Wrapping up our review of food cravings and the therapeutic indications and actions of the five flavors, here, we’ll discuss sour and bitter.
In my clinical experience, the most commonly craved flavors are sweet, salty, and spicy. These last two, sour and bitter, are much less common. However, they are associated with specific internal organ systems and have specific effects on the body, so they are very much worth mentioning and keeping in mind for health.
Technically, sour is associated with the Liver and Gallbladder systems. Physiologically, it is astringent and absorbs (which makes sense, if you think of the puckering reaction when you bite into something really sour, like a lemon.)
Medicinally, this flavor would be used for cases of excessive ‘leaking’ or loss of energy or resources, examples being certain types of diarrhea, seminal emission, or uncontrolled, excessive sweating. However, I rarely see an actual craving for this flavor for such conditions.
Incorporation of sour into one’s diet (in moderation and in relative balance with the other flavors) is important as it is the dietary representative of, and stimulates, the liver and gallbladder systems. As with the other flavors, too much sour negatively effects its associated systems, and this is especially important with sour.
Most of us tend towards obstruction and blockage of the liver system (think frustration, anger, irritability, depression, and the like). This is relieved not with sour, but with spicy, which moves qi and energy. Too much sour can actually astringe to the point of causing blockage. It is, therefore, best when combined with the other flavors, as is so often seen in popular dishes, such as all those that are based on “sweet and sour”.
Bitter is perhaps a little more popular, with cravings for dark chocolate and (black) coffee. (Hmm, what is it, exactly, that you crave when you are wanting some chocolate? It may be the sweet, maybe the creamy, or maybe that sweet combined with that bitterness…)
Bitter is associated with the heart system (perhaps you’ve seen the recent research on dark chocolate and heart health???), clears pathological heat, and may have either a drying or purging effect, depending on the source of the bitter.
The heart system is of the Fire Phase (the Five Phases or Elements being Earth, Metal, Water, Wood, and Fire) and is the seat of consciousness. It is said that each organ system is associated with a particular emotion, e.g. Liver – Anger, Lungs – Grief/Sorrow, and so on, but that it is the heart that actually experiences the emotions, as the seat of consciousness.
The heart, being of the Fire phase, and the actual experiencer of emotions, quickly tends to generate excessive heat, the flames of the fire burning fiercely. I believe this is especially common in modern society where it is so easy and accepted to have one’s emotions constantly stimulated; we tend to run a little manic, as a group :).
Bitter coffee can drain some of that heat. Of course, this is far from appropriate therapy, as coffee also depletes our core reserves of energy (turning it into an immediately usable ‘burst’ of energy – hence the pick up effect – unless it just drains you, as is common with a small, but significant, portion of the population).
Interestingly, a lot of people combine their coffee with sugar and cream, i.e. substances that boost energy (sweet) and replenish yin-reserves (cream). All in all, the popularity of coffee, really, can be seen as a somewhat complex attempt at self-medication.
Now, as with all the flavors, if this occurrs on an infrequent occasion, thus indicating medicinal effectiveness (it makes the problem actually go away), then perhaps it is truly “ok” self-medication. However, if it occurs on a regular basis, without the underlying need subsiding, then the body’s real imbalance is not being addressed…
And if you’re paying attention, you may just catch this. You may notice, “Whoa – I drink coffee everyday – I need to drink coffee everyday!” At that point, you can investigate what’s really going on and provide for your body what it so deeply needs.
Lastly, bitter may also dry, where there is pathological accumulation of fluids or dampness (most likely a result of over-indulgence of sweet) and purge, where there is excessive accumulation obstructing the bowels and large intestine. It’s easy to see why bitter can be popular and so craved!
In closing, it needs to be stated that, though all the above is “true”, in that it reflects traditional Chinese medical theory, as has been tested through actual clinical use over thousands of years, it is one small part of the overall picture. ***Actual, real-world experiences are going to be much more complicated.
This is the danger of a blog. There simply is no way to cover even this small aspect of diet therapy comprehensively (and who would read it? ;) ). So, please, take all this information into consideration, but the “grain of salt” you should take it all with is that your personal, individual experience is, most likely, not going to match perfectly with what’s been written.
If you want to get a better handle on your specific issues, go visit a competent acupuncturist. This is, quite literally, what we do! :)
Please let me know if you have specific questions or thoughts.
OH – Almost forgot! If you want to learn more, I’ve listed some resources for Chinese medical diet therapy on my website. Please visit and let me know what you think!