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How Tastes Affect Liver Health

The food choices we make every day impact the health of our liver. Discover how flavoring your food affects liver function and what combination of tastes best support a healthy liver.

As people learn to manage liver disease, it becomes increasingly apparent that the everyday choices we make impact the health of our liver. Nowhere is this more relevant than in deciding what food we eat. Dependant upon our needs, awareness and item availability, there are many levels of food evaluation. While there are many dietary variables that someone with liver concerns must evaluate, choosing a flavor extends beyond picking your favorite sauce.

A structured dietary plan is an essential component of managing liver disease, leading your physician or nutritionist to provide appropriate direction on what to eat. Because taste contributes to therapeutic function, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) offers some additional guidance in opting for the flavor of your food; whether its honey-glazed (sweet), chipotle-seasoned (spicy), marinated in lime juice (sour), smothered in cured olives (salty) or served over a bed of steamed escarole (bitter). Learning how the flavoring of food impacts your liver’s processing of it will enable you to make the best choice for your individual health.

In general, TCM describes the five primary tastes as spicy, salty, sweet, bitter and sour. For most people, a balance of these five flavors is a sure way to stay on a healthy track. However, certain flavors are more beneficial for different health conditions. The quantity of flavor combinations is also important. If a flavor is generally helpful to an organ function, excessive amounts have the opposite effect. There is no “one size fits all” diet in TCM. Food suggestions are tailored to the individual’s needs, and it’s recognized that individual needs can differ widely.

Spicy or Pungent Taste
The spicy or pungent taste generally exhibits a warming effect. It stimulates the circulation of blood, energy, lymphatic fluid, sweat, saliva and tears. The pungent taste counteracts poor digestion, poor circulation and mucus production. Because pungency helps scatter energy, it should be limited for individuals who are experiencing great levels of fatigue. Because excessive amounts of spicy foods can exhaust energy reserves, they should be used sparingly. Examples of foods with a spicy taste include ginger, black pepper and jalapenos.

Salty Taste
The salty taste generally reduces temperature, stabilizing and regulating fluid balance, while also demonstrating a softening effect. Salty taste is beneficial to hardened lymph nodes, masses and cysts. However, excessive salt consumption can harm the kidneys by causing water retention and high blood pressure. Those struggling with dehydration and anemia are advised to avoid salty foods. Seaweed, salt and soy sauce are examples of foods with a salty taste.

Sweet Taste
Sweet tastes warm, tone and harmonize. When in proportion to the rest of the diet, sweet tastes have the ability to strengthen individuals lacking energy. This helps explain why people needing energy turn to treats such as sugary snacks. Ultimately, simple sweets deplete energy by causing blood sugar to rise and then drop sharply. Complex carbohydrates, protein, and sweet-tasting foods strengthen the body and give it energy. Excessive ingestion of sweet foods leads to poor digestion, congestion and lethargy. Foods such as honey, black licorice, raisins, red dates and cinnamon are considered sweet.

Bitter Taste
Bitter tastes cool, dry, detoxify and are anti-inflammatory. In addition to eliminating dampness, these tastes also stimulate the secretion of bile, assisting digestion and stimulating normal bowel elimination. Bitter substances help protect the body against viruses and parasites, can reduce cholesterol and detoxify. In excessive amounts, bitter foods can dry and are not recommended for people who are weak and cold. By ingesting foods with bitter tastes such as escarole, rye, rhubarb, quinoa, romaine lettuce and asparagus, cravings for sweets can be curbed.

Sour Taste
Sour tastes cool, dry and act as an astringent. Sour foods help dry up mucus and tone tissues and muscles. As an astringent, sour tastes help stop excessive perspiration, diarrhea, frequent urination, copious mucus and bleeding. Sour also stimulates digestion and metabolism, helping breakdown fats, facilitate their absorption and drain excessive build up in the liver. When ingested excessively, sour tastes can harm digestion and cause constipation. Sour foods include citrus, vinegar and pickles.

Because excess amounts of any flavor harbor negative consequences, a balanced approach is always best. In addition to everything in moderation, TCM experts advise a certain combination of tastes for people with liver disease. According to nutrition researcher and teacher, Paul Pitchford, foods best for liver disease are those that relieve stagnation in the liver. Combining bitter and sour tastes has the dietary effect of reducing liver congestion. For more information, see the article, How to Support Your Liver with Balanced Nutrition.

Understanding how taste affects the functioning of the body is a welcome addition to learning about dietary management. A person with a fatty liver would likely benefit from including sour tastes into their repertoire to counteract greasy foods, while someone with Hepatitis C might choose more bitter foods for their anti-viral and detoxifying properties. By integrating the properties of the five tastes, a person with a hepatic disease is empowered to make the best food choices possible for their liver.

Bensky, Dan, Andrew Gamble, Chinese Herbal Medicine Materia Medica, Eastland Press, Seattle, Washington, 1993.

Koveos, Eva, Five Tastes: Many Impacts, Flavor and Fortune, Spring 1998.

Pitchford, Paul, Healing with Whole Foods, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 1993., TCM and Diet, Victoria Dragon, Cyber Legend Ltd., 2006., Chinese Dietary Therapy Concepts and Principles, Herb King, 2004.

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About the Author

Nicole Cutler, L.Ac., MTCM, Dipl. Ac. (NCCAOM)®

Nicole Cutler, L.Ac., MTCM is a long time advocate of integrating perspectives on health. With a Bachelor's degree in Neuroscience from the University of Rochester and a Master's degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine from Five Branches Institute, Nicole has been a licensed acupuncturist since 2000. She has gathered acupuncture licenses in the states of California and New York, is a certified specialist with the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association, has earned diplomat status with the National Commission of Chinese and Oriental Medicine in Acupuncture and Chinese Herbology and is a member of the Society for Integrative Oncology. In addition to her acupuncture practice that focuses on stress and pain relief, digestion, immunity and oncology, Nicole contributes to the integration of healthcare by writing articles for professional massage therapists and people living with liver disease.

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