Umeboshi: The Five Element Superfood

Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac.

A powerful nutritious condiment that’s a staple in Japanese culture, Prunus Mume, is a sour plum commonly known as Umeboshi. Umeboshi, or “salted plum,” is a pickled fruit that sits in salt brine for a year or more and though called a plum it’s actually more closely related to the apricot fruit.

Though acidic by nature with its concentration of citric and phosphoric acids, the effect Umeboshi has on the body is highly alkalizing, which is why it’s so important in the Macrobiotic diet.

The benefits of Umeboshi, however, go far beyond alkalization to bring nutritional and medicinal support for all Five Elemental energies of your body.

It’s no wonder in Japan they have a saying similar to our ‘apple a day’ idea, that ‘an Ume a day’ can keep the doctor away.

Umeboshi or ‘salted plum’ is a staple of Japanese culture and an important part of the Macrobiotic diet due to its alkalizing effect on the body.

Umeboshi or ‘salted plum’ is a staple of Japanese culture and an important part of the Macrobiotic diet due to its alkalizing effect on the body.

How Umeboshi Benefits Each of the Five Elements

Fire Element

Umeboshi becomes a red plum after pickling with iron rich Shiso (Perilla) leaves, so by law of signature, these pickled balls of energy support the Fire Element for Heart health, and provide a tonic for the blood. 

In fact, Umeboshi has been found helpful for anemia and to regulate heart rhythm problems such as palpitations. This may be due due their high concentration of potassium which helps regulate heartbeat. In Chinese Medicine, since the Heart controls the mind and Spirit, it may be through this effect on the heart that Umeboshi is also used to help calm and relax the mind.

Water Element

The body’s structure, i.e. the bones, are under the domain of the Kidneys and the Water Element. By supporting calcium absorption, Umeboshi is considered an important food for bone health in Japanese culture. Calcium absorption is likely a benefit that comes from their high concentration of citric acid as well as the trace mineral manganese. 

Furthermore, phytochemicals in Umeboshi have been found to increase osteoblast activity and the production of collagen to build bone. So these plums are a real boon for bone health and one of the reasons they are considered a longevity food. A 2014 study showed Umeboshi to have anti-osteoporosis benefits.

According to Chinese Medicine, the teeth are also an extension of the bone and therefore relate to the Kidneys. In regards to dental health, Umeboshi has been found to have anti-bacterial properties against Streptococcus mutans, the bacteria involved with dental caries and gum disease and help reduce bleeding gums (which relates to the function of the Spleen and Earth Element).

Earth Element

The trace mineral manganese also helps regulate blood sugar and traditionally in Japan Umeboshi is known to help stabilize blood sugar. In terms of western physiology, the pancreas plays a primary role in blood sugar regulation and in Chinese Medicine we correlate the pancreas with the organ of the Spleen which is an Earth Element organ.

Manganese also helps produce digestive enzymes and metabolize fats, proteins and carbohydrates. These are all aspects of the Earth Element which relates to digestion through the function of the Spleen (Pancreas) and Stomach. So Umeboshi tea is useful to take before and after meals to help strengthen your Earth’s digestive power. 

Umeboshi is also known to reduce fatigue and was used historically by the Samurai for this purpose. In Chinese Herbal Medicine it’s also considered a Stomach Yin tonic as these plums generate fluids to help hydrate the body and reduce thirst. Umeboshi is known to increase salivation and stimulate a weak appetite as well so in this way these pickled plums strengthen the Spleen and Stomach functions to enhance digestion. Umeboshi is also commonly used to benefit mild cases of acute stomach and intestinal pain and known to effectively reduce H-pylori, the bacteria found to cause gastritis and stomach ulcers. 

Metal Element

In terms of the Metal Element and the health of the Lung Qi, which controls both respiration and the skin’s sweating action, the astringent nature of Umeboshi helps reduce excessive sweating. Chinese herbal medicine uses these plums specifically for this purpose as well as to reduce chronic coughing when the Lung Qi is weak or when the Lungs are dry from deficient Yin. 

The Large Intestine is also part of the Metal Element energetics and Umeboshi can help expel roundworm parasite infestation which is on the rise with the increase in sushi and sashimi (raw fish) consumption. Keep in mind that in Chinese Medicine, herbal remedies are normally a combination of herbs so taking Umeboshi alone may not be an effective cure for a case of roundworms.

These plums also have dietary fiber (soluble and insoluble) to help improve elimination as well. In fact, in herbal medicine, they are used medicinally for both diarrhea and constipation. There is special preparation, however, to activate the different effects of Umeboshi. For example, in the treatment of diarrhea, the pickled plums are charred before consumption to achieve this medicinal benefit.

Wood Element

Last but not least is the powerful impact of Umeboshi on the body’s Wood Element energetics which involves the Liver and Gallbladder organs. Known to accelerate the clearance of alcohol toxicity from the Liver, Umeboshi is also considered a food to help detoxify the liver and, in general, protect liver health.

In Chinese Medicine, the Liver Blood nourishes vision, and perhaps it’s from vitamin A that Umeboshi supports vision health. These plums are also high in antioxidants to reduce free-radical damage which can also impair vision over time.

Umeboshi also supports the Gallbladder by aiding fat digestion.

Tips for Consuming Umeboshi

You can simply eat an Umeboshi daily as a snack or with meals. In Japan, Umeboshi is often placed inside the center of rice balls as a dried plum or plum paste. This makes a convenient way to eat rice and get your Umeboshi fix.

In Macrobiotics, it’s recommended to boil a salted plum in one quart of water for 30 minutes then drink the water 30 minutes after exercise to restore electrolytes.

My personal preference is to take Umeboshi in paste form. I use about a 1/4-1/3 tsp in a medium to large glass of warm water. I’ve been drinking this during the day since the beginning of Fall when the weather began to get drier and I immediately started to notice my body rehydrate much better.

Umeboshi plum paste also makes a very soothing tea to drink in the evening that calms my mind before bed. I recommend you give it a try. It’s a bit on the sour side, but I personally like the salty, sour combination and the benefits make me want to keep coming back for more!

Food as a Mirror

by Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac.

We’ve all heard the saying “you are what you eat” but what may be more true is that what you eat is a reflection of how you feel about yourself. 

When we make healthier food choices, we're also making choices about the quality with which we want to live our lives.

A healthy lifestyle comes from knowledge through the proper resources but also through tuning in with the self. Adapting a healthy lifestyle means looking at all aspects of your life – your work, relationships and your diet.

Proper nutrition is one of the primary pillars of healthy living and, for a lot of people, it’s also one of the most challenging. My hope is to empower you to be more conscious of your diet because it is one of the most impactful aspects of your health over which you have total control.

 

Food and Digestion According to Chinese Medicine

According to Chinese Medicine, the Spleen and Stomach are the primary organs responsible for digestion. Everything you eat and drink has to be digested and transformed into Qi, or energy, with the help of these organs.

There are two major kinds of Qi in the body - the essence Qi, often referred to as the prenatal Qi, and postnatal Qi, which is produced from food and drink (Gu Qi), in the Stomach. Prenatal Qi is the constitutional essence with which we're born and postnatal Qi is our basic daily energy that we cultivate through our diet and lifestyle. The healthier the diet, the better quality Qi we can extract and therefore the greater our endurance.

The Gu Qi, or “grain” as it is often called in the classics, that enters the Stomach, is transmitted to the Lungs to produce the defense or “guard Qi,” also known as Wei Qi, which is essential for maintaining one’s circadian rhythm.

Wei Qi forms in the Lungs through the Gu Qi that first enters the Stomach. As Chapter 21 of Nei Jing Su Wen stated, “Beverages enter the stomach. Overflowing essence Qi is transported upward to the spleen. The spleen Qi spreads the essence, which turns upward to the lung” (Unschuld, 2011, 375). 

The Spleen sends Gu Qi up to the Lungs, where (with the help of Kidney Qi) it combines with air and transforms into another form of energy known as Zong Qi, which is often referred to as "gathering Qi." 

Zong Qi is formed from the combination of Gu Qi extracted through food and drink and Lung Qi extracted through the breath. Therefore, the more nutritious your diet and the better your capacity for deep respiration, the better quality Qi you'll have to support the various organs' Qi in the body.

Since Gu Qi is also used to produce Wei Qi, which controls circadian rhythm and supports immunity, a healthy diet also supports sleep and healthy immune function. 

An unhealthy diet that's high in sweet, spicy, fried and processed foods taxes the digestive system and over time will make us not only feel lethargic but also can damage the gut, or the Spleen and Stomach terrain, and lead to chronic inflammation.

In Western Medicine, the impact of nutrition on overall health has been confirmed through recent studies on the gut-brain axis (GBA).

Eating healthy can be so simple (and beautiful!) - Sprouted quinoa, lentils and adzuki beans with brussel sprouts, arugula and beet salad, avocado, butternut squash and baked sweet potatoes. We dressed the salad, grains and brussel sprouts with organic olive oil, black and cayenne peppers, and lemon juice from Meyer lemons in our garden.

Eating healthy can be so simple (and beautiful!) - Sprouted quinoa, lentils and adzuki beans with brussel sprouts, arugula and beet salad, avocado, butternut squash and baked sweet potatoes. We dressed the salad, grains and brussel sprouts with organic olive oil, black and cayenne peppers, and lemon juice from Meyer lemons in our garden.

The Gut-Brain Axis

Recent studies have revealed that the enteric nervous system (ENS), which is a system of neurons within the gastrointestinal tract and often referred to as the ‘second brain,’ may be linked to immune function, hormonal regulation, psychological disorders, and even autism. The bidirectional communication between the brain (i.e. the central nervous system) and the ENS is known as the gut-brain axis (GBA), an information superhighway of chemicals and hormones that provides constant feedback and influences - among other things - our moods, emotions and sleep patterns.

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body. It passes through the neck to the abdomen and interfaces with parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs and digestive tract. Evidence indicates that the communication between the microbiota in the gut and the brain involves the vagus nerve, which transmits information from the luminal environment of the gut to the central nervous system (CNS). 

Important hormones and neurotransmitters such as melatonin, which regulates sleep, and serotonin, which affects mood, are produced in the gastrointestinal tract. In fact, about 90% of serotonin, which can affect mood and social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory and sexual desire and function, is produced in the gut. 

The health of the gut therefore impacts the health of the brain and our ability to process information, manage stress, sleep, balance our emotions, as well as digest and assimilate food.

 

Chinese Medicine Perspective of Digestion, Emotions and the Gut-Brain Axis

Li Dong-yuan (1180 – 1251 c.e.) was a Chinese medical scholar who is considered to be one of the Four Great Masters of the Jin-Yuan period of Chinese Medicine. As founder of the Earth School, Li believed that the health of the Spleen and Stomach was the foundation for disease prevention. He developed the concept of Yin fire, which he believed is produced by excessive emotions and poor diet, both of which damage the original Qi and overwhelm the Spleen and Stomach. Excessive emotions engender heat internally. This heat, accompanied by weakness in the Spleen and Stomach, eventually flares upward into the Heart causing symptoms such as restlessness, anxiety and insomnia.

The gut-brain axis dynamics discussed earlier parallel Li Dong-yuan’s emphasis on the pivotal role of the Spleen and Stomach, or gut health, for all human functioning. Li believed that disease pathology manifests as a result of damage to postnatal Qi, the source of which is the Spleen and Stomach. 

The Spleen and Stomach is responsible for creating the Gu Qi, or energy that is transformed from food. Excessive or unbalanced emotions and stress weaken the Spleen and Stomach and therefore the gut. According to Li Dong-yuan, this weakness leads to stagnation of Stomach Qi that eventually turns into heat or Fire. This pathological heat relates to any inflammatory or infectious condition within the gastrointestinal tract.

We can therefore surmise that heat accumulation in the gut eventually affects the brain and interferes with the harmonious interplay between the gut and brain. Furthermore, pathological heat in the gut burns out the Stomach Yin which correlates to the destruction of the intestinal mucosa.

Over time, as the mucosal lining of the gut deteriorates, "leaky gut" syndrome develops allowing for undigested proteins to leak into the blood stream and begin the cascade of inflammation throughout the body. This is one of the fundamental pathological processes underlying a host of autoimmune diseases.

 

Diet and Your Health

Some argue that to eat healthfully is too costly or a less convenient option. But we can’t be short-sighted. The long-term return on your investment is quite high, even if in the short-term it is a little more expensive to cook healthy foods at home rather than eat processed foods, for example.

Nothing is worth more than the health of your mind and body. And nothing will give you as great a return on your investment.

Your health is the pillar of your future success, happiness and fulfillment. Nothing is possible without health, and in health anything is possible.

So it should naturally be the number one place where we put our resources.

In Chinese Medicine, diet can be used as a modality in and of itself to heal chronic illness.

Diet is also the most important self-care tool we all have. Our diet provides an opportunity to feel empowered because we're able to have a say in our self-care and well-being through the choices we make with food.

What we eat is a mirror for how we feel about ourselves, and the choices we make with what we eat also allows us to choose how we want to feel and what we want to create in our lives.

Once you've finished reading this article, I'd love to hear from you on any or all of these questions in the comments below --
* How does what you eat reflect how
you feel?
* Do you eat better or worse under stress?
* What's one change you could make in your diet to better reflect what you want to create in your life?


Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. is co-owner and Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California. The Silicon Valley-based health and wellness clinic specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine and Traditional Japanese Acupuncture with a clinic and studio where Setareh offers clinical services and transformational workshops that blend the ancient practices of Classical Chinese Medicine and Yoga. More information at www.setarehmoafi.com and www.acenterfornaturalhealing.com