In China, it is not uncommon to hear an elderly relative describe a child running a fever or one with a flushed face as being “heaty”.
Heat in this case does not refer to a high body temperature. Rather, heatiness refers to a state where there is too much heat inside the body, resulting in heaty symptoms such as mouth ulcers, a sore throat, cough with sticky phlegm, or chapped lips.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioners strive to maintain a balance between two opposing yet complementary forces in the body – yin, a cold, dark but nourishing force, and yang, a hot, bright, and active force. When this delicate balance is disturbed and there is too much yang, heatiness results.
“Children are more prone to heatiness as they are growing rapidly and their bodies are made up of mostly yang energy,” says Eu Yan Sang TCM Associate Senior Physician Li Guang Jun. “During this time of rapid development, yang ‘qi’ dominates, creating a state of relative yin deficiency.”
One characteristic of heat, or fire, is that it rises. Therefore, when the child’s body is too heaty, the rise and dispersion of heat disturbs the mind, making the child more irritable. Heatiness can also manifest physically as a flushed face, sore throat, red eyes or dizziness.
Children with excess internal heat frequently have a bright red tongue, red lips, enlarged tonsils and a rapid pulse, Mr Li says. Heat can also affect the heart or liver, and this may result in short-temperedness.
External factors, such as weather and diet, can exacerbate heatiness. Yang tends to be more prominent in the hot summer months and in tropical countries where every day is summer. Seasonal influences can induce many diseases and conditions, including respiratory infections in the Spring, and heat strokes and digestive problems in the Summer, Mr Li says.
Food choices can also disturb the yin-yang balance in children. Heaty foods are typically high in calories and cooked at high temperatures. Some examples include red meat, deep fried items, spicy dishes like curries, and chocolate. These foods, when consumed in excess, can result in heatiness and symptoms such as fever, a sore throat, mouth ulcers and excessive thirst.
There is, however, a place for heaty food in our diets. When taken in moderation, they can help improve circulation, dispel cold and stimulate the body.1
TCM physicians dispel excess heat in children mainly through herbal medication. Some common herbs prescribed to relieve heaty symptoms include chrysanthemum (菊花), mulberry leaves (桑叶), dandelion (蒲公英), honeysuckle (金银花), and barley (薏苡仁). These herbs are cold by nature and help reduce yang in the body, Mr Li says.
Beyond herbs, cooling food and drinks such as mangosteen, watermelon and green tea can also help. But care must be taken not to overdo these cooling food and drinks lest the child’s condition swings the other way. A cold constitution is marked by a pale complexion, cold limbs, sore muscles and joints, and fatigue.
It is also important to remember that heat itself isn’t a bad thing – in TCM, heat and cold must exist in equal proportions for good health. Bodies function optimally when there is a balance between yin and yang. “If you or your child have excess heat, then more cooling foods should be taken,” Mr Li says. “The opposite is true if there is excess cold in the body.”
1 Ministry of Health Singapore. (2015, November 9). What do ‘Heaty’ and ‘Cooling’ really mean? Retrieved from Health Hub Website: https://www.healthhub.sg/live-healthy/800/Heaty-and-cooling-09Nov2015-NHG