Even though we likely have more than a month of sunny weather to look forward to here in Portland, our calendars tell us that autumn is once again approaching. But, before the leaves fall to the ground, we have the glorious harvest season to look forward to. Whether your region experiences four seasons or only one, we all know the ways in which climate can affect our health and our outlook. This weeks health letter will explore this topic through the lens of the Chinese medical system.
The Five Phases or Seasons
In our western civilization, we learn that the years pass by in four distinct seasons—spring, summer, fall and winter. But, Chinese cultures recognize the existence of a fifth season, the late summer. As we enter this pivotal season, wedged between the yang of summer and the yin of autumn and winter, we will discuss the meaning and purpose behind this concept. But, before we begin, let’s unravel the philosophy of seasonal changes from the Chinese medical perspective and try to understand the symbolism embedded in it.
Within Chinese philosophy lies the concept of five seasons or phases. These phases apply to the yearly calendar, to the course of our lives, and to disease. The five seasons are spring, summer, late summer, fall and winter. And, the schema associates each of these seasons with one of five “elements”—wood, fire, earth, metal and water, respectively. The correlations between seasons and elements exist because each pairing relates to different gestures or expressions in nature.
For instance, the “wood” element represents the “bursting forth” energy of the spring with its new green growth, longer days and, usually, renewed vitality for patients. Rather than the log that you throw in the fireplace, the wood element is typically depicted by new green growth. Therefore, the bamboo plant most accurately symbolizes “wood”—rapid directional growth, strength and flexibility made possible by a hollow stem that bends easily without breaking. When speaking of medicine, the spring/wood phase relates directly to the liver, so this is often a good time to take part in a cleanse. But, this is also the time when liver conditions can aggravate due to climatic influences.
Moving on to the summer, fire represents this season with its hot, consuming inferno. The heat and long hours of sun during this season allow for the full maturation of nature’s bounty. Outside our window at Bambú, the trees and plants produce leaves and flowers in full bloom. The summer heat replicates a “rising up” energy, as heat rises in the atmosphere. During summer, metabolism kicks into high gear generating lots of expansion, growth and activity. This phase relates to the heart. So, summer is the perfect time to nourish your heart and spirit. The heat of this season should bring joy and maybe even a little added romance to a balanced heart.
We will go into detail about the important season of late summer in the next section. So, next, let’s look at autumn. The fall season begins on the equinox at the end of September. At this moment in the annual calendar, we turn the corner between more hours of light each day to more hours of darkness. This moment marks the movement into the yin seasons, fall and winter. Yin energy is downward and inward. And, autumn’s element is metal, which can be fluid to fit a form or can harden in that form. For this reason, metal represents transition—completion of the harvest and the beginning of the resting period. The organs associated with the fall and metal in Chinese medicine are the lungs and the large intestine. Because these are both organs of elimination, this season makes for another good opportunity to cleanse. But, while the spring cleanse may focus on promoting liver activity, this season’s cleanse should support the colon.
And, last, winter is the season of storing and hibernation. As with water, the winter element, which flows downward around any obstacle to rest at the lowest possible point, so does nature’s life energy during this part of the year. The purpose of this resting phase is to gather the required energy to burst forth again in the spring, energy is conserved as outer growth ceases. This period should consist of quiet, introspective renewal. Winter’s chief organs are the bladder and the kidney. Associated with fear and anxiety, this time of year can aggravate mental/emotional challenges for some people.
Water is that quality in Nature which we describe as soaking and descending. Fire which we describe as blazing and uprising. Wood which permits of curved surfaces or straight edges. Metal which can follow the form of a mould and then becomes hard. Earth which permits of sowing, growth and reaping. Shu Ching,-4th Century
Last Summer Harvest
The fifth season, late summer, usually begins around the third week in August and lasts through the fall solstice. A time of harvesting, fresh fruits and vegetables are in abundance at the local farmers’ markets. The season of the earth element, late summer energy combines the warmth and fullness of summer with the stillness and tranquility of fall, creating the perfect environment for ripening.
Transformation and transition epitomize this time of year represented anatomically by the spleen (and stomach) whose primary duty in Chinese medicine is to convert food into energy. Just as the stomach assimilates food, the earth element helps people assimilate life experiences. As food grows from the earth AND the ground anchors all natural things to it, the earth element has two key qualities, nourishment and stability. So, in balance, this should be a time of grounding, centeredness and belonging.
What is most striking about this time of year is the sense that time stands still. The peak of summer has passed and the days are shortening, but the leaves remain on the trees and warm weather continues. The descending essence of autumn has not yet arrived, but the bounding energy of summer has surely subsided. The yin and yang are finely balanced for this short 5-week season.
You will find a mild expression of the earth element also during the last 18 days of each of the other four seasons. In other words, the transitions between all seasons have an earthy aspect.
Suggestions on how to live it
Foods that benefit digestion: bamboo shoots & tips, celery, Chinese barley, Chinese red dates, ginger, lotus seeds, pineapple, red beans, red & white daikon radish
Nourish yourself well: prepare meals, eat with friends & family, chew and take time to digest, do not eat “on the go”
Do not overindulge in sweets or other stimulating foods, these will drain you during this tranquil time of year
Create a practice for recognizing and appreciating the “fruits of your labor”
Express and receive sympathy, compassion and empathy when appropriate
Experiment with canning and preserving summer fruits and veggies
Freeze foods for winter storage
Reconnect with family recipes – earth element is about nourishment from the “mother earth” and your own.
Head to local farms to harvest fruits in season (check the Sauvie’s island website – they usually post what’s up and coming: apples, etc.)
Till your garden to prepare it for next year
Journal about your summer adventures or make a scrapbook to preserve those memories
Store away all of your summer gear and clothing to make room for the cold weather stuff you will soon need
Load and organize photos from summer trips
We hope you found this information helpful. We strive to help our patients find a healthy way in the world. If you have topics you’d like us to address in future issues please let us know. We are always available for questions and comments.
The Physicians of Bambú Clinic