How to Stay Healthy All Year Long
Do you seem to catch a cold every time the seasons change?
Or maybe you’ve got some aches and pains that crop up with cold, rainy, or hot weather.
Seasonal depression? Mood swings? Allergies? Or just a desire to connect more fully with nature and the world around you?
These symptoms, and many more, are aggravated by being out of alignment with the natural world. The ancient books of Chinese Medicine promise that by following the laws of nature - the kind that are observed by all the living things on the planet – you will have a long, healthy life.
The most important of these concepts is Yin and Yang.
Yang is the active force, the sunny side of the mountain, and yin is the force of quiet, the shady mountainside. No doubt you’re good at the yang part of life: getting up early, staying busy at work, taking care of the kids, going to the gym, keeping up to date with your friends and social media accounts. All of this is obviously important for the good life. The yin side of life is a little more challenging for most of us: 7-9 hours of quality sleep every night, self-care, meditation and prayer, downtime and rest.
These forces must remain balanced in order to stay healthy. No doubt you’ve pushed yourself too hard at one point in your life, sacrificing sleep and self-care, in order to pass a test or meet a deadline. As soon as it was over, you got sick. You didn’t give yourself enough Yin to recuperate. It’s like a computer: if you use it too long or push it to do too many tasks at once, it malfunctions. You need to shut it down for a while so it will work optimally. But if you give it regular breaks, put it to sleep every evening, it rewards you.
Taking this one step further are the 5 elements.
Water, Wood, Fire, Earth and Metal. In each of these elements there is a season, a pair or organs, and actions associated with it.
Water: the element of Winter.
During this season animals hibernate, plants stop growing, the weather turns cold, everything is still. We can echo this in our own life by resting more, not working too hard (especially out in the cold weather). In Winter seeds sit in the ground, all their potential locked up and waiting for the right moment to burst forth. The effort to come forward is only as strong as the amount of energy that was gathered in its time of rest. We are the same. Winter is a great time to journal and make plans for what will be coming for the rest of the year. It’s the best time to stay home, curl up by the fireplace and get cozy with your family. It’s not a great time to work 10 hour days, to push yourself hard when exercising, to go outside without a coat, hat and scarf. Food should be warm and nourishing, think stews, meat, root veggies, nuts and seeds. Sesame seeds and seafood (this is the water element) are especially great support this time of year.
Wood: the element of Spring.
Once you’ve taken your due time to hibernate during the Winter, Spring comes bursting forth, with it’s fresh green sprouts shooting out of the ground, everything turning green. It is a time for action, for getting outside to exercise, getting up a little earlier. But beware; what we call “Liver Qi Stagnation” can pop up out of nowhere. After you’ve been still for a while, the first burst of energy can get stuck, or stagnant, and cause things like neck and shoulder tension, irritability, depression and mood swings, feelings of tightness in the chest and ribs, and breast tenderness. So start slow and work your way up to your full potential. Good things to eat through the spring season are leafy greens and sprouts of all kinds, fresh ripe berries and salads. Keep it light, fresh and seasonal. These foods also help move Liver qi, especially dandelion greens. Stay away from very heavy, greasy meals or too much alcohol this time of year.
Fire: the season of Summer.
It’s fitting that Summer correlates with the Fire element. By the time Summer arrives, the weather is hot! This is the time that flowers are blooming on the trees, the insects are busy pollinating, and the animals are busy mating. Again, this is a great time to be active, and staying up a little later, just like the sun. It s the perfect time to get to work on all those plans you made back in the winter months. But if you’re sensitive to the heat, you can end up with anxiety, insomnia, hot flashes, heartburn, rashes and more. To combat this, choose cooling foods like raw salads, watermelon, cucumber, coconut (water, milk, meat) aloe, and cooling herbs and spices like cilantro, cumin, and fennel. Again, heavy fried foods, spicy food and alcohol create heat in your body, so best to pass on these until later in the year.
Earth: late summer, and the transitions between each season.
Earth is a very special, unique element. You could say its season is “Late Summer” or “Harvest Time”, when the corn, wheat and vegetables are all ripening and ready for harvest. During this time you will start to reap the benefits of all those plans you made in Winter, and worked to bring about though Spring and Summer. However, the Earth element can also be seen as the transition period between each season. Your ability to adjust to changes, either in season, location, or life circumstances, is related to the health of your Earth. So if you’re having a hard time adjusting to the new season, or the new move, new job, new baby, etc, nourish yourself with whole grains, sweet potatoes, winter squashes, and any yellow/orange veggies. Since the Earth element is in charge of digestion, maximize yours by chewing your food well and paying attention when you eat. Also, this is not the time to be eating lots of raw foods – cook your food well to optimize assimilation of those nutrients.
Metal: the season of Autumn
And we finally come full circle. In Autumn the leaves turn colors and fall of the trees, plants stop growing and die back, and animals slow down. However, for many of us, we head back to school, or back to work after taking vacations in the Summer, and start working harder that ever. This is why so many people end up with colds and flus this time of year. To remedy this, slow down, start going to bed earlier and dial back the intensity of your workouts. We see the trees letting go of their leaves, so this is a great time to let go of what isn’t working in your life, whether it’s a bad habit or some negative emotional baggage. If you do end up catching a bug, or even just to prevent one, load your plate full of ginger, green onions, garlic and onions. And to support the health of your lungs, cooked apples and pears are perfect. Again, this time of year your food should be warm and nourishing, save the raw salads for Spring and Summer, and don’t push yourself to work too hard.
This may seem like a lot of information, but the concept is very simple: craft your own life to echo the natural world. Eat foods that are local and seasonal. Keep warm if it’s cold out, cool down if it’s hot. Step up the intensity of your movement when plants are growing fast and animals are scurrying, but when it slows down outside, it’s time to turn inward and reflect. After all, you can’t have yang without yin.
Elizabeth Williams is an acupuncturist in Greenville, South Carolina, specializing in pain management, women’s health, and psycho-emotional issues. She’s passionate about helping people feel their best and sharing her wealth of knowledge with the community. Elizabeth is the owner of Dragonfly Acupuncture & Massage, on Wade Hampton Boulevard. Appointments can be made by calling 864-451-4313, or scheduled online here.