When I show patients a typical dosage of herbal medicine, a plastic sachet of vacuum-packed brown colored liquid that looks like a cell phone sized soy sauce pack from a Chinese restaurant, they immediately ask “What does it taste like?”
Not gonna lie, it does not taste like candy.
Some patients say their formula tastes like coffee. Others say theirs taste earthy, herbaceous or what they would imagine dirt to taste like. Still others say it tasted bad at first and then, the flavor grew on them. And lastly, a few say the taste was too strong and they could not continue.
Since every formula is customized to your pattern of symptoms and everyone’s palate is different, it’s hard to say how your herbal formula will taste to you. But if you know how each flavor is helping you heal, maybe you’ll have a better appreciation for the taste.
Just like any other food ingredient, a single herb doesn’t have one exclusive flavor, but it typically does have one predominant taste like bitter, salty, pungent (spicy), sour, or sweet. The Chinese discovered thousands of years ago that every flavor creates a physiological reaction in our body and every flavor promotes movement in a specific direction. These findings were some of the original guidelines that helped herbalists decide which herbs to use in a formula. Here is how each flavor works and when it is used to treat skin.
Bitter flavors tend to cool. They tend to move things in a descending direction. They typically dry fluid or drain dampness and induce bowel movements. An everyday example of a bitter flavor that has these features is coffee. It tends to dehydrate your system, cause you to urinate or defecate because it moves everything downward in order to drain the dampness in your system. If your formula tastes bitter, chances are your skin has some amount of swelling, exudate or infection.
Salty flavors also cool and descend. However, they also moisten, soften lumps, detoxify and purge the bowel. Think of what happens when you do a salt water cleanse. Salty herbs are commonly used in inflammatory skin diseases like eczema where there is a lot of trapped internal heat which causes body fluids to dry up. It’s also used to break-up hard nodules as in some forms of acne.
Spicy flavors tend to disperse, expand, stimulate circulation in the body and move energy up and out. Typically, these herbs are used to help digestion, induce sweat, vent heat, increase energy and kill parasites. A great everyday example is black pepper. After eating enough of this ingredient, you immediately can feel the energy moving up to your head and sweat to bead on your forehead. Spicy herbs are often used in dermatology to help vent heat out of the skin which can be one of the sources of itching.
Sour flavors tend to cool, contract, astringe and prevent fluid leakage. This is the reason lemonade feels so refreshing on a hot summer day when you are typically hot and sweaty. Sour herbs are often used when there is excess sweating, incontinence, diarrhea or flaccid skin. It’s probably the least used flavor in most skin conditions.
Lastly, sweet flavors tend to ascend or move outward, they slow and relax a person’s mood and overall energy. They also help to build fluids. It’s not a coincidence that people tend to grab sweet foods when they are stressed out. Sweet herbs are often used to re-regulate skin hydration or re-store systems that become deficient from disease or from being overtaxed. Sometimes patients with chronic skin diseases also have respiratory or digestive issues. In these cases, sweet herbs can help to rebalance all these systems.
Since all herbal medicines are made of a combination of herbs and formulas are changed to match your needs throughout the treatment process, it’s hard to say how your herbal formula will taste at any given point. However, if you notice a particular flavor standing out when you take a dose, you now have a better idea of what that flavor is doing for you and your skin.
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About the Author
Olivia Hsu Friedman, LAc, Dipl.OM, DACM, Cert. TCMDerm, is the owner of Amethyst Holistic Skin Solutions and treats Acne, Eczema, Psoriasis, and TSW. Olivia treats patients via video conferencing using only herbal medicine. Olivia is Chair of the Board of Directors of the American Society of Acupuncturists, serves on the Advisory Board of LearnSkin, and is a faculty member of the Chicago Integrative Eczema Group sponsored by the National Eczema Association.