The poet wrote, “April is the cruelest month.” Yeah, tell us about it! (in a sarcastic New York voice.) We’re snug in our caves, up all hours watching funny cat videos, finding alternatives to personal paper products, adding rubbing alcohol to dish soap as hand and floor wash. The word “Zoom” has taken on a new meaning as we reach out to friends, family and health clients. In the meantime Spring is here! Thank all the deities. The earth has decided to renew and so should we.
Traditional Chinese medicine practices an ancient seasonal art. We tune into Nature and, to our best ability, coordinate our activities, diet, and lifestyle to suit the season, avoid mental and physical damage and rejuvenate our resources as the time and climate require. Chinese doctor/herbalists, Daoists (Taoists) and Buddhists each have a somewhat varying approach for healing. Acupuncturists are used to seeing clients in pain suffering or fearing illness so our view of seasons is colored by detailed observation of symptoms, checking the tongue and pulse, and cautious health advice guided by targeted complex herbal formulas and energy treatments that spread through the body like a Qi map. We love our Daoist friends who mingle their spirit with the universal. Some spend the morning walking around geometric patterns on the ground while listening to mumblings of eternity. They live by the seasons and meditate on the Dao. I have greatly benefited from various forms of qigong taught by my friend Sharon Smith https://www.taosharon.com. Buddhists find chanting, prayer and service to humanity suit their path to the great beyond and future lives.
TCM and Daoist healers believe that Spring is the time of the Wood Element, impacting the liver, gallbladder organ systems, their functions and associated meridians. The liver acupuncture meridian begins in each big toe, moves to the top of each foot, up on the inner ankle and inner side of each leg toward the groin, through the uterus and testes area, the abdomen reaching the nipples, the thyroid located at the “Adam’s apple” and eyes. The liver has many functions, among them is giving nourishment to muscles, tendons and ease of joint movement. If physical or emotional tensions, injury or illness attack the pathway of the liver, in the meridian, the result might be nerve pain, cramps and spasm, PMS, liver pain under the right ribs, jaundice, hyper or hypo activity from thyroid; bulging eyes or goiter (hyper thyroid) or near-sightedness (hypo thyroid as possible cause.) If the liver is weak it impacts muscle strength, coordination and Qi circulation. You may feel dizzy from weakness, indecisive, you may drop things or bump into furniture.
The ancients loved metaphors and so do we. They wrote, in essence, in Spring be like a young, green tree. Stand upright, bend with the wind, don’t break. Don’t fall over from weakness, dizziness, or drunkenness. Keep your eyes on the road, choose carefully and carry out your plans with a clear vision. The liver energy system (jeu yin) is capable of making plans and gallbladder energy system (shao yang) is capable of accomplishing them. We get thrown off tract by abusing diet with congesting foods that are too sweet, heavy, greasy, fried, hard to digest, too hot and spicy causing allergies, spasm and sciatica, ouch. I have a client who suffered from sciatica pain which made it difficult for her to walk. She is a big time garlic lover. When I advised her to limit her intake to one clove or less daily while in acute pain, she rolled her eyes in disbelief. She contacted me a week later saying that stretches, pressing acupuncture points that I showed her on the gallbladder meridian to move inflammation downward, and eating less spicy foods (garlic) took away her pain.
The liver energy rises from earth, enters our inner core, sexual treasure box, digestive and heart centers and into the eyes and brain. The gallbladder meridian starts where the liver meridian stops on the face, at the outside edge each eyebrow, runs through each side of the head, causing a migraine if you overheat: If you drink, fret or work excessively or have a hormone imbalance. It travels down the neck, shoulders, ribs, buttocks, outside of legs to the toes. Buttocks down to little toes is the path of sciatica, a common Spring pain. The pain can become worse if hopes and plans are frustrated.
To over simplify: Liver and gallbladder meridians form an energy loop. The liver energy feels emotions and moves Qi in front meridians of the body (chest discomforts, ulcers from dumping acid, menstrual pain, frontal headaches for example) The gallbladder energy affects the yang muscles and nerves along its pathway from head to toe. They work in tandem. Find yourself in a tough situation and you may develop liver pain under the right ribs, a stiff jaw, a sick jaundiced headache, or a temper tantrum. When Wood overpowers Earth (spleen and stomach), liver fire or stuckness can aggravate problems associated with indigestion. A phlegm excess headache feels like a heavy weight on the top of the head, the head expanding or squeezed in a trap, often with nasal congestion, blurry vision and nausea. Unless we know how to balance flavors in cooking, simple pleasures like enjoying a nightly martini, a bucket of spiced chicken wings, an overdose of salty, hot, sweet foods can aggravate symptoms. Hot foods (like cayenne) stimulate/aggravate the liver; sour foods (lemon) drain it. Hot/spicy sends Qi and heat upward (yang); sour brings Qi inward and down (yin.)
If you are a young green tree (the healthy liver) your job is to stand upright. Uprightness is the result of upward and downward energy circulation (yang and yin) being in good balance. Trees reach for the sky with branches and leaves and dig roots deep into the ground. If vital Qi is too low and muscles weak lacking nourishment or from nerve problems, you may tip over. Trees in Florida’s sandy soil cannot anchor their roots deeply and are often blown down in hurricanes. A tree as well as your legs require blood and oxygen reaching muscles and nerves all the way to the extremities or you may experience numbness (neuropathy.)
Tonics vs. Colds/Flu
A tonic food or herb helps the body and mind to work better. They enhance vitality and may, according to their nature, improve energy, immunity, sexuality and have any number of health benefits. Tonics that increase yin (moisture and/or blood) in the tissue and fluids of the lungs, liver, or kidney are yin tonics. They help prevent inflammation and burnout. For example he shou wu (fo-ti) or American ginseng (quinquefolium, white ginseng). Tonics that increase metabolism or the function of organs are Qi tonics or Yang tonics. For example ginger increases stomach Qi.
It is important to note that ALL tonics should be avoided during a fever or cold/flu because tonics affect organs.
Taking a tonic during a cold/flu moves the infection or imbalance deeper into the body to impact organs, blood and vital Qi. Cold/flu fever and infection have to be addressed directly with antibiotic herbs and anti-inflammatory herbs as needed. Some of those herbs increase sweating to build Wei Qi and a deep-acting tonic interferes with that. One exception might be medicinal mushrooms such as reishi which may be taken to support Qi if a strong antibiotic weakens the body to the point of exhaustion.
Herbal combining is most important. Taking herbs at the same time creates an herbal combination. That is not as obvious as it sounds. Sometimes for the sake of convenience we take a handful of supplements without considering their interaction. I had a client who used a wonderful Ayurvedic brain and nervous system herb, gotu kola, with the intention to rejuvenate and improve his memory. To save time he once took gotu kola at night with an herb to increase circulation cayenne. He woke up at 3AM with a throbbing anxiety attack. Of course, he dumped hot pepper on his brain and nerves. Following is a neutral (neither heating nor cooling) tonic that improves muscle strength and memory.
Ashwagandha, the Ayurvedic herb sometimes referred to as Indian ginseng, enhances muscle strength and sexuality, reduces chronic pains and weakness in the lower back that improves with application of heat and/or massage. It helps support nerve fiber by protecting the myelin sheath. It is recommended for MS (multiple sclerosis) for that reason. Ashwagandha is a valuable adaptogen useful for many people faced with stress, exhaustion, insomnia, depression, emotional or physical upset from seasonal changes and functional paralysis (not resulting from injury). You might take 500 mgs. in a capsule or add ¼ tsp. of the powder to a cup of warm water, a little yogurt or apple sauce once or twice daily until you notice improvements. It has been given to women in India during the final trimester to reduce back pain. Consult your health provider before using herbs during pregnancy.
Liver Qi stressed from work, worry, bad habits, from yin deficiency, or from thinking about politics, easily over-reacts to shoot inflammation upward through the meridians making you feel dizzy with a stiff neck and shoulders, or develop muscle or tendon injuries, a headache, insomnia, blurry vision and blood shot eyes. You may even yell at someone or sulk, develop acne, or pounding PMS cramps. Fried foods, heating stimulants, sugar, alcohol and seasonal allergies aggravate internal heat. In Spring a green tree, lacking nourishment, may be blown down or become stiff and snap in the wind. Angry, frustrated people are rarely flexible. If there is spleen involvement, and there usually is, they may obsess about past hurts or future presidential elections.
The healthy tree stands straight but is flexible, bendable, and open to growth. What is the sage advice from the Yellow Emperor?
“The three months of the spring bring out the revitalization of all things in nature. It is the time of birth. This is when heaven and earth are reborn. During this season it is advisable to retire early. Arise early also and go walking in order to absorb the fresh, invigorating energy. Since this is the season in which the universal energy begins anew and rejuvenates, one should attempt to correspond to it directly by being open and unsuppressed, both physically and emotionally.”
~Huang Di Nei Jing
Spring is said to be a season of dampness. Winter was cold, dark and our Qi was directed inward. We enjoyed comfort foods. If we continue with rich, heavy or sweet foods dampness may collect in our middle, face and legs with cellulite and water retention. Dampness troubles the spleen. Spleen deficiency leads to the body’s inability to control flesh, we develop puffy water-logged skin, a large waist and obesity. Spleen/pancreas also controls the blood vessels’ ability to keep blood within its natural boundaries. We develop bruising.
Spring’s damp weather allows for new green growth on the planet. Winds bring seeds and pollen and therefore increase allergies. An allergy may be the liver or immune system over-reacting as though to say, “That’s not me!” An inflammatory reaction. Or the eyes and nose run. Nettle tea is a useful anti-histamine for Spring. It also helps our friends who have cat dander allergies. In TCM “wind” is external (in Nature) and internal (in the body.) External “winds” may bring disease and allergies. Internal “wind” (feng) may be a sharp nerve pain that shoots through the body like lightning. If Wei Qi is weak, windy weather and air conditioning can make our muscles stiff. Internal “wind” moves pain around, comes and goes, often feels hot.
Spring is associated with the color green. On this TCM doctors may differ from their Daoist cousins. Seeing a client who has a green coating on the tongue or a greenish cast on the face or jaundice with nausea, bitter bad breath, rotten body odor and thin wiry pulse, an acupuncturist knows that the stressed liver is charged with impurities and stuck liver Qi. Greenish or jaundiced skin or constipation indicates bile is stuck and flowing outside its normal pathway. The correct remedy circulates stuck Qi in the digestive/emotional center with the balanced Longevity Diet and ,as needed, an individualized herbal combination. Nam Singh suggests a slice of daikon radish with a pinch of salt daily to enhance Qi movement. I also like pickled ginger. Bitter pungent herbs stimulate bile production, blood enhancing herbs support emotional balance and normal menstruation and laxative or diuretic herbs drain water retention and inflammation called Damp Heat. Bile is laxative. When bile is adequate and moves freely we are comfortable in muscles and joints, not stiff and tight in the ribs, burping, nauseous, constipated and cranky.
I once had a lady client who suffered from terrible liver pains and a troubled love relationship. She thought she had hepatitis or liver cancer and consulted experts at Mayo Clinic. They found nothing wrong with her liver. Noticing her stuck situation I advised her to drink lots of soothing, alkaline, laxative aloe vera juice. She did, left the love triangle and recovered. In Spring, when the liver is sensitized, it is wise to avoid fist fights when changing diet and using herbal medicines. We can sometimes reduce damage to the body by adding seasonal foods and digestive herbs. A famous balancing Chinese pill remedy that I describe in Karma Herbs is Xiao Yao Wan recommended to correct stuck liver Qi in order to ease digestive, emotional and menstrual complaints.
Daoists may meditate on the color green to welcome the Spring. It brings grass, budding trees and cherished rebirth. The figure 8 is an important symbol in Daoism that represents life that neither begins nor ends but flows through time and space. We are surrounded by and are part of universal Qi. Each Spring is another chance to grow, broaden our outlook and try new adventures. Spring Qi movement is onward and upward.
At Academy of Healing Nutrition we celebrate spring with lightly steamed spring vegetables to cleanse the blood, improve circulation and support Qi. Spring time foods you might try include:
- Asparagus – raw or steamed, a helpful diuretic
- Brussels sprouts – cut in half, wait 15 minutes then steam
- Artichokes – an excellent food to heal the gut
- Radishes – reduce phlegm congestion and tone circulation
- Snap peas – sweet and delicious fresh or steamed
- Leeks and onion family – mighty germ killers that cleanse blood
- Fava beans – packed with nutrition
- Mushrooms – always except if you are allergic
- Bone broth soups – for bones, blood and jing
- Sprouts – try lentils, and mung beans that are organic, grown in sunshine, and carefully washed to avoid infection. Persons with a sensitive stomach or weak digestion should cook sprouts to be safe.
No herb or weed is too humble but may be prepared as food medicine. Prunella (xia ku cao) is a weed growing in the grass with tiny purple flowers. Sold as a dried herb in Chinese health shops and groceries, the tea is used to cool fever and treat chronic bacterial and viral infections, including herpes. Dandelion as a salad green is a liver cleanser that reduces water retention, cellulite, and cysts. Spring onion–sharp, pungent and blood cleansing–provides vitamin C and minerals including calcium. Research suggests that spring onions (scallions) may lower cholesterol levels, decrease the risk of heart attacks and strokes and have antibacterial and antifungal properties. Liver/gallbladder cleansing is a wise way to enjoy Spring. A proper use of the Five Tastes regulates Spring’s upward moving Qi to fuel new projects, strong muscles for exercise and a forward-looking attitude.
Food preparation is key. Someone with a weak digestion who eat lots of raw foods and cold beverages sends liver fire shooting upward creating headaches. Don’t start the day with a raw green juice if you have a weak stomach. You might have a cleansing drink of warm water or green tea adding a slice of raw ginger and fresh lemon juice. To prevent prostate pains and swelling, simmer a few green cabbage leaves in water for 15 minutes, drink the cabbage water before breakfast and wait for at least 30 minutes before eating or 2 hours after eating. Strewed cabbage water contains enzymes that help prevent prostate cancer and soothe Qi flow in the area. Spring morning is an apt time for a walk in fresh air or liver-healing qigong in your home.
The Strong Tree
Qigong brings together stretching, deep breathing, and concentration to enhance the free flow of Qi, bringing blood circulation and nourishment to organs, muscles and nerves, and refreshes the mind.
Stand comfortably straight with feet shoulder width apart and pointing forward. To center yourself create saliva by moving your tongue over the teeth, focus attention inward and swallow the saliva as you send it to the navel. Neck and shoulders are relaxed as your gaze is in front of you. Inhale into the lower abdomen and legs. Expand the lower back. The kidney energy (Water) feeds (Wood.) Inhale and exhale a few times inhaling into the center below the navel and exhaling downward through the legs to the feet.
When ready, Inhale as you softly raise your right arm overhead and bend slightly to the left in order to create space for the liver to breathe. Breathe comfortably into the liver which is under the right ribs while standing rooted strong and steady in the wind. Release murky emotions or illness. Exhale as you return to standing tall and lowering our arm while making a sound like wind slowly blowing through trees. Inhale as you lift your arm and bend left, exhale the sound as you gracefully straighten in the wind. You can be light as a blade of grass, the top part moves freely in the wind while the root is grounded in the soil. It is a beautiful wind that brings happiness. After enjoying this for as long as you wish, stand quietly absorbing the feeling of peace into our center.