April Crowell, Dipl. ABT (NCCAOM), AOBTA CI & CP, CHN
The days are growing shorter, the air has a crisp bite, the kids are back in school and the first leaves are starting to change. It’s not Summer anymore, yet it’s not really Fall either. We are drifting from Summer into Late Summer. Most of us have heard of Indian or Late Summer, there is a sudden warming glow again before Autumn takes hold. In Chinese medicine this is a special season all its own. In truth, the season encompasses four particular times of year, not just Late Summer. Late Summer or ‘Dojo’, as it is called by the Japanese, is the buffer between each of the four main seasons. It is a time of balance, a buffering from shifting from one season to the next corresponding to the week before and after each equinox and the solstice. This time of year is all about centering and it provides us some excellent opportunities to nourish our bodies, especially the digestive system.
The 5 Element Theory of Chinese medicine
Like Yin/Yang theory, the 5 Element Theory(or Wu Hsing) is a founding principle of Chinese medicine. Each of the 5 Elements (Fire, Earth, Metal, Water and Wood) describes the natural dynamic flow of Qi through correspondences for season, flavor, organ, climate condition, sound, time of day, and emotion—to name a few. The list goes on, literally everything can be placed into one of the elements. By understanding the 5 Elements and their nature we can use them to both prevent and treat imbalances. Read more.
Why do we care about the seasons?
All seasonal changes represent the possibility for change in our lives. To be clear–we don’t have to become slaves to the season, hunkering down in fear of the elements. Rather, understanding the energetic nature of each season helps us to adapt to the rewards that each offers. For example– knowing that Spring’s climate is wind, helps those that are susceptible to wind conditions (epilepsy, headaches, anger, allergies) be a bit more prepared. Summer is a time of growth, expansion and heat. Winter of time of contemplation, deep inner reflection and the season is dominated by cold. This awareness can help us become flexible, we can embrace and benefit from the virtue and blessings each season rather than fight them.
Back to Late Summer
Ruled by the Earth element, Late Summer (yeah, it’s called that even if it’s the Spring equinox) represents the core of the body, balance and neutrality. It’s the Goldy Lox season, where we don’t want extremes…nothing too hot, or too cold…but just right with a little cooling or heating as needed. The season governs the Stomach and Spleen (and Pancreas), it’s our digestive vitality. Think of it as the kitchen or center of the home in your body. These organs that are responsible for transforming food and drink into what what will become the Qi, Blood and Fluids and Essences the body needs for–everything. When the Earth Element is in virtue (or in balance) we are able to nourish ourselves and those around us without in a supportive manner. We give and receive appropriately. In balance, the Earth element gives us strong muscles, vibrant energy and the ability to think and study clearly. Out of balance the body is weak, the muscles flaccid, there is often obesity and disharmonies of the digestive tract. We see a lot of candida, diabetes, MS, fibromyalgia, IBS, prolapse and failure to grow and thrive in children. When out of balance, the Earth element will be ingratiating and overly nourishing to the point of smothering–sticky, sticky gooey….
Earth Element Correspondences–just a sample
Each of the 5 Elements contains numerous correspondences that help us assess personal patterns and treat disharmonies in the body. Let’s start with a simple list and then delve.
5 Element: Earth
Season: Late Summer and the transition of all season, equinoxes and solictices
Yang Organ: Stomach. Under the control of the Spleen the Stomach is responsible for properly “rotting and ripening” our foods. As the “origin of fluids”, the Stomach requires adequate Yin in the form of enymes and fluids to digest foods. It also dislikes being too hot and dry which happens when we eat too many hot, rich, or spicy foods or become dehydrated. However, don’t flood the Stomach with too much drink while eating meals, which will dilute out the enzymes that the Stomach is trying to churn with the food. The Stomach is also damaged when we eat hurriedly or fail to properly chew our foods to mingle salivary amylase with our foods. Slow down, chew and limit your fluids with meals to about 8 oz…it makes a huge difference.
Patterns of Stomach disharmony include:
- Stomach Yin deficiency—may appear as GERD, ulcers and heart burn
- Stomach Qi deficiency—slow digestion, gas, bloating, sensation of fullness in epigastrium
- Phlegm fire– Fire agitates the mind and causes mental symptoms which can manifest as shutting oneself in the house, closing all doors and windows, wanting to be by oneself, uncontrolled talking, laughing or singing. Violent behavior and taking off one’s clothes–modernly called manic behavior.
Yin Organ: Spleen (& pancreas). The Spleen is the controller of the digestive function, regulating, balancing and nourishing. The Spleen governs “Transformation and Transportation of Qi and Fluids” or T & T. It oversees that the food and drink is transformed into Ku Qi, which is the basis for all production of Qi, Blood, Fluids and Vital Essences in the body. The Spleen’s next job is to then transports the refined parts of food to various organs and parts of the body for further refinement. This separating directing process is crucial to easy and proper digestion. If T & T is good, the appetite will be good the person will have normal absorption and regular bowel. If the functioning is impaired there will be poor appetite, bad digestion, abdominal distention and loose stools and dampness will arise.
But wait! There’s more. The Spleen controls the muscle and in health the muscles and flesh will be firm, strong healthy. The person will feel weak and weary. The state of the Spleen is the most important factor in determining the amount of physical energy a person feels.
The Spleen is the origin of Blood. Proper T & T is essential for the generation of Blood. Deficiency of in this area will appear as slight Blood deficiency to anemia.
The Spleen produces a lifting effect along the midsection of the body keeping the organs in their places. If the Spleen is weak there will be prolapse.
The Spleen loathes cold and dampness with chill the digestive fire and create heavy, thick and sticky body patterns like yeast, weight gain and edema.
Patterns of Spleen imbalances include:
- Spleen Qi deficiency–exhaustion, fatigue, lack of appetite, undigested food in stools, loose stools. Seen in patterns like MS, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue.
- Spleen Yang deficiency–slow digestion, weight gain, prolapsing of organs.
- Spleen Damp–aching muscles, exhaustion, nausea, vomiting, chronic infections, allergies, chronic fatigue pattern, and yeast.
To recap–the Stomach and the Spleen together are called the “Root of Post-heaven Qi” because they are the origin of Qi, Blood, Fluids and Essences produced after birth. If you have digestive vitality, you have health. Even in disease if we find a strong Stomach and Spleen pulse the prognosis for recovery is good
Color: Yellow–golds, oranges and browns. Many of the Earth nourishing foods have warm, inviting tones. Think of the flesh of winter squashes and whole grains like millet.
Climate: Dampness. Each Element is prone to a certain climatic condition–and Earth loathes Dampness. Dampness bogs us down making us slow and sluggish, unable to focus. It promotes excess weight gain, digestive and sugar imbalances. And it softens the muscles, threatening the very integrity of our structure. Dampness exists on a continuum. Slight dampness might appear as water retention, at the other extreme it is phlegm, accumulation and masses. Damp patterns include: Edema, cough with phlegm, rheumatic conditions, yeast, sinus infections, diabetes, ADD, ADHD and many chronic pain conditions. The biggest cause of dampness in most Americans is diet related–excess refined carbohydrates, sugar, chemicals and too many raw, cold foods.
Flavor: Sweet. The Sweet flavor is the most abundant, yet most abused flavor in our society. Let me explain. Sweet exists on a continuum from empty sweet like sugar and refined carbohydrates to full sweets like pumpkin, whole grains, roots, lentils, legumes and meats. Sweet is abundant because it is the core food for the body. However, Americans especially have become addicted to empty sweets like sugar and refined grains, which damage the Spleen and pancreas by spiking the blood sugar and providing little nutrition. A full sweet like lentils, roots and grains take far longer to breakdown, provide more nutrients, and are packed with fiber which helps stabilize blood sugar. Whole fruits are toward the full sweet end of the spectrum, while fruit juices land somewhere in the middle of the continuum, being very sweet and often robbed of their fiber, their condensed sweet will trigger an insulin response, so use them cautiously, they are not a replacement for eating the whole food. Read more on Sweet.
Virtue: Integrity and reciprocity are Earth’s virtues. Allowing us to have strength and stability in body, mind and actions. As well as, to be able to receive and give in meaningful, mutually beneficial ways. Out of balance, one overly gives and might be cloying and ingratiating. Gooey!
Sound: Singing–those with Earth as a dominant element with have a lyrical voice.
Tissue: The flesh and muscles. When the Earth organs are strong we have firm muscles and lasting energy. You can dance and bound up the stairs. When Earth is weak, the muscles will be flaccid, tire easily and prolapse of flesh and organs may arise–like a landslide, the form can’t be held. It’s a two way street here. When we support the Earth element with appropriate food it allows the muscles to stay strong or build, likewise physical activity is imperative to strengthen the muscle which will in turn strengthen the Stomach and Spleen.
Strengthening and Stabilizing the Earth Element and the Late Summer Season
Create healthy eating habits–Earth is stability and integrity and to nourish we must look at to our relationship to food and how well we digest (or transform) that food into usable Qi, Blood and Fluids. The Earth organs are injured by inappropriate eating habits–from eating too many rich and sweet foods, skipping meals, eating in a rush to eating with people you don’t like. One of the first places I start people who need to heal their digestion is with the simple process of eating at regular times and slowing down enough to actually chew their food. From there we can broaden and refine your eating habits.
Avoid damp forming foods–Sugar, chemicals, refined carbohydrates, excess gluten, processed grains, cheese, greasy, fried foods and dairy. Damp foods bog down the system and create a muzzy unfocused sensation. Examples of damp patterns include: ADD, ADHD, IBS, arthritis, MS, fibromyalgia, chronic aching conditions and candida–to name a few.
Clear up the carbohydrate conundrum–I tend to cringe when someone says they are cutting out carbohydrates. Carbohydrates provide energy, going without for a short cleanse or fast might be okay here or there…but it’s not a way to support your body. The problem lies in understanding carbohydrates and how your body likes to use them. Simple carbohydrates like sugar, refined grains, flours and pastas are too simple. They break down too quickly in the body often causing a spike in our blood sugar–which damages the Spleen and Pancreas. But the body loves complex carbohydrates like those found in lentils, legumes, roots, winter squash and whole grains (those that still have their fiber intact). The more complex the carbohydrate the longer the body takes to digest the more it actually aids in stabilizing blood sugar. Complex carbs are packed with fiber, some soluable and some insoluable–but is essential in regulating the Earth element and it is missing in most refined foods.
Eat warm foods and soup–The Spleen doesn’t like to be cold. Too many raw and cold foods will chill the digestive fire. To warm up the support the digestion avoid cold and warm and start warming your foods up. Truly, soup is one of the best foods for the Earth element. Already warm and cooked, the Stomach and Spleen don’t have to work as hard to break it down and begin refining.
Eat Full Sweet and Neutral temperature foods–It’s the biggest category of food…so hopefully, you can find something you will eat in it. To heal or benefit Earth, choose most of foods to not too heating or too cooling, but just right…just perfect for a balancing. Most of these foods are your classic staples that are readily available with each season as they store well or can be dried, etc. If you eat real food, you are eating full sweet.
Winter squash–Neutral to warming in temperature the hard skinned winter squashes that are coming available now are the perfect Earth food. Young and old, well or ill, these are one of my top recommendations. Try pumpkin, butternut, delicata, hubbard, turban, acorn and spaghetti. Each is sweet and then might have a little hint of another flavor. For example: butternut and pumpkin are very sweet whereas acorn has just a hint of bitter too.
Lentils and legumes–Yep, everyone of them from slightly sour red lentils to the very sweet aduki beans. The more variety the better. Most lentils and legumes range in the neutral to slightly warming category.
Whole grains--Again, neutral to warming in temperature, all grains are sweet. Keep the grain intact or else it’s not whole… Teff and buckwheat are sweet and bitter while many of the rices are very sweet. Quinoa and millet have a kiss of sour.
Root vegetables–Many are neutral to slightly cooling or warming. Beets, carrots, parsnips and potatoes are very sweet. Onions, radish and turnips add varying degrees of pungency to their sweetness. Garlic and horseradish are hot.
Whole fruit–Fruit is sweet and most run in the cooling to neutral category. Peaches are warming, though. Fruits have varying degrees of sour or bitter. Berries are sweet and sour, apples sweet and slightly sour, bananas are very sweet. Be cautious with fruit as their sugar is very concentrated and rich. Try to eat the whole fruit with fiber intact and avoid fruit juices.
Meats–Yes, meat is sweet. Just chew your meat of choice a little longer. The sweet is there, but it is subtle and bound to other flavors in a very dense form of food.
Nuts and seeds–Neutral to warming. All are sweet.
Some leafy greens–This is the one food category that doesn’t just scream with sweet flavors
Exercise–the Earth element is injured by inactivity. This doesn’t mean you have to run a marathon. It means appropriate exercise for your situation. For some, a walk around the block is an excellent starting place.
Warm up–The Spleen is damage by excess cold and raw foods that snuff out the digestive fire. If you have Spleen Qi deficiency, eat your foods warm and eat lots of soups and stews–the perfect Spleen foods.
Add in warm and neutral pungents—The moderate regularly use of spice and pungent foods in the diet to create a deep overall warmth that strengthens, tonifies, supports and moves out phlegm. No flash of fire here to push excess out. Consider the difference between a applesauce with a bit of nutmeg and ginger compared to a hot curry that makes your sinuses run immediately.
Warm pungents include: onions, cabbage, brussel sprouts, coriander, mustard leaf, lavender, oregano, basil, savory, tarragon, rosemary, sage, bell peppers, parsnips, juniper and tea tree.
Neutral pungents include: sweet potatoes, turnips, coriander and taro.
Although you can strengthen Earth at anytime, the Season of Late Summer is a particularly beneficial time clear phlegm/damp and create stability in the body.
Here’s to your integrity,