The Five Elements framework is one of the foundational keys underpinning TCM cosmology, offering a comprehensive guide to the interplay of the essential elemental energies that shape our lives. Each element corresponds to a specific season, organ system, emotion, color, and flavor to help us work with the universal forces of creation and change. The five flavors classify the therapeutic properties of foods and herbs, teaching us that we can gather abundant information about function from taste. In TCM, each flavor plays an important role that can be integrated and combined with intention to support holistic health and inner balance.
Nowadays, some of these flavors are unfortunately excluded from our repertoire, in part due to the hijacking of our diets by hyperpalatable processed foods. As a result, our modern understanding of flavors has also shifted drastically; for example, an herb classified as “sweet” might not taste sweet to people who have been overexposed to sugar (which is most of us). As we engage in the work of remembrance and reintegrate herbs into our lives, we are invited to practice, experiment, and sharpen our own senses into a greater sense of harmony with nature.
But first, what are the five flavors?
- Sour – Wood element (Spring) and the Liver + Gallbladder organ systems. The astringent quality helps to relieve dampness, inflammation, and counteract greasy/fatty foods, especially perfect when reemerging from Winter.
- Bitter – Fire element (Summer) and the Heart + Small Intestine organ systems. It has a draining, drying, and clearing action that greatly supports digestive health.
- Sweet – Earth element (Late Summer) and the Spleen + Stomach organs. It has a building, tonifying, nourishing, and harmonizing effect that supports balanced energy and mood.
- Pungent aka Spicy – Metal element (Autumn) and the Lung + Large Intestine organ systems. Important for moving Qi, enhancing circulation, expelling toxins, and supporting the respiratory system.
- Salty – Water element (Winter) and the Kidney and Bladder organ systems. Helps regulate mineral and fluid balance, softens hardness, moistens, and calms the mind.
While many of the tonic herbs we share integrate quite seamlessly into coffee or hot chocolate for an easy daily incorporation practice, some flavors can be less palatable or trickier to combine. Schizandra, which is quite a superfood as it contains all five flavors, has a more dominant sour taste that might disturb the flavor of coffee for some people. The bitter flavor of Rhodiola is one we have been trained to avoid, though it holds extremely important medicine that many of us need. Our formulas include a complex combination of herbs and flavors to offer comprehensive support through multiple interrelated bodily systems, and can sometimes be better approached as a prescription rather than part of a tasty treat.
Here are some tips for honoring the five flavors and your tastebuds:
- Check the flavor of the herbs with which you want to work on my website! Each product page features the herb’s classifications which can help you decide between different herbs that are calling to you, depending on how you want to incorporate them.
- Once you have your jar of herbs, put a tiny sprinkle on your tongue and hold it there, savoring the flavor. Think about pairings that might feel pleasurable to you, as well as ways to balance or hide a flavor you’re not crazy about.
- Look out for our recipe ideas and pairing suggestions! Our website has a ton of recipes and you can use the search bar to look for a specific herb for inspiration.
- If you really dislike the flavor of a particular herb or formula, just add to 2-3 oz of hot water, integrate with a handheld frother (or blender) and chug. The sensory experience will be over in a flash, and you can trust that your body knows what to do from there.