5 min read

     Are you up at night eating ice cream or potato chips...or sitting at the computer and finding yourself munching away on salty snacks with no end?  Find yourself craving certain flavors or foods often?

     In Chinese Five Element Medical Theory, there are 5 flavors: Bitter, Sweet, Spicy/Pungent, Sour, and Salty.  Each flavor has an effect which is associated with one of the five Zang -Fu organ systems most directly, as well as element, emotional component, and predominant function or energetic effect.  In order to understand your body and cravings better, it can be helpful to understand what organ systems these flavors correspond to and what function they serve.

Here are the five flavors in a nutshell. 

1.  Bitter – 

  • Organ system: Heart and Small Intestine
  • Why you might crave bitter foods: Craving bitter can be a sign of the Heart needing balancing, or too much excess heat in the body.  With heat and Heart imbalance, you may experience restlessness, irritability, emotional instability, anxiety, insomnia, a feeling of ungroundedness and possible mania.  
  • Function: Bitter foods stimulate the Heart and Small Intestine and in general, have a cleansing action of removing heat and toxins.  The Heart is in charge of our mental and emotional well-being as well as healthy Blood circulation throughout the body.  The Small Intestine is in charge of the separation of pure and turbid during digestion, as well as supports mental and emotional clarity.  Ingesting bitter foods can help support emotional clarity, stimulate the bowels, bring down internal heat and fevers, reduce infections and support movement of blood circulation.  However, too much  bitterness can clear too much Heat or overstimulate the organ systems.  Those who are weak, thin, blood deficient, and feel cold often should be careful to not eat too much bitter food.  
  • Examples of bitter foods that are helpful: Dandelion, parsley leaves, collard greens, mustard greens, arugula, kale, celery, corn, burdock root and sesame seeds.


Research has shown that eating bitter foods along with sweet foods at the same time can help mitigate and balance the sugar response in the body and reduce sweet cravings.




2.  Sweet – 

  • Organ system: Spleen-Pancreas-Stomach
  • Why you might crave sweet foods: Craving sweet usually signifies an imbalance in the Spleen and Stomach organ system.  This can come with feelings of fatigue, bloating, worrying, ruminating and spending a lot of time in thought, feelings of low self-confidence, or an imbalance between intellectual and physical activity.  Many students will crave sweet and/or salty snack foods while spending hours studying.
  • Function: Sweet foods tonify Qi.  When mildly sweet foods are eaten, they boost the Qi of the Spleen-Pancreas-Stomach, which are in charge of digestion - the transportation and transformation of food into energy that is available for the body. The Spleen also governs the muscles, produces Blood.  Eating mildly sweet foods may help you feel calmer and more relaxed.  Excess sweetness, usually from foods with refined and isolated sugars, can lead to difficulties controlling blood sugar levels and lead to organ system deficiency.
  • Examples of sweet foods that can be helpful: When we are talking about sweet foods, we are referring to whole foods that naturally have occurring sweetness.  These natural, whole foods are only mildly sweet when compared to those made with refined and/or isolated sugars, which cause many health issues and have become common in modern society. Some naturally sweet foods include whole grains, fruits such as apples, bananas, papayas, grapes, blueberries, and vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes.



     While the fact that eating high amounts of sugar poses a higher risk for numerous and serious health problems, perhaps the problem it poses for beauty is a more prevalent concern - as our superficial appearance is linked closely to self-confidence and feelings of being loved and admired by others.Eating high amounts of sugar can cause an acceleration of aging in the skin- dark circles, wrinkles, and the early break down of collagen.



3.  Spicy/Pungent - 

  • Organ system: Lungs and Large Intestine
  • Why you may be craving spicy or pungent foods: This can signify stagnation in the Lungs or Large Intestine and a need for movement or removal of dampness and toxins that may be accumulating. Long-standing or repressed grief and sorrow can be burdening the Lungs.  Repressed emotions can also cause the Large Intestine to get backed up.  
  • Function: Spicy and pungent foods have the action of dispersing and moving Qi and Blood.  Most directly, they benefit the Lungs and Large Intestine. An excess of spicy foods does irritate the intestines. In moderation, they stimulate healthy circulation and can reduce blockages of Qi and Blood flow in the body, as well as stimulate the release of accumulations.  Spicy foods, which have strong moving action, can induce sweat and mucus discharge. 
  • Examples of spicy/pungent foods that can be helpful: turmeric, onions, scallions, radishes, ginger, wasabi (dry mustard), garlic, horseradish, and chili peppers.


     According to an extensive population-based study in BMJ in 2015, researchers found that those who consumed spicy food almost every day had a 14% lower risk of premature death than those who consumed it less than once per week.

     Eating a moderately spicy food can have awesome health benefits - including the boosting of metabolism, heart health, and controlling weight and appetite.  But because spiciness can generate Heat, it is not advised for those who already have too much Heat in the body (if you have redness, irritable bowel, red eyes, ulcers in the mouth, anger, irritability, insomnia).  




4.  Salty – 

  • Organ system: Kidneys and Bladder
  • Why you might be craving salty foods: This can be a sign of adrenal fatigue or Kidney deficiency.  Dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, loss of sleep, heavy menstrual periods, can set you up to crave salty foods.  In addition, fear and willpower are the spiritual and emotional aspects of the Kidneys.  A Kidney imbalance can be the case if you are experiencing too much fear (this can occur as a sequela of trauma), not enough fear (feeling no fear in situations that require a healthy fear response), or feeling a lack of willpower.  Adrenaline junkies - those who feel compelled towards extreme and high-risk sports or activities usually have a Kidney imbalance. 
  • Function: Salty foods offer strength and influence the Bladder and Kidneys.  They are known to support the dissolving of  masses, removing moisture and phlegm, and softening hardness.  
  • Examples of salty foods that can be helpful: Miso, sea salt, sea vegetables, brine pickles and umeboshi plum.



     Intense salt cravings may indicate a need for greater focus on Kidney and Urinary Bladder health. If you have swelling in the feet that does not go away, your kidneys may be compromised - herbal support and acupuncture is needed.  



5.  Sour – 

  • Organ system: Liver and Gall Bladder
  • Why you might crave sour foods: Stress, feelings of anger, irritability, and frustration are all possible when the Liver is energy is imbalanced or stuck. Irregular menstrual cycles, dream-disturbed sleep, migraines and headaches and overall tension can all be associated with Liver imbalances. Because the Liver is in charge of the free flow of Qi throughout all the organs, those who crave sour may also crave salty, greasy, oily, fried foods.    
  • Function: The sour taste is known for its astringing function, as well as moistening and softening, usually of tendons and ligaments, and supporting the flow of Qi of the Liver.  Eating a moderate amount of sour foods may help you feel more flexible, more at ease, and more able to handle tough situations. 
  • Examples of sour foods that can be helpful: Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, as well as vinegar, kefir, and sour fruits such as tart cherries, kiwis, tomatoes, grapefruits, oranges and lemon/lime.



     Research has shown that sour taste stimulates GABA and sertonin release - two compounds that affect many bodily functions including sleep, appetite, memory, mood, and sexual desire. They are most well known for inducing relaxation and feelings of happiness.