Photograph by Ada Be
In Chinese medicine summer is the season of the big yang and is characterised by the fire phase and summer-heat. While the British summer doesn’t immediately bring to mind images of sweltering heat, you can still take advantage of Chinese medicine nutrition and dietetics.
When the sun is blazing, barbecues and beer and Pimms in the park are popular. Unfortunately these things can be quite “heaty” for the body so don’t over do it, and balance things out with lots of fruit and vegetables which are in abundance during the summer. Seek out cooling food like salads, green tea, cucumber, tomatoes and spinach help disperse heat and calm the system.
Don’t confuse cooling with cold. Cold foods can impair the function of the spleen according to the theories of Chinese medicine. When the spleen is weakened its ability to transform and transport the nutrients from your food is also disrupted and it could lead to symptoms like indigestion, loose stools, lethargy or dizziness.
The spleen functions best when it’s given warm, nourishing food that’s easily digested. It is summer though, and who wants stews and soups in the heat?
You can have your ice cream and eat it too, but don’t overindulge and have five in a row. One of my favourite summer-time salads consists of little boiled jersey potatoes, stir-fried asparagus, cherry tomatoes and tuna all on a bed of salad leaves – served at room temperature.
Remember to wear SPF, a hat and sunglasses. Always have a bottle of water with you, especially if you travel on public transport. There is nothing worse than being stuck on a packed train or bus in the heat without any water to sip. Heatstroke is a very real thing that isn’t only seen in the tropics. Avoid being in the sun at its strongest (noon – 2pm) and go to a cool, shady place if you feel tired, or a sharp, “stabby” headache coming on.
Growing up, summer was a vast shadow stretching before us, the days spanning into weeks and then into months. What a luxury it was for my friends and I to have such a long period off school to indulge our imaginations and play to our hearts’ content.
The world today for many of us is a lot more complicated. There are many things whirring in our heads, what with all the caps we wear for the different roles in our lives. Use this time to remind yourself of what you love best and maybe, just take a step back and breathe. Sometimes we forget to do that, but it’s an awfully nice feeling to remember.
In Chinese medicine dryness is the governing factor of autumn. Just as the leaves on trees begin to dry and fall, the environment all around us is dry. Your hair becomes more prone to static, and the skin is less plump and vibrant than it was during the summer.
When things manifest dryness, wrinkles and lines appear, and in extreme cases cracks open and there is roughness. The moisturiser and lotion you used during the summer may not be enough. Although more layers of clothing are worn, do not forget to moisturise your elbows, knees and heels.
At the beginning of autumn the moistening residue of summer can still be felt, but as we go deeper into autumn and the weather turns cool we start to feel the effects of dry-cold coinciding with flu season. In Chinese medicine the lungs are considered to be most susceptible to dryness. When they lack moisture their functions are impaired and hence there is dry cough or a cough that causes pain in the chest. A warm mug of lemon and honey water every morning during autumn will benefit your system.
Now is the time for a two-pronged approach: eat to moisten and to warm.
Honey is a marvellous yin tonic and therefore perfect to combat dryness. Be sensible and have only a teaspoon or two at most. Pears and peanuts are also wonderfully moistening. Try pu-erh tea, which can be found in Chinese supermarkets. It’s a dark tea (very dark) and the flavour is strong but still clean and refreshing.
Have your fill of tomatoes before the winter, and include tofu, pine nuts, peanuts and pork. As the weather turns cooler add some warming foods that you had avoided all summer such as leeks, oats, cauliflower, beef and lamb. Deeper into autumn add garlic, cinnamon, chilli, ginger and onions to help stimulate the circulation of qi and bring the defensive energy to the surface which is important during a time when more people are sneezing on the packed underground.
As in all seasons, damp can affect the spleen’s functions, so move away from cold or uncooked food and towards soups and stews.
Make sure to have a scarf with you in case the wind picks up. Wrap yourself up well, especially around the occipital, the area at the base of your head and neck. If you get caught in the rain, a nice, hot cup of chai with some honey can be incredibly warming. Have it with a splash of milk.
Enjoy the spectacle of autumn, take in the gorgeous colours of the trees, the red and orange and browns. Soak up the rest of the sunlight during your lunch break. This is the perfect time to start a new activity – health and wellness resolutions are much easier to keep now than in the cold, dark winter months. The start of the shorter days and earlier darkness can affect some people. Try to focus and reflect, and don’t dwell on negative issues. Let go and breathe.
In Chinese Medicine cold is the governing factor of the winter. Just as we see a slowing down in nature with animals going into hibernation and plants harnessing its energy deep down in the roots, our bodies go through the same rhythm. After a year of blooms and growth, the main focus of winter is to reinforce our foundations to ready it for the following spring.
Now is the time of putting up the shutters as we leave the summer cottage. Dress accordingly – layers are essential especially with the cold-hot, cold-hot conditions of the heat turned up in buildings and on public transport with the chill of winter temperatures. The dryness we had in the autumn is still evident but now it’s more due to the wind and dry conditions of heating. Make sure to moisturise well after those lovely hot showers, and dab a little jojoba oil on your scalp once a week if you see a few dry flakes.
Unsurprisingly, cold is the main aspect we need to look out for during these darker months. This can be seen in as a cold sensation over the entire body or just an area, with clear mucus. Cold can often manifest in pain. This is simply due to cold causing the qi in the body to stagnate resulting in a blockage, and where there is a blockage there is pain. When the obstruction is removed the pain will subside.
This is why when you’ve had a particularly bad bout of the cold or the flu, you really feel the chills and the blocked up head, but you’re also sensitive to the body aches that seem to come from nowhere.
If you do feel yourself feeling a bit under the weather the best thing to do is to have a really hot shower letting the hot water to hit the occipital region, the bony area at the base of your head. Then jump straight into bed and wrap up under the duvet even if you’re not feeling particularly cold. The aim here is to try to get your body to sweat it out.
General pain symptoms, like chronic back pain or arthritis, which have been milder during the warmer months may become more severe during the winter. More attention to stretches, making sure to stay warm and having acupuncture could ease the discomfort.
Eat warming foods that strengthen the kidney, the “fireplace” of the body. Now is the time for those lovely casseroles, make them with beef or lamb. Duck and venison are also “warming” or try lentils, kidney beans or black beans. Have your fill of leeks, fennel, onions and root vegetables. Add ginger, garlic, black pepper and spices to warm the body and help the qi along. Avoid cold foods like salads straight from the fridge. You will notice your body naturally seeking less of the sushi and more of the stews. Snack on walnuts and black sesame.
It’s important you don’t go into hibernation mode and overindulge on comfort foods. Fast food, sweet and stodgy foods, dairy products, sugary soft drinks and alcohol can all lead to dampness and phlegm which can weaken the Spleen and cause problems such as bronchitis and sinusitis. Your body is just a like a house, and damp can cause both acute and chronic problems. Control your snacking if you know you have a weakness for biscuits and tea so you can be in the best possible shape to defend yourself against the excesses of the festive season.
Your body’s qi is more sluggish in the winter and whilst it’s important to help move things along, we shouldn’t force it to go at speed. With the holiday season it is easy to spread yourself too thin with work deadlines, parties and family commitments. Remember to slow down. Enjoy seeing your hometown during these darker days with the shops lit up. Even if the wind is particularly biting on that day know that winter doesn’t last forever so take every opportunity to replenish your body during this time.
Spring is a wonderful time when the days get longer and everyone steps out of the shadows of the dark days we’ve had. As much fun as the festive holidays and the New Year brought us, seeing daffodils in bloom do wonders to help shake the mental cobwebs.
Just like a bear coming out of hibernation, our yang qi is also coming out after having gone deeper into the ground during winter. This is a time of growth and development as the yang qi flows easily through our bodies.
Cast your mind to the first spring bank holiday – the great British Easter escape. Encouraged by glorious weather and a few days of rest, many choose this time to have a well-deserved break. Like yang qi, everyone flows along towards the main arteries of the country via cars, trains and planes. The extra surge of people (and possible engineering works and other delays) results in traffic jams and crowding. It’s all very frustrating.
Qi stagnation can cause pain and the one organ in Chinese medicine that detests stagnation the most is the liver. Liver qi stagnation can cause irritability, a sense of frustration or just simple crankiness. Add on additional lifestyle stresses like relationships or work, and it’s a sure-fire recipe to lashing out or feeling overwhelmed.
Physically, you may experience headaches (especially behind the eyes), dizziness or hypochondriac pain (tightness or sharpness along the side of your ribcage). You may feel thirstier than usual and occasionally have a bitter taste in the mouth.
Acupuncture can help “soothe” or “smooth” the qi in your body just as you would smooth out the creases when you make your bed.
To help your body awaken from its deep sleep (a gentle alarm is better than cold water in the face) try these tips to have an enjoyable spring:
1. Go outside and get some fresh air. If you’ve been cooped up indoors all winter only to brave the underground, now is the perfect time to get off one stop early and walk to your destination. The weather can still be a bit temperamental though, so do make sure you don’t under dress and end up feeling chilly.
2. Smile, de-clutter and plan. Just as you would spring clean your home now is also a good time to dream and plan for what you want in your life. Think about things you want to rid (physically or mentally) and do it! Organising during this time of year gives it a great sense of adventure – it’s no coincidence that many high school teachers prepare their students for university decisions during these months. Have a moment and think about what you would like to change.
3. A whole array of fruit and vegetables are in season again. Get in your dark leafy greens such as spinach and sprouts, but also have fennel and rice which are mildly warming. Just as you would start to put away your winter wardrobe, lamb, ginger and hot spicy foods should also give way to fresher, greener meals. The changes in the weather (chilly then warm then windy) mean you shouldn’t abandon warming foods completely and spring onions (and some ginger) are good to have in your kitchen.
4. Do some gentle stretching to keep the joints and tendons supple. Now is also the time to take up your favourite exercise again if you had been disheartened by the cold, dark days.
5. If you’re prone to seasonal allergies, take care of them now instead of waiting till the symptoms arrive.
6. Take care of yourself. Some people have a tendency to give it their all when spring comes around and then overtax themselves. Just remind yourself (because you do know yourself best) that you don’t have to take on the new hobby and marathon training and start that new class just because it’s the season of birth and growth. In the same token if you feel like you do have a little more to give, then definitely go for it.
7. Get a maintenance acupuncture tune-up. Even if you only have acupuncture a few times a year, a new season is a great reminder to have one to help rebalance little niggles, address existing issues or adjust your body with the outside environment.