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

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

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

Is Dairy Really Good For Me?

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?

How do the Lungs Relate to the Skin?

How is an Organ associated with an Emotion?

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

Examples of Pungent Foods

What is the Action of Sour & Examples of Sour Foods

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?

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

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?

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

Avoid Cold Drinks, Raw Food & Adjust the Flavors

Warm Foods & Reduce Flatulence

Fewer Salads & More Soups

Favor Soups, Stews, Porridges & Steaming

Lean Towards Gentle Pungent’s

Increase Foods with Downward Energy

Astringent & Sour Foods are Best in Autumn

Toning the Liver & the Power of Cabbage

Season for Pork

Greens for Good Circulation

Chestnuts & Walnuts

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!

By Alex Tan – Wellness Consultant & Acupuncturist

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