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Eating for Health in Sync with the Seasons

Mary Lynn Morales, MS, L.Ac

Mary Lynn Morales, MS, L.Ac
Photo courtesy of Mary Lynn Morales.

Food that grows in the area where you live not only costs less, in terms of resources, to get to your fork, but it tends to be fresher and have more “qi”, or vital life energy – and nutrition. The longer food is “off the vine”, during transport and refrigeration, the more vitamins and life force tend to degrade within the food.

In my own personal experience of living on a farm, there really is nothing like eating food that you have literally just harvested, in terms of taste and satisfaction. This is a good argument for trying to grow a pot of tomatoes or some salad greens on a porch, or at least some fresh sprouts in your kitchen.

In general, one should eat plenty of fresh, whole foods in many colors and avoid processed foods as much as possible. Anything with the words “hydrogenated”, or “partially hydrogenated” should be avoided, as these fats are difficult for the body to assimilate. Healthy fats include avocados, coconut oil, fish and flax oils and even moderate amounts of ghee or butter.

And don’t forget to drink plenty of fresh water. Hydration is essential for health and healing. To add flavor and assist in detoxification, you can add some fresh lime or lemon to the water. It is also helpful to minimize the liquids that tend to drain water from the body (diuretics like soda, caffeine in coffee or black tea, and alcohol).

It isn’t just what you eat, but HOW you eat that can affect your health. Here are some general recommendations to help assimilate your food:

  • Eat only when you are hungry.
  • When you eat, don’t do anything else. Sit down, and enjoy your meal. Try not to argue at the dinner table.
  • Take a moment to relax before eating. Breathe deeply and prepare for your nourishment.
  • Chew, chew, chew! Eat slowly and be sure to chew your food well.
  • Eat only as much as you need. Eating slower will help you recognize that you are full before you are overfull.
  • Drink less during a meal, so that your digestive juices are not diluted.
  • After eating, relax awhile, then do some light movement, like walking, to help digest and assimilate nutrients.
  • Avoid lying down for two hours after eating, before bedtime.
  • Eat a balanced, varied and colorful diet, to maximize nutrition.

In Chinese medicine, we learn about the role of being harmony with nature to create better health and well-being, and in studying the seasons and elements, we discover the relative balance of those elements within our own bodies. We also use the concepts of ‘Yin” and “Yang” to represent how opposites balance and become one another. Our bodies are literally made up of this continual interchange of yin and yang – sleeping and waking, eating and digesting, anabolism and catabolism –the normal act of building up and breaking down tissues in the body.

Depending on your own personal constitution, you may have more relative heat (yang) or cold (yin) within your body. For instance, children have an abundance of yang qi, and are often seen racing out the door without their coats or even taking them off, because they are easily too hot. Older folks, on the other hand, are often cold, even indoors with the heater on, and often bundle up even in warmer temperatures. Of course, there are always individual exceptions. From a Chinese Medicine perspective, however, these are some basic ideas that can be very helpful in balancing your diet to optimize your health all year long.

Chinese medicine also incorporates the idea of Five Elements, or seasons. During each of these seasons, the weather and our bodies tend to differ – and our food needs are different. For example, in the summer, when days are long, and the weather warmer (yang), we tend to eat lighter foods, and more raw foods. In the winter, when days are shorter and colder (yin), we naturally gravitate toward warmer foods, cooked longer, roasted or stewed foods.

Let’s start by considering some of the seasonal associations within the Five Elements in Chinese Medicine. Once you have a grasp of these associations, the food choices can be customized to your own individual tastes and preferences.

In the Nei Jing, an ancient Chinese text, each of the Five Elements corresponds to one of the major internal organ systems in Chinese medicine, as well as a particular season. The Nei Jing also states that the energy in our bodies varies with the seasons. For instance, it teaches us that in summer, when days are longer, we have maximum energy and activity, and in winter, we are advised to go to bed early and rise with the sun, to focus on conserving and replenishing our energies.

bamboo

The Chinese medical system doesn’t use the same strict anatomical correlation to organs that Western medicine does. The “organs” in Chinese medicine describe functions in the body. For example, the energy of the Spleen in Chinese medicine correlates to the functions of the spleen, stomach, pancreas, and other parts of the digestive tract as we describe it in Western medicine. So, it’s more of a description of the functional aspects of digestion, than a literal organ, and it encompasses a much larger area of the body.

It is beneficial to attend to the health of each organ and meridian in its corresponding season. While an imbalance or illness can affect an organ during any season, many health problems can be treated, or better yet, prevented, by adjusting the diet – making it more warming or cooling – and by choosing foods to either strengthen or cleanse a particular organ.

In the Chinese system of Five Elements, Spring is associated with the element Wood, and the liver and gall bladder organs. Wood energy represents growth, and structures like roots, trunk, and branches of trees. In humans, the Wood element represents our spine, limbs, joints, tendons, and ligaments. It is associated with the color green, and the eastern direction, and the rising sun, and a fresh start to the day. Spring relates to wind, and the fresh new wind of Spring clears old stagnation and creates fresh air, like the transition from winter to spring. Spring is the season of planting, and new growth. Also, per the Nei Jing, imbalance in the Wood element can lead to problems in the tendons, muscle and ligaments. As martial artists, we should protect our tendons and ligaments in the spring by staying well hydrated, stretching sensibly, and eating lighter, fresher foods than we do in Winter.

Spring is a good time to indulge in more juices of fruits and vegetables, and reduce heavier, denser foods like dairy and meat. Many fresh greens and sprouts are full of new life energy and are helpful to the body now, as well as peppermint tea, which is said to “dredge” the liver, and aid in the spring cleaning process. Moderate consumption of sour flavored foods is good for the Wood element in the Spring. Lentils, sprouts of all sorts, chicken, lamb, and tart fruits like plums can all be beneficial in the spring.

In our next issue, we will continue our discussion of how to protect and heal the Wood element (tendons and ligaments), especially for female martial artists, along with some herbal first aid suggestions.

Mary Lynn Morales is a member of the PAWMA Board and a Licensed Clinical Acupuncturist. She teaches taijiquan (t’ai chi ch'uan) in Berkeley, California, where she has an active traditional Chinese medicine practice. Her column on traditional health practices will be an ongoing feature in the PAWMA newsletter.

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