Autumn in Chinese Medicine is the time of falling, hence its secondary name. Spring up, Fall down. In fact we even use the word autumn to describe a period in the human life span, the autumnal years, a period of beautiful maturity that is also verging on decline. In Autumn the celestial Qi, which is another way of describing the effects of the sun, moon, stars, and of course the weather (that in turn is a function of the effects of the sun in terms of the seasons), recedes in Autumn from its full bloom of summer. The solar energy no longer radiates directly onto our heads, but slowly falls down lower and lower on the southern horizon (if you live in the northern hemisphere), so that by winter shadows are long and the sun’s rays slant. The sky gets dark early, and the air gets cold, exerting its contractile force on beings and things. What does cold do? It slows things down. Water turns to ice, some mammals even hibernate, even decay comes to a halt in the deep freeze of winter. Just like in your freezer. Autumn is this transition, this falling down from the full bloom of summer to the full stop of winter. In Fall the Celestial Qi presses down upon us, and there is a natural sense of sadness due to a very natural loss, the loss of flowers and fruits and sun. This is why the natural emotion of Autumn is sadness. And in Chinese Medicine grief affects the Lung Qi. But at the same time, like middle age, Autumn is still beautiful and to be celebrated, as indeed many cultures do, it is resplendent in the harvest of youth/Summer, and if we harvest that youth well, we can rely upon that store house in winter, as in old age. In Chinese Medicine that harvest occurs through healthy mind, lifestyle, and diet, as we shall see.
Heat, Light, Movement, Yang, Heart, and Mind.
In response to this withdrawal of life-giving heat and light in Autumn, not only do the leaves fall off trees, but the sap in plants, even the essential oils, move down into the roots. Does anyone really think that this natural phenomena effects plants but not humans? You need go no further than seasonal affective disorder to understand how it affects humans, or go to any mediterranean beach and see how many Scandinavians, Germans, and British have fled towards the sun. Chinese medicine really emphasizes that the Sun is the life-giver. We call it yang. All of Chinese Medicine Philosophy revolves around preservation of the Yang. In the body the Yang is associated with heat and motive force. Without heat you die. In fact, what is the difference between your body moments after death and moments before? Qi and Yang, life-force and heat. The body grows cold, as in winter, but, but, the structure before decomposition begins is identical. The house remains, but no one is home. Religion’s call that the soul. Chinese medicine call it yang, and it gets depleted and scattered through activity and movement. Healthy activity keeps blood and fluids circulating, unhealthy movement depletes the yang. One kind of unhealthy movement of yang that is depleting, that scatters the yang and qi (below, referred to as will/Zhi) is unhealthy mind. Unhealthy mind is the inability to be calm and at peace. In the east this is the goal of life, along with wealth and family. Being unable to stop thinking at night, for example, needing to always be active out of anxiety or fear, living in constant frustration, with the nervous system ramped up, this scatters the yang and qi that needs to be stored by the Heart and Kidneys, so now there is nothing to be stored when winter comes.
As You Sow, Shall You Reap: Cold Damp Food leads to a Cold Damp Winter
Autumn harvest. We reap in Autumn what we sowed early on. This has to do directly with our health. How? It has to do with our immune systems first of all. If we over did cold energy foods in the hot weather, (and over did here depends on your type: pittas need more cooling, vatta and kapha more warming) then we are more likely to succumb to colds, flu, and respiratory infections in Fall and Winter. Why? Because digestion is a warm process of transformation and extraction, so when we chill our digestive tract we develop toxic by-products that make heavy what should be light. There is a thick greasy tongue coating and the body and its secretions become heavy and have a bad odor. Makes heavy what should be light refers to dampness in Chinese medicine or Ama/toxins in Ayurveda. This dampness spreads to the cellular level and also to the lungs. Even the cerebral spinal fluid which should be clear becomes murky. Just imagine. We now know that one of the jobs of the CSF during sleep is to “wash” the brain. Do you want your brain washed by murky fluid? No wonder we get mental fog after insomnia and no wonder people with chronic fatigue and yeast issues complain of mental fog at the same time as they have so many symptoms of dampness and Ama.
The Delicate Organ
The lungs are called the delicate organ in Chinese medicine. In ancient drawings of the internal organs the lungs look like the canopy of the forest. Because the lungs are the highest organ and because they are the most superficial, the most exposed to the outside of the body. We inhale every few seconds, grasping the Qi of the air and transforming that Qi into energy via the blood stream. We inhale through the nose, so the entire respiratory tract, upper nose/sinuses trachea, and lower, bronchial tubes and lungs are part of the Lung system that the Chinese view as a singular element in the bodily process.
The lungs are the delicate organ because they are the most superficial, the most exposed to and vulnerable to the elements, for example people with weak Lung Qi start sneezing or get nasal congestion with sudden change of weather. What is change of weather? Its nothing more than a change in the air that you breathe into the lungs, and feel on your skin which is considered the tissue associated with or governed by the lungs. And notice, eczema and allergies/asthma are in the same category of allergic disorder even in western medicine. The lungs govern the skin and people with allergic asthma are more prone to allergic eczema. The very texture of the lungs which is light and almost spongy, and their very job, to extract the essence of a gas, something delicate and light, very different from breaking down food into a 101 degree soup in the stomach, which is much more material, this also makes the Lungs delicate. You need delicate people and organs for delicate tasks. You don’t ask a bricklayer to crochet a bonnet for a baby with a mortar and trowel.
The Lungs are the delicate organ. Chemicals and smoke from burning plants effect the lungs. Gas attacks in war. Petroleum based synthetic perfume attacks in modern society. Its as if the lungs wilt. They immediately fail in their task of in-gathering the air, and instead reject the air with a cough and another cough. We call this rebellious Qi, Qi going in the wrong direction, up and out instead of down and in. Airborne pathogens affect the lungs and lung qi first. (Lung qi vs. lungs means all the tasks attributed to the lungs, vs. just the material of the lungs themselves. The blood depends on oxygen from the lungs. If the lung tissue is damaged by tar from cigarettes, the lung qi is also affected, meaning the trickle down of oxygen in the blood, the sending the qi all through the body. Fatigue ensues.
Grief affects the lung qi first, too.. Grief?
Unprocessed Emotions Are One of the Causes of Disease: The Lungs the Organ Affected by Grief
Yes. Classical Chinese medicine describes how overwhelming emotions, even when they are appropriate to a situation (loss of a loved one for example) affects specific organ systems. The normal damage from normal emotions can be significant, but generally not impossible to deal with some special care and mental cultivation. Even large events, like when your mother passes away, which have to be traumatic, ( so dont reach for Prozac so you can tough it out, reach for a shoulder and tissue and cry your heart out) are manageable and part of living. The whole catastrophe as Zorba put it. .But when we are stuck in emotions, and we don’t know it, when they are repressed, unprocessed, unexamined, or not allowed into the conscious mind, that is when they bubble up and bite you when you least expect it. You lose your temper at your mom when you are really angry at your spouse or boyfriend. And when left unfaced and unprocessed emotions will affect the body. This is called somatisation, and it occurs thanks to the nervous system, thanks to the fight and flight response.
Chinese Medicine describes with wise, clinical precision, the result of centuries of observation, the manner in which each emotion effects the body, gathered around the functions of a single organ. Anger, for example ,if unprocessed, damages the liver qi and will cause its Qi to rebel and rather than order, slaughter. The Liver is the general among organs. Liver “types” make good organizers, are good at control and when unbalanced become arrogant control freaks. They slaughter rather than order. We see this often in cases of migraine, headaches, seizure disorders, and simply tense, tight muscle, especially of the neck and shoulders, anger makes the qi hot, and heat rises, anger and frustration or simply intensity, which is its cousin, rather than organize your musculature for work, over organizes them into tightness.
And its interesting. Alcohol softens anger and its a muscle relaxer. Two martini lunch. But more alcohol and suddenly you love everyone, albeit in an obnoxious and maudlin way. But, more alcohol, and what often happens. The person, especially if male and with more testosterone, suddenly become violently angry, and starts a fight, for no apparent reason. Because the alcohol, being a drug, opened up the full gamut of feelings and disinhibited the normal controls. Sometimes the person with grief as well as anger, begins to cry. Tears are part of the Lung system by the way. If you cry a really lot you may feel tears down the back of your nose.. When you are angry, you shout, but when you are sad, you sob, and sigh. Deep breaths. So the ancient Chinese made connected the dots, empirical science, sadness…deep breaths…sighing…depression…sadness….low voice…lack of energy….loss of interest in normal things….lying down….as in physical lung disease…. And we know this from science, any western biomed pathological physology text says it, asthma has emotional triggers. Grief and anger (anger affects the Lung qi by a different mechanism involving the Liver) don’t cause asthma, most asthmatic had the capacity for asthma by being gifted weaker lung qi or a very cold damp constitution to start with, or by a diet that weakened the lungs, no, its a perfect storm, a constellation, and accident waiting to happen–weak Lung qi, heavy damp cold diet, emotional triggers. That is why to cure diseases you also need a perfect array of positive factors–acupuncture, herbs, diet, lifestyle, healthy mental attitude, and some luck.
Somatisation of Emotions: How Grief and Fear Affect the Lungs
So ancient Chinese medicine, like modern psychiatry, noticed that human beings will “somatize” their emotions if they are unprocessed. The emotions will make themselves heard, will express themselves through the body, via a physical disorder.. This should NEVER be seen as dismissing your disorder. On the contrary, it is taking it very very seriously by searching for the root, the trigger. It is simply how our body/minds interact, how we process experience and memory, via the endocrine system and nervous system. If there is too much going on, more than we can handle, and this varies from folk to folk, our nervous systems go into overload and crash, one way or the other, depending on your Body Mind type/Dosha and depending on where your natural inherited weakness lies–the muscles, the spine, the digestive tract, the skin.
BY NO MEANS does this imply that its “all in your head.” or that you are crazy. Pscyhogenisis is quite common, is almost normal, and its simply a red flag calling out to you, “hey, hello, please look at me,” there is something you are not paying attention to. Let’s look at a very benign example, shall we? When you fall in love and have “excess” joy, what happens. You bounce off the walls, you sing like a mad person, like a bird in spring, you can’t sleep. We call it love sick, don’t we?. But when your spouse leaves you maybe you become depressed and cant get out of bed and sigh all the time. In order to function the lungs need to expand. But grief collapses the Qi and this is why grief affects the lungs. Why is is called depression? Because your Qi sinks down. In major depression, as in febrile illness hitting the lungs, you suffer fatigue, you can’t get out of bed, you lose interest in normal things. You just struggle to survive. You struggle for breath. The Lungs are failing to circulate their energy.
This is why people are so poorly served by the trend in the USA to pathologize normal grief and give people anti-depressants so they can “get back to work.” You know, sometimes there really are more important things than work. Bereavement is a normal part of being a full fledged human being. Of course if grief is overwhelming, such as the tragic loss of family members from an accident, or the kinds of things that happen in wars, then there is really no way to process that kind of grief without help. And that is why Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture, western psychology and many other non-drug methods are there.
And, the wonderful thing about Chinese medicine and acupuncture is that just as grief collapses the lung qi and causes depression, you can use acupuncture to circulate the lung qi in cases of depression, which helps people get back on their feet, especially if they are facing and processing the grief in other therapeutic ways.
Dr. Michael Gershon’s work in neurogastroenterology summarized in the book The Second Brain goes into alot of the details into how somatisation occurs in the digestive tract. Great book, excellent sceince.. I like it especially because it validates what Chinese Medicine has long described: that worry and anger weaken digestion, specifically. Gershon’s work describes the affect of the fight and flight response on the gut. What is the fight and flight response? Anger and Fear. If you need to fight you become angry and if you are terrified you run for your life.
Getting back to how asthma can be triggered by grief and fear. Grief weakens the Lungs whose job it is to grasp the Qi of the air, and fear weakens what we refer to as the Kidney energy, one of whose jobs is to provide the motive force for the Lung’s grasping. Notice that in anatomy its the diaphram that pulls the lungs downward. By themselves the lungs can do nothing to open up, they are a bellows without an operator. The operator is the force of the diaphragm pulling downward and releasing upward, which is why if some bully punches you in the solar plexus you can’t breath , because the diaphragm is temporarily paralyzed. Guess what? The diaphram is governed by the Kidney Qi. And one of the symptoms of anxiety is shallow breathing. Frozen by fear the diaphram breaths more shallowly, as we would if we were in a war hiding in the bushes from a dangerous enemy close by. Only with anxiety disorder people are living in fear of an enemy that is present psychically, not physically. We say in Chinese Medicine that the Kidney Qi gives the motive force for the Lung’s grasping of the qi of the air, via its “ruled” tissue, the diaphram, which is restricted by fear, and Chinese Medicine also says that the Kidney Qi is affected/damaged by fear. Think of it, with enormous fright one can lose bladder control. The Kidneys govern the bladder. The ancient Chinese were sharp cookies.
So if the Lungs are overburdened with unprocessed grief, or with normal grief that is appropriate to a recent loss, then it also prevents them from spreading the Qi through the body, they are constrained by weight, as if something were sitting on the chest. Isn’t this what some asthmatics describe, or how some people feel when overwhelmed with fear, the heart races and they cannot breath? I have treated many cases of asthma and allergies that began during periods of grief due to loss and abandonment in which the person, due either to stoicism, or just lack of awareness, did not face and process their grief, leaving them with what psychologists cause grief issues. Just recently I had a case of chronic cough and fatigue in a patient who was bringing up strong emotive issues in his therapy with a psychologist involving betrayal of trust. In one acupuncture treatment her cough resolved, because the cause of the cough was not a pathogen, or a food, but her emotional state, which was causing his lung qi to stagnate badly. If there is any one thing that acupuncture does supremely well, it is move the stagnant or stuck Qi.
The Metal Element Rules Autumn
Chinese medicine has a system of transitions called the five elements. Without going into the details, suffice to say that Autumn corresponds to the metal element and the metal element governs the lungs. Not surprisingly he metal element has its fullest expression in Autumn, which means that the Qi of the Celestial and Terrestrial spheres passes most strongly through the Lung channel and Lung system of the body in Autumn, which is so interesting because this is when people get the allergies and the first colds and flus.
Equally interesting is that the Lung is the organ most affected by grief, and isn’t it true that in Autumn, when the energy falls, and the days shorten and become darker and colder and the flowers are gone, and all the wonderful experiences of flourishing colorful delicious warm summer become memories, that there is a natural sadness that everyone experiences to some extent, but that people with Seasonal Affective Disorder experience to a large extent. Which is why, in the classics of Chinese medicne, like the Nei Jing Su Wen, it describes autumn as a difficult emotional time of year, that we have to manage by keeping balanced, as follows.
The 3 month of Autumn
But the Qi of Heaven becomes pressing,
while the Qi of Earth is resplendent.
…to soften the repressive effect of autumn,
harvest the spirits and gather in the Qi…
without letting the will be scattered outside,
clarify and freshen the Lung Qi.
adapted from the translation by Claude Larre.
To soften this effect of the loss of light and warmth, we are admonished to “harvest the spirits and gather the Qi.” Because autumn retains some of the splendor of summer, it is not, after all, yet freezing, even the falling leaves are beautiful, the foliage can be spectacular, and late fruits like apples are harvested and canned, so also we can harvest the spirits and nourish ourselves, in spite of the season’s contractile force, by looking around and enjoying the natural and cultural bounties of the season. This is harvesting the spirits. Stopping and smelling the crisp Autumn air and hot apple cider. Take joy in each experience.
Gathering the Qi is in Chinese Medicine, the specific task of the lungs, we ingather Qi directly from the oxygen in the air, and we ingather the Qi of air and harvest the spirits of the season when our mind is calm “without letting the will be scattered.” If our mind and our fire is scattered by multitasking, overwork, over-attachment to unfulfilled desires and by the 5 emotions, then we cannot gather the Qi or harvest the spirits. We are preoccupied, too busy with our delusions to look around and notice what we can be genuinely grateful for, where the joy is. “Don’t it always seem to go, you don’t know what ‘ya got till its gone…” Stop and smell the leaves falling.
And when we do Tai Qi, Yoga, Mindfulness Meditation, or Qi Gong, the breath is always slow, focused, calm. This is what it means by “clarifying and freshening the lung qi.” And this is vital especially in Autumn, since this is the time of year in which the “pressing down” nature of the heavenly Qi makes it harder for the lungs to do their job, unlike in Summer or Spring.. We have to pay special care and take care of the delicate organ in its season.
While harvest is the action of gathering the Qi of Autumn, storage is the action of Qi in Winter. But life builds upon life. If you don’t harvest well, what is there to store? So each action of today affects your health tomorrow, quite literally, not just in the long term, but in the short term with susceptibility to colds, flus, allergies and other febrile illnesses.
Full Catastrophe Living
So, in Autumn the Qi of nature passes most strongly through the Lungs, and the nature of the Autumn Qi is that it is falling down into the ground. If you are prone to depression this will weigh down your lungs, as we say, “he was heavy with grief.” The opposite of the upward and outward energy of Summer when we become what? Lighthearted. The opposite of heavy, taciturn, grief filled. But its a balance. Too light all the time and you become what? Air-headed. Shallow. Superficial. So a balance of the elements is the ability to swim in and out of the seas of Joy, Anger, Fear, and Sadness without getting stuck, and this is done not by running away from emotions, but by processing them, what Zorba called, “the whole catastrophe,” what John Kabot-Zinn calls “Full Catastrophe Living.”
Cold Damp Food Weakens the Lungs
Also, if you have been over eating cold damp food all summer all or year, then the lungs, which need to be moist, but not wet, fail in their function of spreading and descending the Qi of the body. They cannot do it because the sponge is wet, muddy, nothing can pass, the Qi is obstructed and becomes toxic. The Lungs need to be like the canopy of the forest in which air and moisture pass unobstructed.
Eat Grounding Warming Moistening Foods in Autumn
To promote Lung health, respect the Qi of the season, which is a downward passage of energy. Go to sleep early and get up early. Keep moving, but stay warm. In the world of food now is the time to switch to more grounding warming moistening foods, just like they do quite naturally in Languedoc in the south of France, without knowing Chinese medicine. Its just grandmother common sense not to eat salad when the air turns cold.
Root Vegetables and Mild Sweet Spices
Grounding warming moistening foods include all the root vegetables like turnip, parsnip, rutabaga; the hard winter squashes like butternut and acorn and jewel; especially baked. If you eat meat and fish using the baking method (I like the Dutch oven, which keeps all the moisture in), with spices and vegetables makes the dish warm, but the vegetables. Spices like ginger, garlic, onion, black pepper, coriander, cumin, Herbs de Provence, Paella spices, Garam Masala, or middle eastern Ras El Hanout or Bharat.
Tai Qi is excellent exercise for Autumn. It moves and grounds. The basis of Tai Qi is grounding. You can’t go anywhere in Tai Qi without establishing the Ba Gua/eight sided stance of the 5 toes, 2 balls of the foot, and heel. Full contact of the minds eye with the ground through the feet. When was the last time you walked slowly, barefoot, on the ground, and paid attention to the sensations in your feet, especially those eight points. Try it in autumn, and then try standing calmly in the same way. This is the beginning of Tai Qi. It will make your breathing even and smooth, you will gather the qi and harvest your spirit. Emotions will rise and fall and bubble up for processing.
copyright eyton shalom, l.ac. san diego, ca october 2013 all rights reserved use with permission