Monday, April 2, 2012

Health In The Spring - TCM

Local Seasonal and Yummy

Studying, reading, and trying to familiarize myself with Traditional Chinese Medicine has been a hobby of mine for quite some time.  I have been known to pick up and relish an exhaustive tome on the subject as if it were recreational reading.  I particularly value the poetic elements of TCM and how the descriptions of human health and its myriad conditions are often taken, as they should be, from the natural world around us.  The naturalistic terminology of TCM evokes images that carry value and meaning and help me see myself as an inseparable part of nature.

TCM - especially considering that it could easily become a lifelong subject of study and observation (and did I mention obsession?) - is a daunting and broad subject to take on in one blog post.  So perhaps as the saying goes - I might consider eating the elephant one bite at a time - and plan to re-visit the subject in the coming months. 

Today's bite will be about harmonizing with spring.  TCM is all about harmony - or what we might call dynamic harmony - or the ability to maintain health while attuning to climatic and seasonal change.  In other words we must not always do the same things, eat the same things, or think the same things all year long and expect to maintain health.  We must adapt and change.  The human species has demonstrated what I consider a remarkable and almost opportunistic adaptive capacity in its ability to survive very challenging environmental stresses over the millennia.  However, as we know surviving is quite different from thriving.  Today I would like to take a look at some of the simple things we can do to help ourselves - not just survive - - but thrive in the coming months.

Seasonal Attunement and the Ability to Adapt

In TCM there are 5 seasons of the year which coincide with the 5 elements - earth, metal, water, wood and fire.  The ancient Chinese believed that the seasons have a profound cyclical effect on human health and well-being.  They believed that we are influenced by climatic change and that an important expression of human health is the ability to harmonize with the season.

Winter - Water
Spring - Wood
Summer - Fire
Late Summer - Earth
Autumn - Metal

This makes logical sense if we think of the season of spring (March 21 - May 31), for example, and how as we leave the long dark months of winter behind and the warm spring days approach our body and our mind must make day to day adjustments to the change of season.  In winter our blood becomes thicker in order to keep us warm.  In the spring we must begin to lighten up our mind, our bodies and our diet.  Seasonal change can become a stressful experience, fraught with illness and imbalance, or it can be an invigorating challenge.  It is helpful to know that the process of adjustment and the human adaptive capacity is enhanced when we know how to choose and prepare foods that harmonize with the season that we are in.  Eating local and seasonal foods is one of the most powerful ways to stave off illness and imbalance at all times of the year - but especially in the spring.  For, in my mind at least, spring is an especially dangerous and treacherous season - often fraught with health challenges and illness.

For me spring has always been an uncomfortable time of year.   It is a challenge for me.  I often feel over-stimulated or stirred up to the point of discomfort.  I want to do everything at once.   I want to take on too many new projects, clean the house and every cupboard in it etc. etc.

 I like the opening of T. S. Elliott's "The Waste Land"

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding   
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing   
Memory and desire, stirring   
Dull roots with spring rain.   
Winter kept us warm, covering            
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding   
A little life with dried tubers.

So here we are in the midst of spring when everything around us is stirring and awakening.  How do we stay well?  How do we stay in balance?  We may begin by observing the plant life around us as it pushes upward from the dormancy and restfulness of winter.  We can begin by noticing the color green which is both cleansing and renewing - not to mention pleasing to the eye.  Spring foods are foods that bring balance and health to the liver and the gallbladder.  The diet during the spring should be the lightest of the entire year because the body must cleanse itself from the heaviness of winter in order to prepare for the coming summer.  The emphasis in spring should be on young plants, fresh greens, mildly pungent vegetables, herbs and seasonings, and salty or sodium rich foods.

It is nice to give the liver an occasional seasonal rest from all the work that it does.  Gradual dietary modifications are usually sufficient to keep things running smoothly through the spring.  Gradual changes are infinitely more gentle and restorative than the more extreme liver/gallbladder cleanses we have all read about.  We are often tempted to think that if a regime is sufficiently uncomfortable then it must be good for us.  I tend to favor a moderate middle path and have noticed that those who do extreme cleansing diets quickly rebound right back to their former dietary excesses.  In my mind it is far more comfortable and convenient to make gentle cyclical lifestyle modifications that naturally accommodate our condition and the season we are currently in.

Though I am certainly not an advocate of low-fat diets (adequate fat is essential for proper gallbladder function) during the cleansing months of spring it is often wise to gradually reduce fatty foods which can, in some cases, contribute to liver stagnation.  The foods that are high in saturated fats are lard, mammal meats, cream, cheese, and eggs.  Even excessive amounts of nuts and seeds can throw the liver out of balance in sensitive individuals.  Intoxicants, chemicals, highly processed and refined foods are stressful to the liver.  Emotional stress or unexpressed emotions are also stressful to the liver.

Foods that help harmonize the liver and that should be emphasized are sparing portions and leaner cuts of meat, fish, and poultry, with plenty of organic vegetables, legumes, and moderate amounts of grains (my preference being non-glutenous grains such as rice, quinoa, millet, or buckwheat) that have been properly prepared.  A little bit of the bitter flavor and the sour flavor will also help to reduce the excesses of winter.  Lemon, lime, and grapefruit have both the bitter and sour flavor and can be used to enhance vegetable preparations and light salad dressings.  Other bitter foods are romaine lettuce, asparagus, and dandelion.  Foods that help build the blood and nourish the liver are organic chicken liver, organic beef liver, and green chlorophyll-rich foods such as dark green leafy vegetables, parsley, and kale, sea vegetables, watercress, dark grapes, blackberries, huckleberries and raspberries.  Mildly pungent foods are a real treat for the liver.  In the spring we can eat mildly pungent foods such as baby beets and their greens, baby carrots, cabbage, turnip root and greens, kohlrabi, cauliflower, broccoli, brussels sprouts, strawberries, peaches, and cherries.  We can season our meals with mildly pungent herbs such as basil, sage, fennel, fresh ginger, and anise.  However, fiery hot pungent foods such as hot peppers and garlic are strong and will often over stimulate the liver.

Cooking in the spring can be done at a higher temperature and for shorter periods of time - so that the vegetables are somewhat crispy - as opposed to the longer slower cooking methods that we favor in the winter months.

Taking a brisk walk in a green park or woods, while breathing deeply, is a great way to love your liver.  Let the color green nourish and soothe your eyes.  Cleaning out a closet is a good and therapeutic spring activity as long as you are not tempted to become impatient (spring fever?) and take on too much at once.

Below is a check list of some emotional and physical signs of liver imbalance.  I find the list of emotional symptoms interesting.  (To keep things simple you might think anger and all her step sisters?)

Emotional repression
Poor judgment
Difficulty making decisions
Mental rigidity
Explosive personality

Physical Signs of liver imbalance:

Chronic indigestion
Menstrual problems
Rigid inflexible body
Stiff neck and back tension
Eye problems
Muscular pain
Tendon problems
Dry eyes and weak vision
Ringing in the ears
Pain the comes and goes
Pulsating headaches

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