The concept of constitution is widely applied in the practice of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and is an important part of clinical diagnosis and treatment. Traditional Chinese medicine considers that everyone’s physical constitution, which involves much more than just your body shape, is unique.
Body constitution is what makes a person susceptible to certain diseases but not others. Both inborn (genetic, inherited) and acquired factors affect our body constitution. An understanding of our individual body constitution can guide us towards more effective treatment and disease prevention through making lifestyle changes, which is especially true for acquired factors. The recent trauma of possible exposure to a highly contagious virus, lifestyles suddenly altered in a worldwide lockdown and unprecedented uncertainties in our world, are all external factors out of our control.
TCM suggests that, due to these inherited and acquired influences, each of us has unique structural, physiological and psychological attributes. These individual components combine to form our body constitution and ultimately may affect how we live and behave, as well as our susceptibility to pathogens like viruses (i.e., Covid-19) and disease development. The recent trauma of possible exposure to the COVID-19 virus, lifestyles suddenly altered in a worldwide lockdown and unprecedented uncertainties in our world, are all factors that can affect how we feel emotionally and physically. These are perfect examples of influences that can alter our constitution. Some other factors that affect our constitution include:
- Gender – men and women have some physiological differences that impact body constitution. For example, in TCM, men are more yang, which reflects Qi (warm, outward energy), while women are more yin, which represents blood (cooling, inward) energy.
- Age – our body’s structures, functions and metabolism change as we age.
- Mental state – we’ve discussed in numerous presentations how emotions can affect different organs, and body constitution is no different. How have we responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?
- Living environment – different climates and geography can lead to different lifestyles, which can impact constitution.
Body constitution can vary from person to person. For example, some people are vibrant and energetic, some are fragile and timid, some run hot, and some tend to be cold. Body constitution can be divided into nine types, which generally are classified based on the physical body, personality, common health problems and adaptation to the external environment.
The following describes the nine different body types. Remember that we as humans are not one-dimensional. You may notice that you fall into more than one category. However, one will be more dominant. When we assess patients, we take the combination of body types into consideration and make recommendations based on the most acute and move toward the most chronic conditions.
Neutral Body Type: Yin, Yang, Qi & Blood are in balance
Physically fit and strong, emotionally stable with a positive outlook on life, healthy skin and hair, bright eyes, good appetite and normal bowel movements, sleeps well, does not feel particularly hot or cold
- Recommendations: Do not make changes and stay in balance. Eat a variety of foods.
(Note that long-term poor eating habits will create an imbalance and eventually, illness.)
Qi (vital energy) Deficiency
Tend to have soft muscle tissue, introverted and timid, feeble or weak voice, shortness of breath, fatigue, catches cold and flu easily, frequent spontaneous sweating without exertion, teeth marks along the tongue margin, sensitive to environmental changes, loose stools or chronic constipation, due to relatively weak immune functioning, it usually takes a longer time to recover from illnesses
- Diet do’s: oats, steamed sweet apples, cooked vegetables, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, fish, chicken, cinnamon, clove, coriander, fennel, garlic powder, ginger, all light, warm and easily-digestible foods are good.
- Diet don’ts: candy, celery, dairy, raw vegetables & salads, frozen foods and juices
Weak muscles, quiet and introverted personality, complain about cold hands and feet, cold feeling in stomach, sensitive to cold temperatures or noises, poor sleep, discomfort after eating cold foods, pale and swollen, bulky tongue, uncomfortable in windy, cold and humid environments, susceptible to health problems such as puffiness, diarrhea and excess throat secretions
- Diet do’s: foods with warm energy and sweet and pungent flavors are appropriate. Warming foods like ginger, pumpkin, nuts, beef, chicken, chives, leeks, lamb, cherry, raspberries, soups and teas
- Diet don’ts: cold energy foods like crab, cucumbers, and melons, raw salads, cold foods and beverages, smoothies, hard-to-digest fibrous foods
Individuals usually have a thin physique, outgoing and impatient in personality, complain about warm palms and soles, dry mouth and nose, preference for cold drinks, dry stools or constipation, and often feel uncomfortable in hot and dry environments. They are susceptible to cough, tend towards fatigue, insomnia and some chronic conditions. Tongue will often be red, or peeled or geographic
- Diet do’s: cooling foods or those with bitter flavor like celery, mushrooms, kale, spinach, beans, melon, lettuce, watermelon, grapefruit, tomatoes, egg, duck, fish, pear, apple and pomegranate.
- Diet don’ts: pungent, spicy and fried foods, alcohol is pungent and hot in nature, other warming foods and spices like ginger, peppers and heavy proteins
Phlegm Damp Type Body
Tend to be overweight and have a bigger stomach, chest stuffiness, feeling heaviness in body, sluggish, sticky or sweet taste in the mouth and greasy tongue coat, excessive throat secretions or phlegm production, sweaty, preference for fat and sweet foods, mild, steady and patient personality, uncomfortable in humid and rainy environments, susceptible to diabetes, metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular diseases
- Diet do’s: celery, coriander, spinach, radish, onion, carrot, cucumber, olives, barley, red beans, pear, goji berries, papaya, seaweed, grape, hops, plum, yams
- Diet don’ts: greasy, fatty foods and sweets
Phlegm Heat Body Type
Normal or thin physique, oily face that gets acne or pimples frequently, bitter or metallic taste in mouth, irritable and short-tempered, feeling of heaviness in the body, feeling of incomplete bowel movements or dry stools, tendency to ulcers, skin problems and urinary difficulties, yellow urine, excess vaginal discharge, greasy tongue coating, sensitive to humid and hot environments, especially late summer & early fall
- Diet do’s: tomato, beans, cucumbers, celery, cabbage, kelp, duck, watermelon, and bananas
- Diet don’ts: lamb, ginger, chili pepper and garlic
Blood Stagnation Body Type
Dull and grayish skin, spots on face, dark red lips, dark circles under eyes, impatience, short-fused, forgetfulness, tendency to get bleeding and bruising, varicose veins, abnormal growths in the body and body pains, often uncomfortable in cold weather
- Diet do’s: Radish, carrots, onions, celery, eggplant, mushrooms, papaya, peach, mango, green tea and wine
- Diet don’ts: Greasy, frozen foods
Individuals are mostly thinner, tend to be emotional unstable, melancholy or suspicious, mood swings, often present with a depressed mood, being nervous, anxious and often timid, frequent sighing, heart palpitations, susceptible to insomnia and intestinal problems, respond poorly to stressful situations, aversion to autumn, winter and rainy seasons, susceptible to breast lumps
- Diet do’s: radishes, onions, garlic, wheat, citrus fruit, seaweed & kelp
- Diet don’ts: tea and coffee
Special Constitution Type
Tendency to inborn weakness, inherent sensitivity to drugs, foods, smells, pollen or other environmental allergens, often have allergies that effect the respiratory system, develop nasal congestion, sneezing, runny nose, panting, hives, itchiness and even purple spots or patches under the skin. Common health problems among individuals are drug allergies, hay fever, eczema and asthma. Relatively poor response to external influences. Health problems can easily be induced by seasonal changes.
- Diet do’s: light, balanced and easily digested food is best; honey, carrot, mushrooms, fish, tofu, egg, apple, apricot, coconut, dates, lemon, nuts
- Diet don’ts: high-protein foods, alcohol, chili pepper, coffee, tea and buckwheat
The criteria for selecting food according to the body constitution is to balance the body’s yin and yang. For example, a person with a hot body constitution, meaning that internal heat predominates, should eat cold energy food to reduce the excessive internal heat. This helps balance the internal environment and the physical constitution to create a more neutral constitution.
It should be emphasized that, in reality, it is hard to classify into only one body type, as we humans are more complex and often present with a mixed type; for example, yin deficiency and damp-heat, qi deficiency and dampness, qi stagnation and blood stasis are all common combinations. For most people, consulting a TCM professional is the best way to know your body types. It’s also important to remember that a person’s body constitution is not constant and unchangeable, as factors like living environment, mental state, diet, daily activities and diseases can easily change the body’s condition. For some with unhealthy constitutions, we can take active measures, such as lifestyle modifications, nutrition or exercise, to move the body to more a neutral and healthy state. Taking control of your health according to body constitution types is an important part of TCM. I hope this helps you reflect on the choices you make and if they are consistent with your body type. You might be surprised at how small diet changes can make you feel better in a significant way!
Wishing you a healthy week!
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