Fall, the Hinge Between Summer and Winter
In Chinese medicine, Fall and Spring are seen as the “hinges” between Summer and Winter. The seasons are a kind of love dance between heaven and earth. In Summer, Gaia (Mother Earth) opens like a flower, her energies are at their maximum, she flourishes and reaches up to embrace her cosmic lover. In Winter, she withdraws, taking her energies back into the core of her being. It is a time of maximum Yin, whereas Summer is a time of maximum Yang.
A Time of Wind
Fall and Spring, like hinges, are full of movement; of what Chinese medicine names wind. Wind starts up suddenly and dies down just as suddenly. From September to November there is rapid give and take: one day it’s really hot, the next day cold is in the air. In Spring it is the same; one day we smell Spring coming and notice the buds on the trees, the next day it snows.
In Chinese medicine this push and pull, this wind, is dangerous. It is a time when the body must continually adapt to change, from opening the pores to allow sweating to closing them to protect from cold. Change is hard; no wonder these two seasons are associated with various kinds of febrile illnesses.
Lungs, the Organ Damaged by Grief
And in the case of Fall, it is a time when our bodies and souls have to make the adjustment from the abundant sun and splendor that is Summer, to the more circumspect spare experience of Winter. The sky is different. The stars are different. There is nothing like a night sky in the crisp weather of Fall and Winter. However, there is a natural sadness that many people experience with the loss of sunlight, as the days fall away and the night time lengthens. And the lungs are the organ most affected by sadness and grief. We now even have a proper name for a psychological illness caused by this, with great physical symptoms: seasonal affective disorder. Affect is emotion. How the season affects your emotions.
Chinese Concept of Immune System: Defensive Qi and the Lungs
One of the strengths of Ayurveda and Chinese medicine, is an awareness of the interplay between living with the seasons and maintaining a healthy immune system. Chinese medicine breaks the immune system down into three particular kinds of “Qi” (energy) that regulate different aspects of immune function.
The first is called “Wei Qi” or “Defensive Qi.” Wei Qi is the first line of defense against infectious disease. Weak Wei Qi is a factor in patients who easily or repeatedly catch colds, bronchitis, and flus. It is also a factor in allergies and Asthma. And producing Wei Qi is a function of lung, spleen, and kidney “Qi.”
The kidney Qi provides the motive force for the Lungs to “grasp the qi” of the air.
It is also the source of all Yin and Yang functions in the body and contributes to the Defensive qi directly and indirectly through the lungs.
The Spleen has the job of absorbing and transforming all the foods and liquids. If it fails in this function, then pathological dampness develops, which “gums up the works” so obstructs delicate lung function, both weakening the defensive Qi. So the Spleen qi must always be developed and protected, mostly by a healthy and reasonable diet, by adequate exercise and rest. It is damaged by excessive worry and anxiety, and also by “arrogant Liver qi” associated with dominance and frustration.
Kidney qi is preserved by a healthy lifestyle; a wise balance between work, play and rest. Some of us are lucky to be born with strong Kidney qi, others are unlucky. It can be damaged further by excessive fear, and by not learning to confront fear, whicih is of course a natural feeling at times.
The Lungs qi, on the other hand, is easily damaged by external environmental factors especially dryness and cold, both of which appear in Autumn, by aerobic exercise if it is inappropriate to the individual’s constitution, and by excessive or repressed grief.
For example, a stoic response to the loss of a child or parent, over-training aerobically without adequate recovery time, choosing running as a sport when you have weak kidney qi, not dressing for the cold if you are already a cold damp type, or just enduring extremes of climate, can all weaken the Lung qi, which in turn fails to build the Defensive/Wei Qi
In the body, preparation for Winter is centered especially around the lungs, the organ whose “power is exerted in Fall.” That means that anything you do to injure the interior landscape of the body in autumn; the above factors, plus poor diet, digestion, sleep, insufficient or excessive exercise, and stress will easily damage the lungs at this time of year. And the power of Fall is the power of the harvest. When the harvest fails, you go hungry in Winter.
Building Lung Health and the Immune System in Fall
The chief climactic “evil” in Fall is dryness. The lungs are like giant tissue paper in which the tissue is the fine mucosa of the alveoli. The lungs, like the nasal musosa, need to stay moist, not “damp,” and cool but not cold. During illness the lungs often become hot, which in turn dries them out. That is why people recovering from bronchitis often end up with a lingering dry cough.
People with Asthma, on the other hand, even with symptoms of heat, often have “cold trapped in the lungs,” which is why many of the herbs given for chronic asthma are warming.
Three Steps for Protecting Lungs in Autumn
1. Protect the lungs fron severe cold and dry. In places like Chicago, people cover their faces with scarves or face masks when out in the sub zero weather. This is to warm and moisten the air before it enters your Lung system (the Lung system in Chinese medicine includes the sinuses and nostrils). But since we can’t control the weather, we also use herbs and food to ameliorate nature’s effects–see below.
2. As the lungs are the organ most affected by grief and sadness, it is important, especially if you have weak Wei Qi or Asthma, to be in touch with issues of grief and sadness, so that you may process them. That means allowing the discomfort of grief and sadness to be felt so it can be moved through. It might mean working with a therapist, or using the skils of Mindfulness Meditation.
Unsuccessfully processed emotions, or unskillful dealing with emotions on a daily basis, is one of the “internal” causes of disease in Chinese medicine and Ayurveda, as important as poor diet is in prevention of disease. That is why fear based approaches to diet can actually weaken digestion and sap vitality.
3. Knowing your constitution (Dosha in Ayurveda) and having a lifestyle and diet appropriate to it is an excellent way to ensure lung health. It is a function of balancing factors of dry and damp, hot and cold. Pittas run hot, Vatas and Kaphas cold; Vatas run dry, Kapha and Pitta run moist. You need to know your dosha so you can eat appropriately.
Many Americans have a diet that is too dependent on wheat. Wheat is very nourishing, but very damp producing and cooling. For people with a tendency to excess damp accumulation (for example, easy weight gain, chronic yeast or bladder infections, chronic bronchitis, oily skin, issues of excessive phlegm), it is useful to reduce wheat and increase naturally cleansing green leafy and other cruciferous vegetables. Cold beverages and foods damage the spleen or Agni, so should also be avoided.
Kitchen Medicine for the Lungs in Fall
The dry weather of Fall, especially here in the desert southwest, affects the mucus membranes of the nasal passages, lungs, and eyes. Dust and sage pollens blow in from the desert making matters worse. Our skin also gets dried out, especially with the cold desert nights.
Protecting the lungs from external pathogenic dryness is a first line of defense against catching colds. Adequate moisture in the mucosa makes them slippery. When the nasal mucosa is dry, it is much easier for the Rhino viruses that cause colds to attach and get into the blood stream.
The most common kitchen medicine in China in Fall are pears. Pears are cooling and moistening. Bite into a ripe pear. Compare with a ripe apple. Apples tend to be crisper and are astringent. Pears have a viscous quality that helps moisten the lungs. And they have a nice cool energy, that balances the hot Santa Ana weather.
In warm San Diego in Fall I use pear in salads a lot (whereas in Winter I prefer to eat more warming food, like cooked pears). Here is a favorite I learned years ago. It’s simple, delicious, and cleansing. Most of the year I use apple, but in Fall I switch to pear. Any kind of pear can be used. This salad combines the cleansing properties of celery, the nourishing and warming properties of walnuts, and the cooling moistening properties of pears.
Fall Pear Waldorf Salad (hold the mayo!)
* 1 cup chopped celery
* 2/3 cup chopped walnut or cashews (depending on your taste. Walnut is slightly bitter, cashew more sweet)
* 2/3 cup chopped pear, or more to taste.
* 2 tsp toasted brown sesame seeds, or ground sesame “Gomasio”
That’s it! You can modify this recipe to taste. I like to use a high ratio of celery, since it’s a wonderful kidney, blood, and intestinal cleanser. And this is an easy way to eat lots of it. If you want to make the dish sweeter, change the ratio. You can also add some fresh or bottled pear juice to make it sweeter, which is a good idea for children.
Where to buy Asian pears? Asian pears are ludicrously expensive at American markets. In San Diego, go to Nijiya Japanese Market on Convoy Street or the 99 Ranch Chinese Market on Clairemont Mesa Blvd, for the best prices and variety. Perhaps the best are the yellow Korean pears. Korea is famous in east Asia for its pears, and not just its Kim-chee.
Asian pears can be cooked, too. They are commonly boiled with licorice root for dry cough in Korea and with a kind of barley called Job’s Tears in China. You can just boil a pear or two, and when cooked, add some honey, which also moistens the lungs, and drink the liquid. I like to add saffron and cardamom to mine. Afghanis make a wonderful cooked pear dish I will talk about in winter.
Other Foods That Benefit the Lung Qi and Yin
Persimmons are a wonderful Fall fruit. They are mild and light, help to dissolve phlegm, and reinforce the digestive energy. Persimmons are especially good when there is a heat condition in the lungs with cough.
Almonds reinforce the lung Qi and Yin. They are a Sattvic food in Ayurveda, which means they balance all the doshas and create harmony. Try Persimmon muffins with almonds and saffron.
Turnips strengthen lung Qi, and Tremella mushrooms benefit the Yin. Try Miso soup with turnips and Tremella mushrooms. If you suffer from systemic dampness ( swollen tongue with toothmarks), eat your Miso soup with a little cooked Job’s Tear’s barley, and avoid and eliminate wheat, and maybe even gluten. This can be critical for people with allergies and Asthma.
Lotus Rhizome is also good for the lungs. It is very healing to lung tissue and helps alleviate damp cough. You can buy it at any Asian grocery. Try juicing it with pears and a little ginger root. It looks funny and has a mild taste. Also excellent in soups and stews.
Chinese and Ayurvedic Herbs for the Lungs
Chinese White Ginseng, Ophiopogon and Schizandra: Sheng Mai San
The above three herbs make up the venerable herbal remedy called Sheng Mai San. This is a formula that protects and nourishes the “yin” and “qi” of the lungs. That means it strengthens lung function and restores the lungs after respiratory illness. In Fall, Sheng Mai San in small doses can strengthen the lung and kidney Qi, but never in the presence of a fever or while you have a cold.
If someone has a weak immune response, or has a very “damp” constitution, I often give them Astragalus and Reishii mushroom. This combination strengthens the “Wei Qi” and lungs to improve immune response and the ability to fight external attack. It also strengthens the transformation of dampness and fluids by the Spleen so they don’t collect in the lungs as phlegm.
Ayurveda for Fall
Late Fall/Early Winter is the season in which Vatta is naturally strong. . Vatta is dry and cold. And as in nature so to in the body. So in late Fall and early Winter in the Northern Hemisphere, and anytime anywhere there is extended dry or dry/cold weather, Vatta dosha will be naturally elevated, or aggravated. For example, living in the desert will always aggravate Vatta, but the cold desert in winter will be worse than the early and late summer.
That means people with Vatta imbalances will need to take protective measures during this season. As Fall is a time for consolidating the gains of summer, a renewed meditation practice is an excellent way to help with the adjustment into the season.
Symptoms of Vatta imbalance: Anxiety, restlessness, fatigue, insomnia, constipation, anxiety, dry type joint pains.
When Vatta is balanced one feels calm, creative, happy, energetic, communicative, and light.
The most general principal of food for Vatta is to go for warming and moistening foods, without extremes, such as vegetables and meat cooked in olive oil with mild spices.
The following is a tasty spice mixture (churna) you can make for Vatta. Generally churnas are cooked in with the food, but this one could also be sprinkled onto things in small amounts.
Churna Spice Mix to Balance Vatta
Cardamom seed, Cumin seed, Fennel seed, Hing, Ginger, and Turmeric
Grind together equal amounts of the first three seeds, and then add 1/5 the amount of each of the last three powders.
A wonderful tea for Vatta contains Fennel, Licorice, Ginger, Cinnamon, Black Cardamom, and Ajwain. This is an excellent warm, sweet, moistening combination that pacifyies Vatta and also benefits the large intestine, the seat of Vatta in the body. It is available at my clinic, $6 per box of 48 grams in tea bags.
Keeping Skin Moist in Fall: Ayurvedic Oil Bath
Ayurveda’s remedy for Vatta imbalance and for dry skin is an herbal oil bath. It’s simple. On a day when you don’t need to be anywhere and are not multi-tasking, take one cup of organic sesame oil, or if you are a hot type, coconut oil. Even better is medicated herbal oil, sesame oil in which certain beneficial herbals have been cooked and extracted. I get mine from Oilbath.com.
Whatever oil you use, warm it gently on a very low flame, equivalent to a candle. Or you can place a glass bottle of oil in hot water for 5 minutes.
Now massage generous amounts of oil into your body from head to toe, leisurely and fluidly. Allow the oil to seep into your scalp and skin. You can even get it in your ears and eyes, if it does not irritate you. The structure of sesame oil is such that it penetrates past the dermis of the skin. That is why sesame oil is in many of the finest and most expensive body care product lines, such as Dr. Hauschka.
When your body is soaked in oil, lay down in a warm quiet spot for 15 minutes or more, as if napping. Really relax. I use a large beach towel dedicated to this purpose, as it will get stained by the oil. People with dry skin will notice that after 15 minutes, much of the oil has been absorbed into your skin. This is like moistening a dry twig so it won’t snap.
Now get in the shower and gently wash the oil off with a natural soap such as Neem Tulsi soap (available at my office, $4). This is a wonderful soap made from coconut oil, with the medicinal qualities of Neem (good for the skin, clears Pitta, antibacterial anti fungal), Tulsi (warms and calms Vatta and is very Sattvic), and Multani Mati, a kind of mild Indian clay that benefits the skin, and is not drying.
Allergies and Santa Anas
Kitchen Medicine: Push hot fluids to lubricate nasal mucosa. Try ginger tea made with fresh ginger root. Boil water, add 1-2 ginger slices and steep.
Take a break from wheat and perhaps dairy. Many people’s allergies improve when they avoid grains with gluten, but especially wheat. If you eat bread, eat bread mae with natural sour vs. baker’s yeast. It is much more digestable. Stolchinaya bakery in Los Angeles makes a good natural sour rye (any Russian market will have it), Pacific Bakery also, and French Meadow. Packaged in plastic bread, or fresh bread that is more than a day old is always more digestible toasted.
Some people do better without dairy. Goat milk is less damp producing than cow’s milk. It is easier to digest. All milk should be boiled and not drunk cold out of the frig.
Herbal Protocols: Stinging Nettles, Quercitin, and “Ma Huang Tang plus”
First and foremost I use fairly high doses of Stinging Nettles. This herb has been shown in many studies to reduce Histamine response, the chief culprit in allergic reactions. For respiratory allergies I recommend a product called “Allermax.” It has stinging nettles plus Quercitin and N-Acetyl Choline, which also reduce allergic response.
Chinese medicine often uses a formula called Ma Huang Tang, which is called “Allergease” by the supplier I use. This is a 2000 year-old formula used for common colds, allergies, and sometimes Asthma. It has been modified recently with a few herbals that modern science shows to have anti-allergy response, such as Scutellaria and Wume Plum. Sometimes we add Pueraria root.
If you have any questions, please email me through the contact info on my website.
Eyton J. Shalom, M.S., L.Ac.
Ayurveda, Acupuncture, and Chinese Medicine in San Diego