Chinese Medicine Concepts of Food, Energy & Seasonal Living

The three months of autumn are in charge of withering and of decelerating the momentum of growth. Autumn is traditionally known as the harvest season, a wonderful time for reaping the benefits of the long, warm growing season provided by spring and summer. It is the time for our bodies to harvest and gather energy for the colder months ahead.

The fall is a time when the yang of summer gives into the growing yin energy of the approaching winter. There is less activity in the colder months, but more emphasis on nurturing and supporting our Organs, Fluids and Blood. After summer, autumn is time to clear excess heat from the body, and then as temperatures drop, it is time to start warming the body, against extremes. While this may seem contradictory, summer heat saps strength, while internal warmth supports strength.

With the arrival of the strong drying winds, the deciduous trees lose their leaves. The wind and falling temperatures push the energy in and downward. While we feel the effects of wind on our skin, internally, the wind attacks the Lung. Heat and dryness trapped in the Lungs can easily cause coughs and other Lung disorders.

In Chinese medicine, Wind can drive external pathogens into the body but also can stir up internal blockages and emotional excesses. The emotions are largely regulated by the Liver and Gallbladder systems, so we must not forget to support the other organ systems in autumn.

Gastro-intestinal conditions are common at this time of year. The function of the digestive system often becomes deficient in autumn, and we need to take extra care and eat well to prevent disease finding its way in through the mouth.

“Both spring and autumn are seasons of change, and it is particularly then that diseases will surface. Therefore, one should take special care to attend to the practices of nourishing life during those times, and to conduct both one’s daily life in accordance with the predominant energy of the respective season”

Dryness

Dryness is the theme of autumn and is most likely to affect the Lungs & Large Intestine, the organs of the metal as part of the five-phase philosophy. Dry lips are a sign of dryness, as is dry skin, itchiness, wrinkles, a dry throat, a dry cough and constipation. Dryness can appear in any season, depending on the environment, your body type, diet and lifestyle. However, you will generally find the signs of dryness more pronounced in this season.

“During Autumn, try using tahini as a flavoring in soups and stews or as a spread for toast or sandwiches. Tahini is gentler on the digestive system than unprocessed sesame seeds, but still provides the benefits of building the yin and toning all the major organs, particularly the Liver and Kidney”

How to Treat Dryness with Moistening Foods

To treat dryness in autumn you can try some of the more moistening foods, such as: tofu; tempeh; soy milk; spinach; barley; pears; apples; millet; persimmons; loquat; seaweed; mushrooms; almonds; pine nuts; peanuts; sesame seeds; milk; clam; eggs; crab or pork.

How to Treat a Dry, Harsh Cough and Extremely Dry Throat

If you get a dry, harsh cough and extremely dry throat, the Lungs need to be cooled with cooling foods such as cooked apples and pears, duck, flake, persimmon, celery, nori (seaweed) and octopus.

How to Treat a Weak, Dry, Lingering Cough Often Worse at Night

For a weak, dry, lingering cough that hangs around, especially if the symptoms get worse at night, the Lung yin needs supporting. Try pears with applesauce, dairy products, mutton, tangerines, pine nuts, clams, chicken broth, yams or eggs. Some honey in warm water to soothe the throat and if there is sputum, then raw honey is preferable.

Is Dairy Really Good For Me?

Dairy is very nutritious for anyone dry, thin and weak, although its important to only consume dairy in small amounts so it doesn’t create damp and mucus in the body. The key is the right balance and for if you have dampness as a pattern, dairy will not serve you well and choose other options to reduce dryness. Granted, it is tricky, as you can present with both dampness and dryness, particularly in Autumn. This concept is beyond the scope of this article.

Note: in Chinese medicine dietary theory, foods high in nutrition, like pork and dairy are of high value but also dampening foods that are difficult on digestion. This means they should be used sparingly and better indicated for the weak, thin and deficient. If you are overweight, best avoid dairy and select alternatives.

The Organs of Autumn

Chinese medical theory recognizes twelve important organs. Each of the five-phases contains two organs with the exception of the fire phase, which has four. Each of these phases (Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, Wood) has a yin organ which is solid, and a yang organ which is hollow. This network of Organs and textures sustains human activities of storing and spreading, preserving and transforming, absorbing and eliminating, ascending and descending, activating and quieting. When all these activities take place harmoniously, the person is healthy and in balance.

The season of autumn corresponds to the metal phase, represented by the organs of Lungs (yin) and Large Intestine (yang).

The Lungs are about expanding and dispersing, think about the Lungs as they take in the air we breathe and then distribute the oxygen all around the body. Lung Qi gathers and maintains strength. Lungs that are strong make a person effective in how they go about their tasks and help them to maintain purpose.

“The Large Intestine ‘lets go’ of what is no longer necessary. A healthy balance between the Lung and Large Intestine is demonstrated by a person that can honor commitments, but then let go of a relationship when it is over”

How are the Lungs Related to the Immune System?

The Lungs in Chinese medicine are very closely associated with the immune system, as they are related to the protective Qi (wei qi). This protective Qi is controlled by the Lungs and produced by the digestive system (Spleen) and the fire of the Kidneys. This protective Qi circulates around the skin, nose and mouth, defending the body from external attacks by viruses, colds and pathogens. These external attacks are often led by ‘Wind’ in Chinese medicine.

If the protective Qi is not working well, you will frequently get colds and flu or hay-fever type symptoms. An important part of building protective Qi is to avoid too much sweating, which allows Qi to leak from the body. However, if your protective Qi is weak and you are feeling sick, then try eating fresh ginger to encourage warmth and sweating to release the flu, but try dry ginger between colds to build the protective Qi.

How do the Lungs Relate to the Skin?

The Lungs connection with the skin and protective Qi in Chinese medicine means that the skin reflects the condition of the Lungs, which needs to be strong enough to keep the Wind out. In autumn we can increase the amount of oil we eat to give the skin more protection. If the Lungs are strong, the skin will be lustrous and firm.

How is an Organ associated with an Emotion?

Chinese medicine is based on recognizing patterns of relationship and interconnection – and recognizing concurrent levels of experience that are not merely physical, but may have emotional and spiritual dimensions as well.

The emotion of grief is housed in the Lungs. If grief is repressed, it festers in the body and over time causes the Lungs to contract, which means the Lungs can’t extract sufficient Qi from the air or distribute that Qi around the body. This clogs up the Lungs and our protective Qi, and our ability to defend ourselves is compromised. Along with counseling, deep breathing, meditation, and exercise, pungent and sour foods may indirectly help clear grief by balancing the Lung Qi.

The Pungent & Sour Flavor

This gets a little confusing in Chinese medicine, as the autumn season is clearly related with the metal phase, which is associated with the pungent flavor. However, at this time of year, we are in encouraged to decrease pungent and increase sour foods.

More on the Complexity of Flavors and Seasons

Foods and herbs with a pungent flavor are associated with benefiting the Lungs. Pungent foods are yang and ascending, moving up into the Lungs to open and clear them. Pungent flavors can be used at any time of the year to benefit the Lungs. Pungent’s encourage wind to leave the body and encourage movement and flow. However, when we talk about the season of autumn, we are clearly in a stage of the cycle that is contracting (yin).

The Lung is abundant with Qi, and it has a particular affinity to pungent flavors. We must also consider that these pungent flavors are expansive in nature, and while they are important to strengthen the Lungs, they shouldn’t be overused in autumn, as it is a yin and contracting time. When viewing the Lung in the context of the other organs in the network, one should decrease the intake of pungent flavors in the fall while increasing sour ones. This will nourish and best protect the Liver and the whole system at this vulnerable time.

Think about pungent foods and where they grow, and in all cultures it seems the closer you get to the equator – warm & humid – the more pungent the foods. That is also why we are encouraged to eat them in summer. Sour flavors tend to be more predominant insulters that live inland and with drier climates.

Examples of Pungent Foods

Examples of pungent foods include bay leaves, capers, caraway seeds, cardamom, chives, cinnamon, cloves, cumquats, dill, fennel, leek, oregano, nutmeg, rosemary, safflower, taro, thyme, turmeric, watercress, wheat germ, cabbage, turnip, ginger, horseradish, pepper, onions, garlic and chillies.

What is the Action of Sour & Examples of Sour Foods

The metal phase is supported best by increasing the sour flavor. Sour strengthens the Liver and is yin and cooling. It has a contracting, astringent effect and dries and firms. It helps strengthen tendons, improve bladder control, excessive sweating, diarrhea, sagging skin, hemorrhoids and prolapsed conditions.

Examples of astringent foods benefit the Liver and also support the seasonal energy of contraction. Sour foods such as sour and pungent leek are most appropriate for autumn. Other examples include sourdough bread, sauerkraut, olives, pickles, adzuki beans, rose hip tea, vinegar, yogurt, lemons, limes, grapefruit, and sour plums and apples.

Heat & Phlegm in the Lungs

With the drying effects of early autumn combined with the residual heat left from summer, heat in the Lungs is common in autumn. Classic symptoms of Lung-heat include fever and chills, red tongue with yellowish coat, dry cough, shortness of breath, sore throat and yellowish nasal discharge.

“Mushrooms, carrots, and figs are all good for reducing excesses such as red face, extreme emotions and a loud voice”

What Do You Recommend for Heat & Phlegm in the Lungs?

If this is how you are feeling you need foods that clear heat and clear mucus such as, cooked apples and pears, peaches, citrus fruits, persimmons, seaweed, mushrooms, daikon radishes, watercress, carrots, radishes, pumpkin, cabbage, bok choy, cauliflower and papayas.

If you have any of the heat signs in autumn, try eating congee (millet, barley, rice) with watercress. Avoid warming foods such as beef, lamb, chicken, cinnamon, fennel, excessive ginger, and especially coffee, onions and garlic.  Always use foods based on the season.

For phlegm in the Lungs, you can use pungent flavors. Phlegm with heat use cooling pungent such as peppermint and chamomile. For hot phlegm (yellow or green color) use cooling damp removers such as watercress, radish, daikon radish and seaweed. For cold phlegm (white) use warm damp removers such as fennel, cayenne, garlic, onions, mustard greens, horseradish and ginger. There are foods that can be used to clear all types of phlegm in the Lungs, including potato, pumpkin, linseed, turnip, job’s tears barley, tuna and mushrooms.

Deficient Lung Yin & Blood

A dry cough that rarely produces sputum, occasional fever, frequent thirst, red cheeks and tongue, night sweats and hot palms and soles all indicate a yin deficiency. Weak Lung yin is often a result of chronic infection that has run the body down.

“Honey in warm water before bed will ease a dry throat and a dry cough and assist with dry constipation”

Food Solutions to Deficient Lung Yin & Blood

Eat foods that strengthen yin and use methods such as steaming and boiling. Seaweed, oranges, pears, peaches, watermelon, soy products, green beans, pork, dairy products, eggs, oysters and clams are all yin builders. Include foods that are easy on the digestive system and help nourish Blood. In autumn, foods that nourish blood include figs, pears and pumpkin. Root vegetables such as parsnip, potato and beetroot can help nourish the Blood for the cooler weather.

Weak Lung Qi & Immunity

Lung Qi flows downward and affects how energetic we feel. It also assists the Large Intestine to push waste out, so weak Lung Qi can also result in constipation because the colon is not encouraged to let go. Most Lung problems show up as cough or shortness of breath. If you have been getting colds and flu frequently, a simple tonic to boost immunity is leek soup, as it strengthens both Lung yang and protective Qi. You can also try making a broth out of white onions and unrefined brown sugar.

“Leek congee is gently warming, and will be helpful for anyone suffering from chronic diarrhea or illness”

Avoiding Damp in the Dry Season

As in every season, when the digestion (Spleen) is unable to cope with its workload, the result is damp. Well cooked warm foods with vegetables and plenty of grains, such as rice, are best foods to nurture the digestion. Dampness within the Spleen can cause a thick and greasy tongue coat, feelings of heaviness, poor appetite, abdominal distention and watery stools. In autumn, drain damp with mushrooms. Other foods that drain damp from the Lungs have been mentioned previously under ‘heat and phlegm in the Lungs’.

“Wheat can be damp-causing in people who already have a substantial problem. In contrast, rye dries damp. Try eating rye bread – toast it for that extra drying effect. Sourdough rye benefits the Liver, because of its sour flavor, as well as removing damp” 

Green tea can also be very helpful in removing dampness from the body through urination – which is my many Chinese people sip green tea after they eat very damp-causing meals or drink too much alcohol.

What if Dampness is Affecting my Joints?

Dampness can affect the joints or the body’s energy pathways, which can cause slow or difficult movement or numbness. Arthritis, rheumatism and tennis elbow may be caused by dampness blocking the energy pathways (meridians) in the body. Symptoms of damp-related meridian blockages are often aggravated by dampness in the weather. Foods that help open the meridians and clear blockages include black sesame, black soybeans, capers, dry ginger, job’s tears barley, turnips, mulberries and pine nuts.

So, What to Eat in Autumn?

Think globally… Eat Locally!

Autumn is a wonderful season for reaping the benefits of the long, warm growing season provided by spring and summer wherever you live. Autumn food should moisten and clear the Lungs, get rid of wind and support the digestive system.

Moisten the Dryness

Start with foods that moisten the Lungs, such as pears and apples, but remember that people with damp should limit their amount of fruit intake. Apples, pears and persimmons contain a lot of water, so are very good at getting rid of fire in the Heart and Stomach that may be left over from summer. Lima and navy beans are good for the Lungs. Use pungent foods and herbs to stimulate and clear the Lungs.

Avoid Cold Drinks, Raw Food & Adjust the Flavors

The digestive system can easily be deficient in autumn, so we should avoid excessive intake of cold drinks and summer fruits such as melons in order to nurture the Spleen. Eat dark green and orange vegetables to assist digestion. Sour and sweet foods for autumn include adzuki beans, apples, cheese, grapes, olives and sour dough bread. These support the Spleen while encouraging the energy downwards. Also, to harmonize the digestion, try millet, chestnuts, rice and carrots.

Warm Foods & Reduce Flatulence

Warm foods encourage movement protecting the Liver and the whole body against the symptoms of Wind. On the other hand, cold food slows the digestive process and encourage Wind. If you have flatulence, eat more cooked vegetables with some pungent’s to encourage the bowel to loosen and expel wind.

Fewer Salads & More Soups

In autumn, there should be far fewer salads and more soups. Soups are good in autumn for several reasons, including the longer cooking times that mean the ingredients are easier to digest, and the watery medium that nurtures yin.

Favor Soups, Stews, Porridges & Steaming

Autumn is a good time for steaming, which supports yin. Cook at low temperatures for longer periods of time than you would for a quick stir-fry in summer. Heavy foods, such as thick stews and soups build energy reserves for the colder months. Salt helps moisten dryness and sends energy downwards, so use small amounts of salt in autumn cooking.

Lean Towards Gentle Pungent’s

Some pungent foods are very strong and should be used sparingly, such as horseradish, white pepper, onions, garlic and chillies. Sage, raw onion and hot peppers (all very strong) are too strong for people with imbalances of wind or dryness. Chinese medicine cautions against extreme diets and prefers our pungent’s coming from gentler sources. Thin, nervous or weak people with heat should always stick with gentle pungent’s. Try basil and coriander (early in the season), bay leaves, cabbage, capers, cardamom, chives, cinnamon, cloves, cumquat, dill, fennel, ginger, leek, oregano, nutmeg, rosemary, safflower, taro, thyme, turmeric, turnip, watercress and wheat germ.

Increase Foods with Downward Energy

Energy in autumn is beginning to move in and down, so we can progressively eat more foods that have downward moving energy, like root vegetables. Seaweed, which is sinking, is excellent at clearing thick mucus without causing drying. Bitter foods also help bring energy to the lower part of the body. Examples of bitter and pungent foods include citrus peel, radish leaf, scallion, turnip and white pepper.

Astringent & Sour Foods are Best in Autumn

Astringent foods benefit the Liver and also support the seasonal energy of contraction. Sour foods such as sour and pungent leek are most appropriate for autumn. Other examples include sourdough bread, sauerkraut, olives, pickles, adzuki beans, rose hip tea, vinegar, yogurt, lemons, limes, grapefruit, and sour plums and apples.

Toning the Liver & the Power of Cabbage

Late in autumn, cabbage supports the Liver Qi and relaxes the intestines helping to support regularity. The ancient Greeks thought cabbage could both prevent drunkenness and cure a hangover, which are related to the Liver in Chinese medicine. It is always important to calm and support the Liver. In autumn, try mustard greens, chestnuts, pine nuts, turmeric, cumin and ginger. Liver (lamb, beef, pork) congee is an excellent way to rejuvenate your own neglected or abused Liver in the autumn season.

Season for Pork

Pork is considered the most moistening meat and is very nutritious, so it’s most suitable to eat in autumn. After the yang of summer, pork enriches the yin. With traditional applesauce even better!

Now lets be clear here: in Chinese medicine dietary theory, foods high in nutrition, like pork and dairy are of great value but are also dampening foods that are difficult on digestion. This means they should be used sparingly and better indicated for the weak, thin and deficient. If you are overweight, best avoid pork and select alternatives.

Greens for Good Circulation

When the body is run down or when the hands and feet are cold, try bok choy to improve the circulation before the cold of winter. If you are feeling cold on the torso or other cold signs like a pale tongue or with a white coating, make sure you add ginger, garlic and meat to any meal with bok choy.

Chestnuts & Walnuts

Autumn is also the season for getting fresh nuts. Cooked or roasted nuts are easier to digest, especially in the cooler months. Roasted Chestnuts and walnuts ideal to tone the Kidneys for the winter. Remember that nuts are a concentrated food source, so they can easily generate damp. They are valuable for the weak and thin, however, if you are overweight or have signs of heat (or red tongue and face), limit the number of nuts you eat.

Keep an eye open for the in-season local treasures at your local farmers market. Ask your grandparents what they, and their grandparents, ate at this time of year. All of this can support you living in accordance with your local environment, the season and the cosmos!

Here are some extra notes for those that would like to delve deeper!

If you prefer the classical perspective, you can't go past The Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon 200BCE

Notes on why The capital ‘L’ is used for the 'Lung' and other organs

“The health of the body is important, not just for its own sake, but because of the interconnectedness of the body with the mind and the spirit. Anything done to the body has equal consequence for the mind and spirit also. If you feel good physically, you will be more balanced emotionally, mentally and spiritually”

For references to this article as well as book resources on Chinese Dietary Therapy see the Straight Bamboo Literature Guide – click here

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alex Tan L.AC is a licensed Acupuncturist.  After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China.  A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex’s bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives.  He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients. For more about Alex click here

Alex runs a clinic in Flagstaff, Northern Arizona. Alex welcomes comments and questions to his articles. To schedule an appointment in person or telco-appointment click here