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!