Welcome to Chinese Medicine Bristol's official blog! Here, Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez will share information about Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, how they work, and the latest research and developments related to TCM. You will also find knowledge and ideas on how to enjoy a full, healthy life that she has picked up over the course of 15 years of exploring the world of natural health

Monday 19 October 2015

Autumn lifestyle

Autumn - the beginning of the Yin part of the year
The yearly cycle, like everything else that exists, is an expression of Yin and Yang energies. With the summer over, the cusp of Yang energy is now gone and we enter a calmer, quieter, and more introspective season which is the beginning of the Yin part of the year. Many of us may already be feeling a need for extra rest, and may have even fallen with a change-of-season cold.  These are natural responses to the many changes happening in our environment which are an expression of the sudden inward movement of autumnal energy following the climax of expansion reached during the summer months. 

In the West, we tend to regard the seasons as mere climatic phenomena which can affect the landscape but do not affect us. This is a common misconception rooted in the removal from nature that so many of us experience today: we feel hot in winter and frozen in summer in our air-conditioned spaces, live under artificial lights unaware of day or night, and throughout the year buy all kinds of fruit and vegetables coming from all over the world in the local supermarkets. 

Something that the healthiest people on the planet have in common is not that they purposefully do things because they are considered healthy or eat specific foods because of the omega oil or antioxidant contents, it is that they eat what their particular land produces at each time of the year and observe traditional ways of living and preparing the foods that go in accordance with their environment and needs. In contrast with this, health-minded people in the West tend to go for the consumption of out of season “super foods” and relentless healthy regimes which do not necessarily keep us healthy or enable us to fight disease more efficiently.

Observing the changing needs of our bodies during each season is undoubtedly one of the keys to good health. This involves a fluidity in our habits that allows for seasonal produce to constantly be at the centre of our diets, and for adjusting our levels of activity and rest according to our bodies' requirements.

Autumn in TCM
Generally speaking, autumn is the season of harvesting, gathering, and preparing for the winter months, a time when the lushness of summer ripens up and gives way to falling leaves and fruits.  As we harvest and gather we also find all those fruits that, having gone off, need to be discarded.  This perfectly represents the most important functions of the TCM Lungs and Large intestine, the organs of the metal element whose energy is at its peak during this season.  The Lungs main function consists of gathering air and extracting from it the nourishment – in the form of oxygen – that serves as one of the principal ingredients for the making of Qi which will in turn fill our bodies with strength and vitality. The Lungs and Large intestine are also in charge of the elimination of waste products from respiration –carbon dioxide- and digestion so that they don't stay in the body and cause harm.  The TCM Lung governs Qi and its proper functioning manifests in vitality and constant renewal of our energy. Visit my post on the Lungs to learn more about this organ and how to maintain its health.

Another important function of the metal organs is to protect us from disease, which is an aspect of immunity. Being the most external of organs, the Lungs have the function of projecting outwards a protective energy  - Wei Qi - which is partly derived from the nutrients that we consume and acts as a barrier to invasive external pathogens. The Large intestine is also a main organ in our immune response as is the skin which in TCM is regarded as an extension of the Lungs. They are both in charge of fending off and eliminating harmful substances and waste products so that they don’t enter deeper into the body .  External pathogens most easily enter the body through the respiratory and digestive systems so the strength of the metal organs is considered of great importance.

If the energy of the Lungs is low or its flow impaired by blockage – usually in the form of phlegm and mucus along the respiratory passages – we may be more prone to catching colds, and develop coughs or allergic reactions during this season.

Staying healthy in autumn
In Traditional Chinese medicine texts, autumn is regarded as the season when dryness can injure the body. This is because in mainland China dryness is a prevalent condition at this time of year. Here in SW England however, the opposite is true. Our already humid environment becomes increasingly so, the air can turn soggy while moulds develop on trees and on the falling leaves.  For this reason, some of the Chinese medicine advice for this season needs to be adjusted to our different climate.

Whether we live in a humid or dry area, autumn is always about gathering what we need to be comfortable and well in the winter months, letting go what needs to be discarded so that we are not unduly burdened during winter, and setting up boundaries to protect us from the cold and from harmful external influences. 

Gathering and collecting:
At a physical level, this is represented by the need to prepare ourselves for the winter months when a strong body and immune system can ensure health throughout the cold season. After the more exuberant lifestyle of the summer, autumn calls for resting more and for consuming foods that are denser and richer than those we had in the summer to provide warmth and nourishment to the body.  

At a deeper level, the beauty of autumn leaves, the shortening days, and the chillier evenings invite contemplation and a look in. It is a good time to centre ourselves after the summer holiday and collect our thoughts so that we can start to plan and project into the months ahead.

Letting go:
This refers to an innate ability of the body to identify and discard harmful substances and waste products. This ability can easily get impaired when we either overburden the body with toxicity and/or allow tension and stress to build up inside us until we are literally unable to let anything out. Letting go thus implies a need to allow the body to do its job by helping it cleanse itself through the consumption of healthy food and plenty of fluid, as well as staying physically and mentally relaxed so that we allow things to flow in and out.

We may also need to eliminate certain foods and undergo a cleansing process to get rid of toxicity accumulated through the summer so that our immune system is not burdened and can protect us from illness in the colder months. The Lungs and Large intestine are particularly susceptible to accumulation and this can be very detrimental to their proper functioning. Making sure that we consume a diet that provides good nutrition as well as promoting proper evacuation is of particular importance to prevent disease. In addition, avoiding chemically-laden foods and reducing the consumption of mucus-forming foods such as processed foods, refined sugar, wheat and milk products can help our respiratory and digestive systems remain free of accumulations and blockages. This is more relevant when we live in cold humid climates like the one we have in SW England as environmental dampness and moulds can contribute to this type of accumulation and to the development of respiratory and skin problems.

At a deeper level, just as the lush trees need to lose their fruit and their leaves so that they can concentrate their energies inside themselves, also us need to focus on what goes on inside us. In TCM, grief and sadness are regarded as emotions of the metal element and many of us can indeed experience them more strongly at this time of year. Acknowledging and processing any unresolved emotions is necessary for us to be healthy and happy. Only when we let go of the past we open ourselves to enjoying our present life and plant the seeds of our future. After all, finding inspiration and energy for new projects and growth cannot happen while we are still attached to events, things, and people from the past.

Setting boundaries:
Amongst the TCM Lung functions it is that of providing a boundary between the body and the environment that enables goodness to enter – i.e. Oxygen – and keeps out harmful pathogens. Similar functions are performed by the skin and intestines both of which filter out what is harmful and allow nourishment of different kinds to go further into the body. In order for this protective energy to work optimally, we need to keep ourselves strong and also protect ourselves from harmful environmental influences. Keeping strong in this context is done by consuming nutritious food, accessing clean air, and performing breathing exercises, as well as getting enough rest to avoid over-exhaustion. All of this will ensure that plentiful Qi is made by the body.

A strong Qi however, may not be enough to protect us when pathogens are particularly strong. Because of this, we also need to put up physical barriers against the elements in the form of coats, hats, and scarves, and keep our bodies and environment clean and free of germs.  In TCM, Wind is considered an external pathogen which is the carrier of a 1000 diseases. This pathogen can “invade” the body easily during the autumn particularly through the neck and head, although it can also invade the skin when we are particularly susceptible to it. Wind can be a main factor in many conditions including the common cold, headaches, allergies and rashes.

At emotional and mental levels, the setting of boundaries involves understanding when we are allowing people or situations to override our needs, opinions, and desires. We often wait until we have become stressed, anxious, and even physically ill before we dare acknowledge that a situation or relationship is affecting us in a negative way. Yet it is always down to us to make things better for ourselves as we cannot expect a person or circumstance to go away or change on its own accord. I have experienced this myself and seen countless examples of it in the clinic: in the fear of disappointing others or speaking up, we may push ourselves to the point of making ourselves chronically ill. We then realise that there is no job or person in the world worth our health and that in fact we need to ensure our own wellness before we can be truly reliable, do our best, or look after others. Putting ourselves first and saying no without aggression or guilt are in this case important self-preservation tools born of self-respect rather than selfishness.                                         

Autumn diet
Although there are many diets around which seem to work for at least some people, the one thing that a healthy diet must consist of - for the most part- is natural fresh foods that do not contain any chemical additives, and which preferably are cooked from scratch. All the better if these fresh foods are in season and locally produced as well. Food loses nutrients in time so the further fresh food travels the less nourishing it is. 

If we make at least 50 % of our food fresh vegetables and fruit and ensure that our supply fluids and protein is adequate for our needs, we will be providing ourselves with good nutrition, protection from disease, and constant fuel for our energy. Following TCM views of the digestive process, it is preferable for us to consume cooked warming foods in the colder months. This means that soups and stews are commonly recommended over cold and raw foods. For more on this, have a look at the posts on TCM diet.

To enhance the energy of the Lung we invariably need to increase the energy of the whole body.  Making sure that we eat well and in a way that takes into account our digestive power is essential here as our ability to digest directly relates to our ability to transform food into energy or Qi. This means that for those whose digestive system struggles to process food, eating foods that are easily digested needs to be the focus of their diet so that food can be transformed into energy which will in turn fuel the digestive power itself. My posts on Qi and on the Lungs expand on this and explain how to maintain a strong Qi and healthy Lungs.

For humid areas like SW England, particular recommendations for this time of year are aimed to reducing mucus and phlegm formation as they can easily accumulate in the Lungs, respiratory passages and Large intestine and impair their function. Those with a tendency to congestion anywhere in the respiratory or digestive systems can benefit from avoiding mucus-producing foods such as milk and wheat products and refined sugar. Alcohol, sweeteners, processed and chemically-laden foods, and rich greasy dishes can also produce mucus and are best avoided. Adding small amounts of spices can be a good way to prevent phlegm and mucus from accumulating. Fresh ginger, thyme, and mustard seeds are particularly effective at this and can be added to meals on a daily basis. However, if there are signs of fever, flushing - especially night –, acid reflux or dryness anywhere in the body it is best to avoid these herbs as they are warming and drying.

Keeping the respiratory and digestive tracts free from blockage and accumulation benefits the functioning of these systems and results in enhancing the ability of the body to produce Qi. This can have a direct impact on our energy levels and immune response and can help us stay healthy through the coming winter months.