Thursday, March 7, 2013

Ten Lifestyle Tips for Spring Wellness

According to the Gregorian calendar, Spring begins on March 21st. But in the classical Chinese lunar calendar, Spring starts in early February (with the celebration of the lunar new year) and peaks at the spring equinox on March 21st.

Accordingly, we are well into the Spring season -- the time of year when the energy of the earth begins to "quicken" after the dormancy of winter.

It certainly feels like Spring in the Bay Area. The longer hours of sunlight, budding fruit trees and fresh green growth sprouting from every sidewalk crack are impossible to miss.

In Chinese medicine, each new season brings a fresh opportunity to balance & strengthen our organ systems. The organ associated with Spring in Traditional Chinese Medicine is the Liver. Spring is a great time to attend to the health of the Liver.

According to Chinese medicine theory, the Liver plays a critical role in the health of the blood and the flow of energy throughout the body. When the Liver stops functioning optimally, the energy of the whole body becomes blocked. We call this condition "Liver congestion Qi stagnation." Common symptoms are:

  • seasonal allergies
  • hormonal imbalances
  • PMS and painful periods
  • vision problems
  • headaches & migraines
  • muscles spasms
  • tendon & ligament injuries
  • chronic neck pain or TMJ
  • mood swings
  • irritability, anger, sadness
  • stress, overwhelm.

In Springtime, the Qi of the Liver typically begins to flow more easily. Problems that bothered us in the Winter often start to feel better and we have more energy and vigor. Sometimes, though, when the Liver is not functioning optimally, the transition can be a little rocky. Issues related to Liver congestion (like those listed above) can be exacerbated for a while.

Although Liver imbalance can be addressed with Traditional Chinese Medicine at any time, Spring is the season when we can most effectively support the health of the Liver to bring about lasting changes.

Consider the following list of suggestions, derived from Chinese five-element theory, for boosting your health and unblocking "stuck Liver energy" during the Spring season.

But First .....  What is Five-Element Theory?

Five-element theory arose in pre-industrial, agrarian China where, as in all pre-industrial cultures, humans closely observed and depended on natural cycles of the earth and climate. In five-element theory, the five seasons of the year – Spring, Summer, Late Summer, Autumn and Winter – each correspond to a specific set of qualities and energies. In agricultural society, survival depended on a sophisticated understanding of and adaptation to the patterns of nature. Our modern, urban lives are less directly tied to agricultural cycles, but we still find greater health & happiness when we align ourselves, in big or small ways, with the prevailing energies of our natural environment.

In Five-Element Theory, Spring has the following Correspondences:

Element  :  Wood
Color  :  Blue-Green
Direction  :  East
Energy  :  Outward Expansion, Effortless Growth
Weather  :  Wind

Emotion  :  Anger
Sound  :  Shouting
Organs  :  Liver, Gall Bladder
Tissue  :  Tendons, Ligaments, Nails
Sense Organ  :  Eyes
Taste  :  Sour
Icon  :  Dragon
Life Stage  :  Birth, Infancy, Beginning

1. Rise Early/Sleep Early:

The Spring season corresponds to the direction East, where the sun rises. It corresponds to early morning and new beginnings. New beginnings are a great antidote to "stuck energy." Hit the refresh button and find new vitality by rising early & taking in the delicate sweetness of dawn.

Go to bed before 11:00 p.m. This allows you to be in a deep stage of sleep during the Liver time (1:00-3:00 a.m.) The "Liver time" is said to be the time when the blood is strengthened and our hormones regenerated.

2. Get Outside:

Outdoor air helps the Qi flow, as does movement and increased breathing. If you're feeling irritable, lethargic, or stuck, find some time for an outdoor activity --- hiking, gardening, bicycling -- whatever suits you!

Whereas winter is an appropriate time for deep rest and hibernation, Spring is a good time to increase our activity level. Keep in mind, though, that the energy of Spring is still new & delicate. Your tendons and ligaments may be more susceptible to injury at this time of year when the air is still cool. So build up slowly & don't overdo it.

3. Stretch:

In Chinese medicine, the Liver is said to have a special relationship with the sinews -- that is, all the tendons, ligaments and cartilage that attach to our joints, allowing our muscles to move our body.

One of the Liver's jobs, according to Chinese medicine, is to send Blood to the connective tissues when the body is active. When the body is at rest, the Blood flows back to the Liver to be cleansed and regenerated. If this system is is working well -- if the Blood is properly enriched and circulating smoothly -- then our sinews will be properly lubricated and our movement smooth, flexible and pain-free.

Gentle stretching improves the health of the connective tissue and the flow of Qi. These, in turn, support the health of the Liver, thereby improving the quality of Blood in the body, which in turn nourishes the connective tissue. Stretching feels great and helps to revitalize the body after winter. It is the form of exercise specifically recommended for Springtime in classical Chinese medicine texts.

4. Eat Lightly:

The liver is our major organ of detoxification. Together with our gallbladder, it also metabolizes fats. In Spring, our appetites naturally decrease, helping to cleanse our bodies of heavy foods and other indulgences of winter.

In addition to eating less, you can support your liver's natural springtime detoxification process by decreasing your exposure to toxins and chemicals. Simple steps include eating organic foods, avoiding pesticides and preservatives in food, using chemical-free cleaning products, and natural body care products.

Taking a break from alcohol for a couple of weeks may also be helpful to the liver.

5. Embrace Green:

If I could only give one health tip this season, I'd say EAT GREEN!  Green is the color associated with Spring in Chinese medicine theory. All green vegetables are supportive to Liver health. Bitter leafy greens are especially helpful in detoxifying, helping to chelate heavy metals in the body. These include dandelion greens, kale, mustard greens, brocoli rabe, arugula, bok choy, cilantro and parsley.
The taste associated with the Liver is "sour." Garnish your leafy green vegetables with a little sour in the form of lemon or lime juice or apple cider vinegar (unpasteurized is best.) Sour helps guide nourishment to your Liver & supports circulation of Liver energy, according to Chinese medicine theory.
Please look out for a more comprehensive article on food & cooking methods for Spring health -- coming soon!

6. Enjoy Herbal Teas:

The simplest "tea" to support the Liver is a cup of hot water with a squeeze of fresh lemon. (Remember, the flavor sour corresponds to the Spring season, and has an affinity for the Liver.)

Sipping any of the following teas supports Liver health and lightens emotional intensity: peppermint, green tea, goji berries, dandelion leaf or root, nettles, chrysanthemum, chamomile, turmeric.

For more, please see my article, 8 Easy Herbal Teas for Spring.

7. Rest Your Eyes:

Each of the major organs in Chinese medicine is said to "open into" one of the sense organs. The Liver and the eyes have a mutually supportive relationship.
Consider taking a mid-day 20-30 minute break to lie down with closed eyes. (Even 5-10 minutes is helpful!) If you work on the computer most of the day, consider taking breaks throughout your day. First, look away from the computer to focus your eyes for a minute or two on something in the distance. Then, gently close your eyes and take a couple of deep breaths.
Again, remember the relationship of the color green to the Liver and the Spring season. Keep a green plant by your desk. Take a moment to gaze at your plant periodically during your work day. Take a few moments to gaze out the window. Take a daily walk allowing your eyes to relax while taking in the abundant green growth of the season.

Another way to relax the eyes is to be aware of the weight of the eyeballs. Close your eyes & imagine feeling the eyeballs sinking downward and backward, heavy against the back of the eye sockets. This exercise can provide some restorative balance, as we tend to spend most of our day with our eyes and our necks craned forward, hyper-alert.

8. Express Your Creativity:

Let's step back for just a minute and look at the energetic cycle of the seasons according to five-element theory:

Winter is the time for deep rest and reflection. It is the darkness in which new ideas and visions germinate. With the thawing/quickening of Spring, new ideas begin to take form as delicate sprouts. The element associated with Spring is wood-- which we can visualize as the vibrant, uninhibited, outward growth of green plants. The growth of Spring, however, is still fresh and delicate, wild and unformed. Creative. It's still cold in Springtime, and our energy to act on new ideas is still limited. It's not until summer that our efforts really begin to produce lasting changes and results and our projects come to fruition.

That being said, Spring is a great time to explore creative expression. Take an art class. Dance. Cook. Sing. Craft. Write. Its a great time to begin experimenting with outward expression with any dreams or visions you had during the winter months.

Liver energy does not like to be stifled. Feelings of frustration, anger or stress -- or any of the other physical or emotional symptoms listed above -- point to Liver congestion-Qi stagnation. Creative expression nourishes the Liver and provides a wonderful outlet for stagnant Qi.

9. Deal with Anger:

Anger is associated with the Liver in Chinese medicine. Anger arises from congestion of the Liver and consequent lack of free flow of Qi in the body. Ongoing anger, resentment and frustration exacerbate Liver congestion and give rise to heat and inflammation in the boy, thereby exacerbating a range of physical and emotional syndromes.

Spring is an important and fruitful time of year to deal with feelings of anger because Liver energy is so available to us. Creative expression, physical movement, therapy, forgiveness, meditation are some avenues for dealing with anger.

I like the idea, which I came across in Paul Pitchford's book Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition, of cultivating joy as an antidote to anger. Joy is the emotion associated with the Heart organ, the element fire and the Summer season. According to the five-element cycle, joy is the child of anger (summer is the child of spring; fire is the child of wood.) If we strengthen the fire element, then we have somewhere to channel our excessive wood energy. 

How do we cultivate more joy in our lives? Some ideas are expressing gratitude, practicing kindness and compassion, creative expression, community building.

10. Get a Seasonal Acupuncture Tune-Up:

Even if you only have acupuncture a few times a year, the change of seasons is a good time to do it. Treatments are designed to harmonize your body (your internal environment) with the season (your external environment.) At this time of year, the energy of the Liver system is highly accessible to influence through acupuncture points and appropriate Chinese herbs. 

Especially if you are feeling stress, anger or frustration or any of the signs and symptoms associated with Liver disharmony, listed above, just one session can help you start the season out right.

Links to more articles by Stephanie on Spring Health:

The Liver in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Spring Recipe: Nettle Soup

Eight Easy Herbal Teas for Spring

Spring Food & Cooking Tips


Haas, Elson, M.D. Staying Healthy with the Seasons.

Liu Ming. Lectures, Oakland, CA.

Macciocia, Giovanni. The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text for Acupuncturists & Herbalists.

Pitchford, Paul. Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition.