your digestion and promoting better energy. It’s used in formulas to boost the function of your stomach and spleen, especially when you’ve overexerted, feel short of breath or have a poor appetite. In addition, like honey, Barley malt sugar helps to moisten your lungs and treats a dry cough.
Bamboo Sugar, also called Tian Zhu Huang, or heavenly yellow bamboo. It’s produced by heating the bamboo until thick liquid in its hollow center is secreted from the nodes of the plant and crystalizes into a kind of sugar. Bamboo sugar is not only sweet, but it’s also energetically very cold. This makes it a good herb for clearing heat in the form of fever or inflammation. It’s also used in formulas to help transform phlegm. In Chinese medicine, phlegm can be visible, such as when you have congested lungs or a runny nose. However, invisible phlegm can penetrate deep into your body and cause fainting, seizures, convulsions and the symptoms of stroke. In cases in which invisible phlegm causes severe symptoms, bamboo sugar might be included in an herbal formula for treatment.
Sugar is often seen as an unhealthy addition to foods. However, there’s definitely a time in which sugar may be a good thing, and that’s in Chinese herbal medicine. The main properties of these herbs are to strengthen your digestion, moisten your lungs or intestines and treat phlegm. Though they may not make the best gift to present to your Valentine this year, they do taste good too!
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.