TCM Energetics- Let's Talk Science

December 27, 2020

The most basic element of life is producing energy in order to drive cellular processes. Every major cellular process requires ATP (adenosine tri-phosphate) at some step, and without it you cannot have life. 

Cells need ATP to perform their vital functions, such as, building proteins, transporting molecules inside and outside the cytosol, mitosis, etc. The cells in every organ of your body are constantly performing these functions per the availability of ATP, which is obtained through the digestion of food, absorption of macronutrients, and transport/storage within the body. 

As highly evolved organisms, mammals like humans and dogs have developed fine control over their energy regulation. We store multiple types of macromolecules (fats, glycogen, glucose) in our bodies in order to never run out of an ATP source. If we didn’t have a way to store energy in our bodies using these macromolecules, life would be a constant minute-by-minute quest for food. 

Whether you’re eating fruit, rice, meat, vegetables, or chocolate, your body will convert the macromolecules from these foods into glucose one way or another. Our cells produce the large majority of their ATP from glucose through a series of reactions which comprise the Krebs Cycle (see image) and electron transport chain. You can think of glucose as a stream of wind that turns a wind turbine, the turbine as the Krebs Cycle, and the electricity created by that turbine as ATP. While there are many ways to create a source of wind, the only thing that matters to the turbine is the strength of the wind. This is to say that the end-product of metabolic energy is uniform and the source does not ultimately matter. 

Energetically, the only difference between a twinkie and a burger is the amount of ATP they will produce after absorption of their constituent macromolecules. The conventional way we measure this energy output from food is using calories- a physical measure of chemical energy. 

Chemists are able to determine the caloric content of a food source through calorimetry- the process of measuring the heat released by the breakdown of the chemical bonds in an exothermic reaction. Calories are just one way to measure the energy content of food, however it is the most common and accepted way to do so. You probably have an item with a “Nutrition Facts” label within arms reach right now. 


Now that we have discussed the basics of metabolic energy, we can now see how the essentially fictional tenets (I say this respectfully) of “TCM Energetics” fail to respect evidence-based biochemical and physiological concepts. The first of these problematic concepts is that of “cooling” and “warming” foods/proteins. 

The first thing to understand here is that mammals finely regulate their internal temperature autonomously. In the human brain specifically, the structure that regulates our temperature using sensory nerve receptors throughout the body is called the Hypothalamus. This structure keeps your body’s internal temperature within an extremely controlled range (~ 36 ºC - 37.2 ºC or 98 ºF - 100º F on average). 

Your body’s ability to maintain internal temperature, blood glucose levels, blood oxygen levels etc, within normal ranges is called homeostasis. When you fight off a systemic infection (such as a virus) your body raises your internal temperature above normal range in order to denature the protein coats of the viral particles. This is what we commonly refer to as a fever. Food doesn’t regulate your internal body temperature. Your brain does that just fine by itself. 

Another issue with the claim of hot/warming/cooling/neutral foods is that this completely disregards the physiology of digestion. At this point it’s important to make the distinction between contact warming/cooling of your mouth, throat, and oesophagus versus the warming/cooling of the body after food has been fully digested. 

Drinking iced tea on a hot day will cool your mouth and oesophagus, giving you the feeling of cooling down. Eating an apple, a common TCM energetics “cooling food”, will not bring your internal body temperature down after digestion. After mechanical digestion through chewing/mastication, food travels down the oesophagus and arrives in the stomach where it is now called “chyme”. 

Chemical digestion begins in the stomach as the hydrochloric acid of the stomach breaks down bonds in food and allows for digestive enzymes to bind optimally with their respective macromolecules. All of this occurs at a temperature of ~98.6 ºF and at a gastric pH of ~2. This is a constant condition independent of whatever food enters your stomach. 

The thermal energy released as heat throughout digestion is negligible to your overall internal body temperature. Place an oral thermometer probe under your tongue before you eat dinner and write down the temperature. Then take your temperature again 30 minutes after eating dinner. This little home experiment alone will show you that these claims are not grounded in evidence-based scientific principles. If a claim or belief cannot withstand rigorous investigation through the scientific method, then it is not evidence-based. 

Lastly, allergic reactions to certain foods has nothing to do with whether this is a “warming” or “cooling” food. 

Chicken is a common allergen for dogs, which you will often see manifest itself as your dog itching themself. There are foods that are common allergens for different species due to genetic predispositions to mount an immune response against the antigens present on the cells of these foods. 

For example, peanut allergies are extremely common in humans. There is nothing inherently wrong with the food in question, simply that the animal ingesting it creates a faulty immune response to a food source. I say faulty because your immune system is not supposed to attack food sources, only pathogens. Not every mutation to our DNA is beneficial unfortunately, and allergies are an example of a non-beneficial mutation. And as an immune response, allergic reactions are characterised by inflammation at the cellular level in order to allow leukocytes (white blood cells) to mount a response to the antigens presented on the allergen in question. 

Giving a “cooling” food when you or your dog are having an allergic reaction will have 0 effect. The way to handle an allergic reaction is to avoid use of the known allergen, and if ingested then use medication such as an antihistamine or epinephrine depending on the severity of the reaction. If someone was having an anaphylactic reaction to peanut butter you would go find their Epi-pen to save them, not a spoonful of grape jelly, right? Modern medicine has already answered these questions, meanwhile TCM has yet to even hit the mark. 


Sadly, TCM energetics fails to respect many well-defined scientific principles and as such, should not be followed as a guide for nutrition. 

The problem with following concepts of traditional Chinese medicine in the 21st century is that you are actively choosing to believe an obsolete precursor to modern medical science over the real thing. 

Tumours do not dissolve, arthritis does not increase your bodily temperature, and if you need a mucus expectorant then consult your local pharmacist at a CVS/Walgreens. Even if you choose to follow ideas of TCM due to your cultural upbringing or spiritual beliefs, you have to understand that you are ignoring well-established scientific principles in doing so and may be following false guidance. 

Please consult physicians/veterinarians, and/or other trustworthy science-based sources for advice on human and animal dietary questions.

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