Thai Herbal Medicine

A modern look at a traditional practice
By C. Pierce Salguero & Nephyr Jacobsen

“Everything is medicine.”

This motto came from Buddha’s doctor, Jivaka. We believe this should be reinterpreted to fit modern times. Certain manufactured foods available today are so toxic to the system that we would argue they don’t have enough redeeming nutritional or medicinal qualities to offset the dangers of eating them.

Herbalists, natural healers, and traditional nutritionists the world over have warned that the following modern foods and additives should be on everyone’s list of items to avoid:


The tendency in Western health communities to vilify all sugars does not fit with traditional Thai medicine (TTM) theory. Natural unprocessed sugars are considered extremely useful medicines for hydration, and honey is used in countless medicines for a variety of purposes. This said, sugar intake should not be excessive, and highly refined sugars should always be avoided. The worst culprits include white crystalized sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, which are essentially poisons to the body. They overtax the metabolic system and can lead to diabetes and liver or kidney problems. Use honey, grade B maple syrup, raw sugar, stevia, iggery, or palm sugar as a substitute.


This overprocessed food is extremely common in modern Western cuisine. Bleached flour can contain high levels of toxins and has also been stripped of almost all of its nutritional value (which then is added back in to make “enriched flour”). White flour breaks down rapidly into sugar in the digestive system and leads to the same conditions as excess sugar consumption. Furthermore, white flour is exceedingly difficult for the digestive tract to handle, leading to sluggish digestion and depletion of the wind and fire elements. Use unbleached white or whole-wheat flour instead.


Milk is another case of an over-processed food. Much of the nutritional value in raw milk is neutralized by the pasteurization and homogenization process and then has to be added back in after processing. The vitamin D touted by the dairy industry is usually an additive and can just as easily be ingested through other foods or supplements. The dairy industry is also a leading user of hormones and antibiotics, which many health advocates believe can enter the human system and cause long-term damage to the endocrine and immune systems. Raw or pasteurized cream-top milk from grass fed cows is largely considered a better nutritional choice, although there are some concerns with its safety, and local laws vary. You can also use kefir or yogurt, goat milk, or dairy substitutes such as homemade almond or rice milk.


With a chemical composition close to plastic, hydrogenated oils are some of the most dangerous and non-nutritive substances in our foods. Hydrogenation is usually done for consistency or texture, as food companies believe it makes the food appear less greasy than whole oil. The process renders beneficial oils useless by the body, and hydrogenated oils are immediately stored as fat. Hydrogenated oils also lead to heart and circulatory disease, so be on the lookout for hydrogenation-free products.


The typical Western consumer eats piles of chemical food additives in every meal. These unnatural ingredients are unhealthy and unnecessary. Read the nutritional labels on your food purchases, and look for alternative, 100-percent natural foods. Remember that in TTM, everything you put into your mouth has a transformative effect on your body and mind. It is therefore essential that you eat mindfully, trying to maximize the natural, healthy ingredients in your diet and minimize the artificial additives.

When examining the typical American diet, you may notice that many of us eat items from the above list in every meal. In fact, some “American classics”—such as a hamburger, fries, and Coke from a fast-food chain, or Froot Loops and milk for breakfast—are almost totally made up of these items. Individuals should try to limit the amount of junk food intake, especially children and the elderly, who lack the strength to deal with these toxins. According to the Thai theories of the elements and tastes, overeating these foods can result in serious disorders.

Most of the above items are sweet foods, which deplete the wind element, leading to depletion of digestion, sexuality, and mobility while increasing the effects of aging. Because of their refined processing, these foods affect the body more strongly than natural foods, which is what you should consume instead if you are looking for the sweet flavor.

Another modern consideration, although unmentioned by Jivaka as it is more of a modern concern, is the long-term global effect of our dietary choices on the sustainability and health of our planet. For example, even though they are not the health hazards like the aforementioned foods, items such as palm oil, musk, and shark’s fin are directly related to environmental destruction and the endangerment of wild animals. We believe foods that are environmentally unsustainable should be avoided as much as possible. This is not only a moral but also a health issue, as personal health becomes ever more difficult to maintain on a damaged planet.

There has been considerable controversy about the safety and ethics of genetically modified foods lately, which is an issue that deserves special mention. While GMOs are commonly sold in the United States, they are restricted in other countries that have stronger food safety laws. Even if it is definitively proven that GMOs are safe to eat, there are considerable ethical problems that have yet to be worked out, including the environmental impact and social costs of corporate monopolies on seed supplies. For these reasons, we are currently of the belief that GMO foods should be avoided.


TTM provides guidelines for incorporating the six tastes into everyday dietary decisions but it is important to remember that some element fluctuation is natural with seasonal shifts, time of day, and age. It is not recommended that anyone undertake extreme dietary change in reaction to these natural shifts. In general, it is also not suggested that you undertake a wholesale change all at once, because this will lead to further elemental imbalances. Instead, you should lean slightly away from certain foods and slightly toward others on a seasonal basis or to accommodate for an imbalance. For instance, it is normal and appropriate that most people become slightly more fiery during the summertime, slightly windier in the fall, and slightly more watery in the winter. We are living organisms, not static objects, so movement in our elemental balance is simply a side effect of being alive.



Sweet: Associated with earth and wind elements, this taste strengthens, builds, and benefits the mind.

Salty: Associated with water and fire, this taste calms nerves and maintains mineral balance.

Sour: Associated with earth and fire, this taste awakens the mind and maintains thirst.

Pungent: Associated with fire and air, this taste increases circulation and stimulates digestion.

Bitter: Associated with air and ether, this taste stimulates nerves, clears congestion, and benefits the skin and liver.

Astringent: Associated with earth and air, this taste stops bleeding and heals wounds.

Source: Kimmana Nichols,



Certain herbs—whether sweet, bitter, or salty—can give medicinal properties to the body, depending on your age. Here are a list of herbs and foods to add to your diet based on age:

CHILDREN UP TO AGE 16: Should consume more sweet, bitter, and sour foods to ward off childhood illnesses, colds, and coughs.

RECOMMENDED HERBAL SUPPLEMENTS FOR CHILDREN’S DIET: anise, honey, gooseberry, lemon, licorice, lime, longan, milk, pineapple, tamarind.


YOUNG ADULTS AGED 16−32: Should consume more astringent, salty, bitter, and sour foods for vitality, healthy blood, and bile.

RECOMMENDED HERBAL SUPPLEMENTS FOR YOUNG ADULT DIET: aloe juice, bitter gourd, chrysanthemum, gooseberry, green tea, lemon, lime, orange rind, pineapple, pomegranate, seafood, tamarind.


ADULTS AGED 32 AND OLDER: Should consume more spicy/hot, bitter, salty, and astringent foods.

RECOMMENDED HERBAL SUPPLEMENTS FOR MIDDLE-AGE ADULT DIET: aloe juice, basil, bitter gourd, black pepper, cardamom, cayenne, chrysanthemum, cinnamon, clove, garlic, ginger, green tea, jasmine, lemongrass, lotus, orange rind, pomegranate, seafood, turmeric, all bitter tonics.


ADULTS AGED 50 YEARS AND OLDER: Are recommended to use special herbs as part of their diet for strength, longevity, and the heart.




TTM includes a number of different ways to connect the seasons of the year with the dietary changes and herbal remedies one should consume. The most common of these systems counts three seasons. The advice for the three seasons is as follows:

IN THE HOT SEASON, individuals should consume more bitter, astringent, and sweet foods, which are cooling to the system and relieve fire element diseases.

IN THE RAINY SEASON, one should ingest more foods of the salty, spicy/hot, and sour taste, which alleviate the effects of wind.

IN THE COLD SEASON, spicy/hot (including the gentler aromatic pungent herbs) foods are recommended to stimulate the fire element.