Many of us have heard that some foods have a stimulating effect.

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), people with a certain type of body constitution will have their pre-existing conditions exacerbated or experience some physical reactions after eating specific foods. This is caused by the "stimulating" nature of food; hence there is a common saying that diseases are activated by stimulating foods.

Stimulating foods, each with its own way of activating diseases, can be classified as follows:

Hot or pungent foods: for example ginger, chives, Sichuan pepper, mutton, mushroom and chilli, will cause heat-related syndromes. They tend to aggravate hot-natured diseases and may also exacerbate inflammatory diseases, accelerate disease diffusion and worsen the patient’s condition. Those with a quick temper should pay attention.

Qi-producing and wind-stimulating foods: for example shrimp, crab, shellfish, chicken, goose, egg, button mushroom and eggplant, tend to generate wind and enhance yang energy. The upward disturbance of liver yang and the increase in liver wind trigger headaches and dizziness, as well as induce and aggravate pyogenic infections and skin ulcers. 

Damp-producing foods: for example maltose, dates, glutinous rice and rice wine, which are sticky, fatty, sweet, rich and greasy in nature, tend to generate phlegm and dampness as well as affect the transportation and absorption functions of the spleen, hence causing conditions like abdominal bloating.

Cooling foods: for example watermelon, pear, persimmon, winter melon, snap bean and amaranth, have cooling and moistening effects that can diminish yang and create coldness, hence affecting the transportation and absorption functions of internal organs. They are not suitable for those with a cold and weak body constitution, frigid extremities, a pale complexion, joint pain or loose bowels that are sensitive to low temperatures.   

Foods that stimulate blood flow: for example chilli, pepper, mutton, spinach, arrowhead and spirits, can stimulate blood circulation and overcome blood stasis. Vigorous in nature, these foods can stimulate blood flow and hurt meridians. They are unsuitable for those with bleeding disorders such as piles, heavy menstrual flow, subcutaneous hemorrhage and blood in the urine.  

Foods that cause qi stagnation: for example potatoes, beans and greasy foods, tend to hinder the transportation and transformation functions of organs, bringing about indigestion which may in turn lead to qi deficiency and abdominal bloating.

According to TCM, one should refrain from consuming stimulating foods mainly due to their effects on overall human body functions, which may cause or aggravate the yin-yang imbalance inside the body. Comparing TCM and Western Medicine, the former places importance on the odour, flavour, shape and colour of foods rather than their microstructure, whereas the latter focuses on the study of the causes and nature of a disease as well as analysis of the physical and chemical compositions of a medicine or food from micro perspectives in pathology and pharmacology. Ambiguity and emphasis on individual features make TCM less comprehensible.

Stimulation-induced allergies

From a modern medicine perspective, stimulating foods can induce a disease, and this is probably related to the following factors:

Allergy-inducing factors: some foods, such as shrimp and crab, contain foreign protein allergens and may cause recurrent episodes of allergic reactions and stubborn skin infections like hives, eczema and neurodermatitis.

Hormone-inducing factors: some foods of animal origin, such as pork jowl, chicken meat, mutton and goose meat, may contain certain hormones and may cause relapses in some diseases due to the stimulating effects on endocrine, cardiovascular and nervous systems as well as cell metabolism. 

(Article originally posted on Hong Kong Economic Journal on 5 April, 2018.)