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Food and the Humoral System


Pan
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In the Digestion is Divine thread, the topic of the Humoral System came up (actually, I mentioned it first). Until the late 19th or early 20th century, belief of one kind or another in a Humoral System was held by a very large majority of human beings, including in the United States and Europe. In the West nowadays, belief in the biomedical system has supplanted belief in the Humoral System based on the Four Elements of the Ancient Greeks (or in China, Five Elements), as expounded in print by Galen and his followers in the Arab world, Indian Ayurvedists, etc.

In that other thread, Nick said he would like to know more about the Humoral system. So I'm starting this thread in order to solicit comment about its relevance to food, digestion, digestive health generally, and food interactions with medicines and edible herbs.

To get this thread started, I'll say some things I know about the humoral system as practiced in rural Terengganu, Malaysia, c. 1975:

They had three primary humoral categories of food: Panas (hot or "heaty"), sederhana (medium), and sejuk (cold or "cooling"). These categories referred not in any instance to temperature - which, to make things more confusing, can also be described as "panas" or "sejuk" - but described what were held to be intrinsic qualities of a foodstuff or medicine.

My mother's studies (you can see one abstract under the name of "Laderman C." here [scroll down or do an Edit-Find as appropriate]) demonstrated that these categories were to a large extent based on empirical experiences by individuals, but that there were certain foodstuffs and medicines that were more or less invariably considered hot or cold. For example, alcohol, because it makes the throat feel hot, is naturally considered hot, even if chilled with ice. On the other hand, anything that brings up phlegm or is itself phlegmy(considered by the ancient Greeks and other humoralists to be the "cold humor") is considered cold (yes, that includes okra, of course, which was called "phlegmy bean" [kacang berlendir] in the local dialect :laugh:). This only scratches the surface, but the fact is that, on the margins, there was a lot of variation among different people in terms of what category they put foodstuffs into.

The traditional Malay belief is that hot and cold should be in balance, but somewhat to the cold side. If a Malay says that a Sultan's reign was "sejuk" ("cold"), that means there were no "heaty" things like war, famine, or other natural or man-made disasters. If his reign is "panas" ("hot"), you can be sure that all Hell broke loose. And "hati panas" ("hot liver," with liver analogous to "heart" as the seat of emotions for Malays) means bad-tempered while "hati sejuk" ("cold liver" - clearly not analogous to English "coldhearted"!) means contented.

People warned us not to eat too much durian during durian season because they consider it a hot food, and I think the reason for that designation, at least in part, is that it's so rich and can upset the stomach (the bile is the "hot humor" in ancient Greek cosmology). Meats were considered hot but many vegetables were cold or medium.

I hope to hear from many of you. There are well-established humoral systems in China, India, and Latin America, among other places. To my knowledge, Malaysia and Indonesia are the only places to have a "medium" designation in between "hot" and "cold" for foods, and, as my mother explains in the above-referenced article:

Unlike any other major humoral doctrine, Malay reproductive theory (like that of non-Islamic aboriginal peoples of Malaya) equates coldness with health and fertility and heat with disease and sterility.

(A woman giving birth should be humorally cold to help ensure a good birth, just like we would hope for a Sultan's reign to be cold to help guard against disaster.)

Finally, I would hope that we can have an interesting and informative thread without debating the legitimacy of these beliefs or their superiority or inferiority to modern scientific explanations - not because I think it's illegitimate to make such arguments, but because I don't think it would be interesting, and do think it would sidetrack this thread. The Humoral System is of great historical importance and of great cultural significance to, I daresay, a majority of the world's people today. So let's discuss its relevance to the lives of those eGulleteers who practice or have come into contact with beliefs about "hot" and "cold" foods and medicine and its relevance to food history. I'd love to hear from any of you who think of some foods as "hot" and others as "cold," or whose parents or grandparents did. Please tell your stories here.

Edited by Pan (log)

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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I cannot add any knowledge here, only more questions. I am wondering how the humoral approach has affected traditional "pairings" of ingredients in traditional dishes. I am also wondering how new ingredients were categorized as they were introduced, for instance, post-columbian introduction of all of those ingredients from America.

With no tradition to fall back on, as I think about various foods, I can see how they could be categorized. Chiles=hot. Mint=cold. Tomatoes=hot. Avocados=cold. And all of those may be entirely wrong. :biggrin: But we do have certain preferrences for cold weather versus hot, don't we. Interesting.

Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

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fifi, I can't see how chilis would be anything but hot. I'm not sure about tomatoes or mint. Squashes are generally cold. I've never seen an avocado in Malaysia, but I think it might be hot, on the basis that it's rich in fat as is durian (I can't remember, however, how they categorize the ubiquitous coconut - coconut milk, coconut water, etc.). Come to think of it, I saw avocados for sale in Sumatra and had a wonderful chocolate/avocado ice juice in Berastagi, in the Karo Batak country, but I have no idea how they categorized them humorally.

Nick, I'm not very knowledgeable about the Chinese humoral system, but I hope some more knowledgeable people post a reply to your question.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Nick, I'm not very knowledgeable about the Chinese humoral system, but I hope some more knowledgeable people post a reply to your question.

Pan - in my limited understanding "yin" is related to the expansive and the female, "yang" is related to the male and contractive. In food, (to my limited understanding) the extremes would be sugar at the yin end and meat at the yang end. Of course, there are extremes that go beyond these that shouldn't be eaten unless dire circumstances arise.

Does the hot and cold have the same thing?

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There are foods that are more or less hot or cold. The Chinese do traditionally have a humoral system, one which developed independently from the ancient Greek system, to my knowledge. Whether or how hot and cold may be related to yin and yang, I simply don't know. My anthropologist mother probably would, but she isn't an eGulleteer. However, I'm sure someone who knows will pipe up before too long.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Soooo... CALL YOUR MOTHER. You probably need to do that anyway. :wink:

Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

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umm, is this anything like the Galenic system of "humours" from the 16th century or thereabouts where someone could be:

choleric (hot and dry), phleghmatic (cold and wet), and there's two more that i can't remember, but i think i should get extra credit for trying to spell "phleghmatic". :smile::biggrin:

edit to add: oh my, a discussion of Hamlet, as read through the Galenic humours...

Edited by gus_tatory (log)

"The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the ocean."

--Isak Dinesen

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umm, is this anything like the Galenic system of "humours"

Indeed. And it dates to times B.C. in ancient Greece.

"Wet" and "dry" eventually mostly disappeared from the system, however.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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My mother's studies (you can see one abstract under the name of "Laderman C." here [scroll down or do an Edit-Find as appropriate]) demonstrated that these categories were to a large extent based on empirical experiences by individuals, but that there were certain foodstuffs and medicines that were more or less invariably considered hot or cold.liver" - clearly not analogous to English "coldhearted"!) means contented.

So your mother said in the referenced link (I don't think I'm breaking any copyright laws here) -

"Malaya, an ancient crossroads of trade, was the recipient of Chinese and Ayurvedic humoral ideas and, later, those of medieval Islam. These ideas were readily accepted by Malays, since they are highly congruent with pre-existing notions among aboriginal peoples of Malaya involving a hot-cold opposition in the material and spiritual universe and its effects upon human health. Islamic Malays have adapted these aboriginal beliefs to correspond to the Greek- Arabic humoral model in matters concerning foods, diseases, and medicines. Although Malay theories of disease causation include such concepts as soul loss and spirit attack, along with 'naturalistic' ideas such as dietary imbalance and systemic reactions to foods, all of these theories can either be reinterpreted in humoral terms, or, at least, are congruent with the basic tenets of Islamic humoral pathology. Behaviors and beliefs regarding human reproduction, however, while essentially following a humoral pattern, diverge from Islamic, as well as traditional Chinese and Indian Ayurvedic, humoral theories. Unlike any other major humoral doctrine, Malay reproductive theory (like that of non-Islamic aboriginal peoples of Malaya) equates coldness with health and fertility and heat with disease and sterility. These ideas, in turn, are related to beliefs regarding the nature of the spirit world: the destructiveness of spiritual heat and the efficacy of cooling prayer."

Do you have anything to add to this, or are you pretty much going on your mother's writing?

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My mother is the expert in the family, but I was with her as a 5th- and 6th-grader, so I did experience some of it and understand many things about the rural Malay culture I was a part of for that period of time. The remarks I wrote to start this thread weren't based on any particular article, except for the quote, but come from knowledge that I obtained over 26 years ago and have retained.

The thing is, too, that the website I referenced has just an abstract from one article, and my mother has written much more than that.

If you have a question, shoot, and I'll try to answer it.

Perhaps later at night New York time, some Malaysians may chime in.

Edited by Pan (log)

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Soooo... CALL YOUR MOTHER. You probably need to do that anyway. :wink:

I did, fifi, as indeed I usually do every day, but she's too busy to get into this kind of stuff over the phone. Besides, though my mother knows about all humoral systems, her real expertise is in the Malay humoral system. And anyway, there's no reason for me to monopolize this thread. I started it, but I hope to read contributions from other eGulleteers who know about the Indian, Chinese, Latin American, and Arab versions of this system.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Works by some of the Muslims and Jews active during the age of the Arab Caliphates are translated into English, but whether the medical writings of Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonedes) or Ibn Sina (Avicenna) are on the Internet in English, I wouldn't know.

I found this website on Ibn Sina pretty readily, though. Very impressive man!

Abu Ali al-Husain ibn Abdallah ibn Sina (Avicenna)

Here are some biographies of Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon:

The Ramba'm – Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides)

This one is more complicated and contains some obvious spelling errors, but talks more about his work as a doctor and writer of medical treatises.

One can find many other articles, but what Maimonedes is now most famous for was his Torah commentary and philosophical writing, so that's what's most covered on most of the sites. However, he was considered a major medical authority in the Arab world.

Edited by Pan (log)

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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I certainly hope that we have some knowledgeable folks chime in. This is a fascinating topic. I really think that those of us not inbued with the tradition are doing something like it in a subconscious way. That gives the concept a measure of credibility. I am a scientist. But I hope that I am that sort of scientist that retains an open mind. This is a very complex world and there are a lot of things that we don't know about... yet.

As I think about it, I am beginning to think that there is something fundamental here that is guiding us toward pleasing and healthful food combinations and we don't have a clue as to why. What a fun mystery! :wub:

Linda LaRose aka "fifi"

"Having spent most of my life searching for truth in the excitement of science, I am now in search of the perfectly seared foie gras without any sweet glop." Linda LaRose

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I really think that those of us not inbued with the tradition are doing something like it in a subconscious way.

I'm not so sure about that - maybe, maybe not. One thing I didn't mention yet is that in rural Terengganu, Malaysia c. 1975, all Western medicine was considered humorally hot and had to be counterbalanced by some humorally cold food or some other cooling thing like perhaps baths with lime juice. I doubt that Americans are taking their medicine with squash, for example, but I guess even here I can temporize and note that alcohol, too, is hot, and interacts poorly with some Western medicines - but then again, only some of them.

I do think that some of the empirical elements to the humoral system are comprehensible to people not brought up with these principles, but if you don't believe in the Four Elements (or for Chinese, the Five Elements) and don't believe that the blood is the hot humor and the phlegm is the cold humor, does the system lose its underpinnings and become uncredible in the end? I hope someone who doesn't believe in the Four/Five Elements but understands traditional categories of "heaty" and "cooling" will address this point.

(Blood was the humor corresponding to Air in ancient Greek cosmology, with Choler corresponding to Fire, but where I was living, the hot/cold opposition in most current use was blood/phlegm. Massaging cramped muscles was called "breaking up phlegm," because the idea was that lumps of cold phlegm were impeding the free movement of the hot blood.)

Edited by Pan (log)

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Just to show the tip of the iceberg of the Humoral System as something all-encompassing, those of you who are musically inclined can look at this fascinating annotated chart of the Medieval European and ancient Greek modes and their corresponding elements, humors, effects on people's mental and emotional state, and planets.

Indian classical music is similarly governed by rags that are considered appropriate for a particular time of day, mood, etc. Ditto for pathet in Indonesian gamelan music, etc. (Rags and pathet are essentially analogous to modes.)

But back to food...

Edited by Pan (log)

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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what a bizarre and interesting chart and article.

so there's a reason Tchaikovsky's "Pathetique" is in G... :biggrin:

"The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the ocean."

--Isak Dinesen

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That would be B Minor, but I don't think a chart of church modes clearly relates to the Major/minor tonal system. We'd need a different chart for that.

I wonder if there was a relationship between the food that was served in Court and the key of the dinner music being played by the Court musicians. I'd also wonder about that in terms of places like China, Japan, and India. But the fact is, I have no idea.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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As I was reading this thread, I thought of the Sufi community in Sarasota, Florida, of which my parents are a part. These folks have in recent years become very interested in traditional Chinese medicine; some of them brought over a Chinese healer a couple of years ago, and one lady in particular has been studying Chinese medicine in China, which info she has brought back to the Sufis.

I thought of this because the Chinese theory of the five elements very much informed the traditional healer's healing methodology, and since his visit, this doctrine has continued to influence the food intake of many in the Sufi community. For example, many folks with too much cold or dampness (yang, I think), no longer take ice in their drinks. He also recommended against eating too much spicy food. One might think that if you have too much yang, maybe you could balance it out with the hotness of yin foods like chili. But it's not that simple, because according to this system, different organs can have different levels of yin/yang. For example, I have a cold, damp spleen, while my thyroid runs hot and dry. I think. Also, the no ice/ no spice thing is in the overall interest of systemic balance. All of us who went to see this Chinese healer were given extensive regimens of medicinal tea, as well as dietary restrictions, tailored to our specific systemic imbalances of the body's chi. Let me tell you, that tea was some nasty stuff. I managed to drink all of mine (twice a day for 40 days), but a lot of people had trouble with it. I mean, there were like dried centipedes and stuff in there. But hey, whatever works.

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Just to show the tip of the iceberg of the Humoral System as something all-encompassing, those of you who are musically inclined can look at this fascinating annotated chart of the Medieval European and ancient Greek modes and their corresponding elements, humors, effects on people's mental and emotional state, and planets.

Indian classical music is similarly governed by rags that are considered appropriate for a particular time of day, mood, etc. Ditto for pathet in Indonesian gamelan music, etc. (Rags and pathet are essentially analogous to modes.)

But back to food...

I mentioned the Sufis I know above, and this quote about Indian music struck me in particular because the man who founded their particular order, Hazrat Inayat Khan, was an acclaimed court musician in late 19th century India. He wrote several treatises on Indian music, and one in particular had to do with which ragas are appropriate for which times of day, which elements they correspond to, the state of the musician's body and mind, etc. A lot of this corresponds with Indian Ayurvedic theory, and a lot of that corresponds to a humoral system. So I would not be surprised if certain ragas were considered hot, or dry, or cold, or damp, or whatever. I should ask my brother, who is a musician and lately has been experimenting with Inayat Khan's musical theory.

I'm not very familiar with Ayurveda, but I do know that in Ayurvedic cooking, and by extension in most Indian cooking, a full meal ought to incorporate all five flavors: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and pungent. Which, if you think about Indian food, it often does.

And then, you would adjust the tastes according to your Ayurvedic humor: Vata, Pitta, or Kapha. For example, Vata people run hot and so would need to include colder foods in their diets. My mom has an Ayurvedic cookbook with recipes to make for each humor. I don't know if "humor" is really the right word, but I think the idea is more or less the same.

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Thanks for your interesting contributions, scottie.

Your remarks about yucky medicinal tea remind me of traditional Malay akar kayu (literally, "woody roots"), a usually bitter infusion of which is drunk for curative purposes. My mother used to drink an infusion of akar kayu every day as prescribed by a traditional medical practitioner in the rural area where we were living, and they seemed to have kept her blood pressure down as long as she used them. Of course, as with any other medicine, there's no way to prove that in her case, her blood pressure wasn't down because she was thinner and more physically active during that period of time, rather than because of that plus the akar kayu.

Ayurvedic medicine definitely deals with humors, as does traditional Chinese medicine, though the two systems are different.

While I was reading about the different tastes that should be included in Indian meals, I was thinking about Chinese food, too. Sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and pungent. Sounds like a possible Chinese formulation, as well. I hope someone comments on whether it is.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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The Persians have a well-established system of hot and cold foods, as well, which arguably antedated and influenced the Greek (Galenic) system. Most likely, this was the rootstock of the Arab world's understanding of the system, as well.

I saw quite a bit about it in various Persian cookbooks I was reviewing in November for my International Cuisine class. I'll try to dig up some of those references for you over the next week or so. If any of you have one of Najmieh Batmanlij's cookbooks, check in the back...she usually has a chart or table of hot and cold foods.

“Who loves a garden, loves a greenhouse too.” - William Cowper, The Task, Book Three

 

"Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition...The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.” - psychologist David Dunning

 

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