Editor’s note: I’ll soon be joined once again by Cathy in regular health chats as part of the Aged to Perfection podcast. Listen for them soon! – Mark/Editor
By Cathy McNease, Herbalist
Imagine your energy is like that of a tree – if you observe the natural flow of the tree’s energy through the seasons, you get an idea of being in harmony with Nature. In the Winter the energy is deep in the trunk and roots, storing up for seasons to come. In Spring the tree’s energy moves upward and outward to the branches, forming buds. By Summer the energy is at its peak of expression in the leaves, flowers and forming fruits. Late Summer the fruits have formed and are becoming ripened, reflecting the tree’s strongest concentration of life force. Contained in those fruits are the seeds for creating a whole new generation of trees. By Autumn the tree’s energy begins to recede into the large branches and trunk, causing the unsupported leaves to fall.
With Nature as our example of balance, we can adjust accordingly for better health and well being, following the seasonal cycles. When our energy goes dramatically counter to this natural flow, we encounter health problems. For example, the excessive party behavior from November through January expends our energy, the opposite of storage – the net effect is high incidence of depression, anxiety and weakened immunity. A visit to the local farmers’ market, not the supermarket, will get you in touch with the fruits and vegetables that are truly in season for your locale.
According the Traditional Chinese Medicine, the seasonal associations are as follows:
~Spring – Liver/Gall Bladder (Wood Element)
~Summer – Heart/Small Intestine (Fire Element)
~Late Summer – Spleen/Pancreas/Stomach (Earth Element)
~Autumn – Lungs/Large Intestine (Metal Element)
~Winter – Kidneys/ Bladder (Water Element)
GUIDELINES for BALANCE
SPRING diet should nourish the Liver and help it to disperse stagnation, including plenty of dark leafy greens, sprouts, celery, lemon juice and green tea. Flax and sunflower seeds, mulberries and Gou Ji berries (Gou Qi Zi) will nourish the Liver. Light meats, legumes, whole grains and fruits round out the Spring diet.
Movement is essential!! Nothing will move your stagnation like exercise. Regulate sleep, with a goal of being asleep by 11. Late night eating or overeating interfere with restorative sleep and a healthy liver. Dandelion, milk thistle seed, turmeric, burdock and fennel all cleanse the Liver of toxicities.
SUMMER foods need to be light and easy to digest such as fruits, salads, grains and legumes, guarding against getting overheated AND overcooled. Both too much spicy food and too much cold raw food can lead to Summer time health problems. The goal is to stay cool and replenish fluids. Some bitter flavored greens can eliminate excess fluids and heat, often seen in swollen hands and feet in hot weather. Some spicy flavored herbs such as curry and peppers can open the pores, promote perspiration and cool the body, remembering that small amounts are balancing, while large amounts are harmful.
To prevent problems with Summer heat and dehydration eat watermelon, cucumber, summer squash, tomato and lemon. Herbs to drink as cool, refreshing teas are peppermint, hibiscus, chrysanthemum and green tea.
LATE SUMMER is the transition season between the warmth of Spring and Summer and the coolness of Fall and Winter, and is associated with our digestive system. The diet must be easily digested – complex carbohydrates, whole grains, legumes, plenty of vegetables and some animal protein. Herbs to facilitate digestion are ginger, cardamom, fennel and anise seeds.
AUTUMN is the time that our energy is moving inward, the direction of the sour flavor. Foods like sourdough bread, yogurt, and sour fruits can help our energy to move inward. Begin to eat more warming foods and root vegetables. Seasonal fruits such as apples and pears can be prepared with warming spices like ginger and cinnamon. For those who tend towards dry cough or dry skin during this time may benefit from pears and pear juice. This is a time to let go of the past and work on forgiveness. Grief, contained in the Lungs, is often expressed now. Foods to strengthen the Lungs include fish, papaya, carrot, sweet potato, soymilk and almond. Herbs to strengthen the Lungs include astragalus (Huang Qi), codonopsis (Dang Shen), American ginseng (Xi Yang Shen) and lily bulb (Bai He), all available from an Oriental grocery. If phlegm tends to be your challenge, include garlic, ginger, cayenne, citrus peel, and all varieties of onions.
WINTER is the time for storage, the time for conserving our energy and replenishing our reserves. Weak Kidney energy may present with a worsening of fears during this time of year. Exhaustion now is particularly harmful to the health, and may continue to be felt in the year to come. This is the time to be sure to get to bed early. Diet should focus on warming and strengthening the Kidneys, with a little more salty flavored food such as fish, seaweed, miso and tamari. Soups and stew are great for this season.
Warming and strengthening foods for Winter include lamb, beef, chicken, turkey, salmon, walnuts, chestnuts, garlic, black beans, oats, quinoa, cherries, dried fruits stewed with warming spices, and baked winter squash. Herbs for strengthening the Kidneys include Oriental ginseng (Ren Shen), cinnamon, dried ginger, cloves, and black sesame seeds.
So remember, our health or lack there of, probably began a season or two prior. Each meal is an opportunity for a healthier tomorrow! Begin today for a healthier year to come.
Cathy McNease is a nationally certified herbalist with a Diplomate in Chinese Herbology from the NCCAOM, a B.S. in Biology and Psychology from Western Michigan University and two Master Herbalist certificates from Emerson College of Herbology in Canada and East-West Course of Herbology in Santa Cruz. You can read more of her columns, advice and guidance in her collection, In Harmony with the Seasons: Herbs, Nutrition and Well-Being.