Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, pepper and curry – who doesn’t love a little spice?

The spicy (or pungent) flavor is a huge category and ranges in temperature from cool pungents to hot pungents.  With good reason – pungents are powerful movers – literally.  Their scent, temperature and flavor ‘disperse and create flow’  stimulating our body to promote circulation and break up stagnation.  Are they a part of your diet? Here’s why you should have some spice in your life.

Like the other four flavors (Sweet, Sour, Salty and Bitter), spicy plays an important role in our diet.  We use them to disperse toxins from the body and to circulate  Qi, Blood and Fluids. They relieve excess fullness and stimulate vitality. But don’t start doing cinnamon shots just yet, spice can be easily overused leaving you weak and exhausted.

Let’s explore spice.

Pungent disperses and moves Qi and Blood

Let it flow.  Appropriate amounts of pungent move the Qi and relieve Lung congestion and digestive fullness (bloating, feeling stuffy).  They invigorate and ‘spice up’ or lives and personalities.  The flavor ranges hot to cool.  Small amounts of ginger used regularly tonify and strengthen the digestion (warming), while large amounts of ginger induce sweating can bring on the sweating to move out a cold invasion (hot).  More on that below.

Spicy flavors enter the Lung and Colon, correlate to Autumn and the Metal element

As the uppermost and lowest organs in the system, we see disharmonies between the two as top to bottom issues – taking in and letting go.  The Lungs have the job of ‘descending and dispersing’ – meaning they move energy down and out to the extremities in the body.  Weak lungs may end up burdened with mucus causing a propensity for colds, flu, asthma, throat and sinus problems.  Lung’s failing to descend can even be a cause constipation –  if the Qi doesn’t move down, the bowels may not move out.  A little spice here can help the lungs descend and loosen up phlegm.  The ‘delicate organ’ the lungs can also be injured by lack of fluids (Yin deficiency), which can be caused by too much hot foods in the diet eating up the fluids.

Hot pungents promote sweating

Why would we do that? At the onset of an exterior invasion (you are catching a cold) we open the pores to encourage sweating (diaphoresis) for those with strong constitutions.  Basically, we force the energy at the center up and out of the body.  This technique is also used some in the summer to help the body harmonize with extreme heat. DO NOT use this therapy if you are Yin or Blood deficiency, have lost blood or fluids or are extremely weak and depleted.  Also avoid hot spices if you have acid reflux, gnawing or burning in the stomach, or GERD (heat in the digestion).

Pumpkin pie spice is America’s favorite combination of sweet, hot pungents.

Hot pungents include

  • black pepper
  • cayenne
  • chili pepper
  • cinnamon
  • curry
  • horseradish
  • hot peppers
  • garlic
  • ginger
  • Korean ginseng
  • sassafras (file)
  • wasabi

Warm & Neutral Pungents Nourish the Core

The moderate, regularly use of hot or warming spice and pungent foods in the diet to create a deep overall warmth that strengthens, tonifies, supports and moves out phlegm.  There is no flash of fire here to push excess out, we are stoking a warm glow.  Consider the difference between a applesauce with a bit of nutmeg and ginger compared to a hot curry that makes your sinuses run immediately.

Warm pungents include

Neutral pungents include

Neutrals do not heat or cool the body, but still have the action of moving Qi, making them ideal for regular consumption.

Cool and Cold Pungents

Are used to help move out excess heat such as Summer heat (heat stroke) and fevers.  They also cool patterns of Liver Yang rising and clear the sinuses.  When would you choose cool pungents over hot?  Simple, do you have fever or chills?  If you have a fever, feel hot or have hot flashes – use cool pungents.  If you have chills – use warm to hot pungents.

Cool/Cold pungents include

  • blackberry leaf
  • chamomile
  • hibiscus
  • lemon balm
  • mints  (peppermint is slightly warming)
  • purslane (yes, that’s the weed in your garden)
  • spearmint
  • thyme
  • watercress
  • wintergreen

Too Much?

Any pungent in excess will exhaust the Qi and Blood, cause the finger and toenails to become brittle, knot the muscles and dull the complexion – yikes. You may end up overly heating or cooling yourself off too much and becoming depleted in the end.  This is actually a common pattern in vegetarians or raw food enthusiasts that are chronically cold. Seeking warmth they may overindulge in hot spice that create a momentary flash of heat, this opens the pores and makes the sweat which ultimately pushes the heat out of the body, leaving them colder than before. In this case small regular amounts of warm and neutral spice actually help build the system so they can hold warmth. Because they promote blood flow, hot spices should be avoided in heavy menstrual flow or cases of bleeding.

The trick with pungents and spices are to use them, but don’t abuse them. Try and get a bit of spice into your system every day.  That can be a little peppermint tea, or adding Herbs de Provence to your saute or soup, or a pinch of cinnamon to your oatmeal.  If you run cold, use moderate amounts of warming spices, if you run hot, use more from the cooling category.