Chinese Medicine and Dairy
by Eric Brand
In the West, we often hear people talk about dairy in the context of TCM, where it is invariably implicated as a number one culprit when it comes to dampness and phlegm. However, while I admit that I am no expert on this subject, I’ve never seen dairy singled out or specifically mentioned in Chinese texts in any way that mirrors the common Western assumption about it. Consequently, I can’t help but wonder if this common assumption is something that is getting superimposed on Chinese medicine by the Western mind. Is this idea about dairy and dampness an authentic TCM concept, or is it just something that got loosely assimilated into TCM by osmosis from popular ideas in the surrounding Western culture?
I’m not an expert on dietary therapy in Chinese medicine. However, I love food and at one time I thought about doing a book on dietary therapy, so I read and amassed dozens of Chinese dietary materia medica texts. Throughout those texts and all the normal Chinese texts on internal medicine, gynecology, etc, I never saw any really distinctive discussion of dairy specifically, other than the actions of various dairy products themselves. Thus, I think that the Western idea about dairy may be a bit exaggerated in TCM terms, or at least it may be something that comes from Western observation but lacks detailed elaboration in Chinese source materials.
To be sure, the modern spectrum of dairy products is different than the dairy in days gone by. Things like yogurt, old-world cheeses, and even heated milk are thought to be easier on the digestion than straight up ultra-pasteurized half-and-half and ice cream in Western culture. In Chinese society, yogurt is one of the most common traditional dairy products (especially in the North), though now hot and cold milk are common in tea, milkshakes, coffee, etc.
Despite the fact that lactose intolerance should genetically be a bigger problem in Asia, the idea of lactose intolerance hardly even exists in China. Maybe they just don’t overdo it and maybe their natural immunity is higher because of the environment and the diversity of the diet, but for whatever reason lactose intolerance is just not on the radar. Tons of people down milkshakes without a care in the world.
In the old days, dairy wasn’t pasteurized and refrigerated, so it could be argued that Chinese medicine never traditionally had much experience with the products we now use (nor did they have the European culture of cheese). It could also be argued that they never ate way too much dairy, so they would have been unlikely to ascribe adverse effects to it.
Whatever the reason, dairy doesn’t seem to be specifically implicated in the primary Chinese literature at all, it isn’t singled out for dampness or phlegm or anything like that. Chinese books constantly talk about fatty, fried, sticky, rich and sweet foods as producing dampness and heat, and of course many dairy products fit into this category. But to the best of my knowledge, the idea that dairy is somehow in its own category or uniquely more problematic than other fatty and sweet foods is a Western concept, not a native TCM idea. Maybe this idea is totally valid or maybe it is exaggerated, but it merits further study (have any readers out there seen dairy singled out in the Chinese literature?).
In Chinese medicine, dairy is closely related to blood. Both hair and mother’s milk are said to be products produced from blood, and both hair and blood are ascribed actions that are related to the blood in TCM. There are many milk products listed in Chinese materia medica texts, for example:
Human Milk: Balanced; sweet and salty; nontoxic. Enters the heart, lung, and stomach channels. It supplements the blood and moistens dryness. Human milk treats vacuity taxation with marked emaciation; vacuity wind paralysis; dispersion-thirst; dysphagia and occlusion (ye ge); dry, bound stool; blood-vacuity amenorrhea; and red eyes. It is often dried to a powder before use.
Cow’s Milk: Balanced; sweet. Enters heart and lung channels. It supplements vacuity, boosts the lung and stomach, engenders liquid and moistens the intestines. Cow’s milk treats vacuity taxation; stomach reflux; dysphagia and occlusion (ye ge); dispersion-thirst; and constipation. Boil before use. Use with care in spleen-stomach vacuity cold diarrhea and in center phlegm-damp accumulations.
Goat’s Milk: Warm, sweet. It warms, moistens, and supplements vacuity, and treats vacuity taxation with marked emaciation; dispersion-thirst (xiao ke); stomach relux; hiccough; mouth sores; lacquer sores. Oral: drink boiled. Topical: apply to the affected area.
Soy Milk (not dairy, I know!): Balanced, sweet. Supplements vacuity and moistens dryness; clears the lungs and transforms phlegm. Treats vacuity taxation cough; phlegm-fire wheezing and panting; constipation; strangury-turbidity. If it is burnt on the pot, it is a separate medicinal that opens the stomach, disperses stagnation, and expels accumulations, frees strangury, and supplements the blood. It treats stomach reflux; dysentery; blood and vacuity strangury; intestinal wind bleeding; blood wind sores.
Camel’s Milk: Warm, sweet, nontoxic. Supplements the center and boosts qi; strengthens the sinews and bones.
Donkey’s Milk: Cold, sweet. Treats dispersion-thirst (xiao ke); jaundice; child fright epilepsy; wind-heat red eyes.
Horse’s Milk: Cool, sweet, nontoxic. Supplements the blood and moistens dryness; clears heat and allays thirst. Treats blood vacuity; heat vexation; vacuity taxation steaming bone; dispersion-thirst (xiao ke); teeth “gan.”
Coconut Milk (not dairy but just for fun, yum): Warm, sweet, nontoxic. It treats dispersion-thirst (xiao ke); vomiting of blood; water swelling; and wind-heat.
Butter Oil (ghee, I assume): Sweet, balanced. Enriches yin, moistens dryness, and allays thirst. Treats lung wilting; coughing of pus and blood; dispersion-thirst (xiao ke); constipation; wind impediment; itchy skin.
Butter: Slightly cold, nontoxic. Treats liver, spleen, lung, kidney, and large intestine. Supplements the five viscera, boosts qi and blood, allays thirst and moistens dryness. Treats yin vacuity taxation fever; lung wilting with cough; blood ejection; dispersion-thirst; constipation; dry skin; mouth sores.
No cheese in the materia medica. A shame, because I’d like to know exactly how it is that manchego cures all that ails me.
All in all, cow’s milk appears to be the only product that is specifically contraindicated for dampness. Of course, any sweet food (warm or cold alike) should be used cautiously with dampness, but nonetheless TCM may not make dairy out to be the big evil source of phlegm that it is often associated with in the West. Obviously we will always joke about eating a pint of ice cream to “tonify dampness” amongst other acupuncturists, and indeed a pint of ice cream does surely produce some dampness. But more than normal fatty, sweet, and rich foods just because it is dairy? On this point, I’m not convinced.