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Fall evokes a feeling of coming down, going deeper, and dropping off from the energy of summer. It may sound scary, but it’s part of the cycle of movement of the natural world. As leaves begin descending from their trees, fall reminds most of loss or death. However, loss is not always a bad thing; fall can also represent the shedding of what no longer serves us.
One of my favorite things to educate my clients about is how to live in harmony with the seasons. In East Asian Medicine, or Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), we address patterns of disharmony in the body to bring it back into balance. “Balance” simply means that you feel good: You have energy, you sleep well, your digestion is working, and you’re able to do what you love. This doesn’t need to be a perfect state of balance, but rather a fluid, functional state of balance that shifts with the changing seasons and stages of your life. Each of the seasons has a particular resonance with the organs in our bodies, and certain patterns of disharmony show up during different seasons. For example, I see significantly more patients with allergies, asthma, colds and coughs, depression, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), psoriasis, eczema, and low energy in fall than I do in summer. This is because fall is the season most associated with our lungs and large intestine. Here are some seasonally aligned practices that can help you enjoy a more balanced and healthy state during the autumn months.
Maintaining Healthy Lungs
The season resonates with the energy of the lungs: They take in air and exhale carbon monoxide, transforming oxygen into usable energy. Ever notice how if you have allergies, or a cold, or a cough, that your energy goes down? That happens because the lungs are preoccupied with basic breathing. They’re fighting a virus, mucus, or pollen, and don’t have as many resources for bringing oxygen into the body.
By implementing some simple self-care habits into your daily life, you can help the lungs and large intestine become more resilient when they’re most vulnerable to health issues. Keep your lungs in peak condition with these healthful practices.
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- Keep the lungs clear. Healthy lungs start with a clear nose. Use a neti pot or sinus rinse daily once the dying leaves and grasses start blowing. This rinses allergens out of the sinus passages, preventing them from reaching the lungs in the first place. If you’re particularly sensitive to allergens, rinse with the neti pot morning and night, or immediately after spending time outdoors.
- Protect your hands, neck, and head. It may be basic advice, but washing your hands after each outdoor venture is the perfect foil to germs. If you can’t reach a sink for a full scrub, use hand sanitizer after a trip outside. When the weather takes a cold turn, wear a hat and scarf outdoors. Covering the back of the neck is particularly useful in helping your body’s immune system stay strong, due to an acupuncture point at the base of the neck, called “wind gate.” This is the point where the cold and wind most easily creep into the body. If you catch a chill in the wind, use a blow dryer on your neck for 30 to 60 seconds.
- Eat warm foods and drink. Some foods are particularly suited for fall: cauliflower, daikon radish, chicken, onion, garlic, leek, bone broth, cinnamon, cardamom, pear, and rice are all great options. Warm teas are also effective in combating the incoming chill of fall. Nettle tea specifically helps soothe the symptoms of allergies. Fall is also a good time to break out the chai tea, because the spices help warm the body and ward off colds. However, if you have a lot of mucus, avoid anything too creamy or rich, such as milk.
- Breathe. Deep breathing helps clear and
strengthen the lungs. Take deep breaths as
you’re driving or commuting; it’s an easy way
to boost your lungs and calm your nervous
system in a short time period. Breathe deeply
into your belly, inhaling through your nose,
and exhale fully through your mouth. If
you’re tired, make the exhale a little longer
than the inhale.
- Honor grief. In fall, trees and plants
are readying themselves for winter, changing
color, dropping leaves, and going dormant.
Humans, too, respond to the season and
many find themselves sad. While this may
be due to watching our natural world die,
or losing light and warmth, grief is part of
our emotional transition into fall and winter.
Rather than trying to just make the sadness
go away, or ignoring it, take some time to
honor your feelings. Grief can come up
around any kind of loss. Naming and allowing
your grief some space tends to help heal it.
Respect that nothing stays the same forever,
and your grief will not be here forever. Many
cultures leave offerings as part of the ritual of
loss and grieving. You can make up your own
version of this ritual by doing what resonates
for you and your situation.
Take 10 minutes to meditate, breathing deeply and setting the stage with clear intention. Light a candle. Get a clean sheet of paper and write down the gratitude you have for the object of your grief. Remember and feel your feelings. Thank the object of your grief for all that it showed you, for all that you learned and experienced together. Then leave an offering that makes sense to you. In some traditions or cultures, this means putting objects or food of significance out. The point is to recognize, express gratitude, thank, and offer. Understand that just as nature transforms, so do people, and so will you.
Letting Go with the Large Intestine
The large intestine holds, and then releases, the waste that our body makes from food after it’s extracted the nutrients. When the large intestine is functioning well, it easily lets go of that waste in a timely, efficient manner. When it’s compromised, things move out too slowly, or too rapidly, and the result is a bowel disharmony situation. The large intestine is such an important organ system in TCM that at every visit, I ask my patients about their bowel movements. The best bowel movements are shaped like a banana, in a solid piece, and with clear edges. They are a medium brown, but sometimes will vary in color depending on what you eat. Bowel movements that are indicative of a problem include:
- Loose, watery stools. This means that digestion is weak, and that fluids aren’t being properly metabolized. The best foods for these stools are warm, cooked foods. Ginger also helps, either dried in teas, or cooked fresh in your food.
- Sticky, sloppy stools. This means that there’s internal humidity. Rich foods such as cheese, sugar, and fried foods can cause this kind of stool. Foods to eat that dry the digestive system are barley, rice, oats, pumpkin, quinoa, lemon, parsley, mint, nettle tea, romaine lettuce, and lean meats.
- Pebbly stools. Pebbly stools are a sign that energy is stuck. This can be due to something simple, such as not taking in enough water or fiber, or from sitting too much. It can also be a sign that you’re feeling stressed or stuck emotionally. Drinking water and taking 20- to 30-minute walks is the perfect way to get some movement in the digestive tract. If this is a recurring problem, try removing dairy from your diet.
- Constipation. Sometimes constipation is caused by inflammation in the gut. The most common culprits for gut inflammation are dairy and wheat. Try cutting dairy first, and then if you’re still constipated, cut gluten out of your diet as well. As with pebbly stools, water and movement go a long way in getting things moving. Another option is to do intentional breathing throughout the day; this helps the body relax the smooth muscle in the bowels and naturally release the stool.
Signs that the large intestine is not functioning at its peak include conditions such as:
- Irritable bowel syndrome, or inflammatory bowel disease
- Chronic diarrhea
- Leaky gut, or multiple food sensitivities
- Chronic reflux
Moving Toward a Healthy Large Intestine
Try any combination of these self-care strategies to keep the large intestines at optimum health as the seasons shift.
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- Drink plenty of water. Whenever you’re constipated, ask yourself if you’re drinking enough water. The goal is to drink half your body weight in ounces of water daily. Doing so keeps your bowels clear, clean, and ready to go.
- Keep calm. Keeping your nervous system in order is one of the most important things you can do, particularly if you have IBS. A calm nervous system helps your body’s other systems move in an orderly fashion. A 9-week relaxation response study at Harvard demonstrated the power of meditation on calming the gut, showing that meditation can improve symptoms of IBS. I recommend 10 minutes a day, every day. Treat it as a habit, like brushing your teeth. Find a consistent time each day and stick with it. This is the most effective and least expensive way to get your large intestine on track.
- Maintain a healthy diet. TCM uses acupuncture and herbal remedies to heal gut health issues. Alongside these aids, patients need to do the basics for gut health on their own: Choose healthy, quality foods. Avoid fast foods and heavily processed foods. Shop for fresh fruits and vegetable options at your local grocery store. Making conscious choices around food and developing new habits can be profoundly helpful.
- Treat skin conditions. Psoriasis or eczema can be visual signs that there’s an issue in the gut. If you suffer from these or other similar conditions, consider cutting wheat and dairy from your diet, as well as soy and eggs, to heal your skin and gut issues. Eliminate one at a time to learn which is triggering the skin reactions. When in doubt: Avoid inflammatory foods like wheat and dairy, veer towards soups and stews, skip the fast food and soda, and drink plenty of water.
- Eat a good breakfast. One of the easiest ways to ensure good, regular bowel movements is with a digestion-promoting meal at the start of your day. Steel cut oats with warmed apples or pears, a tablespoon of walnuts, cinnamon, and a splash of almond or rice milk is one of my favorite breakfast choices.
- Let go of regrets and grudges. Emotionally, some people have a hard time letting things go, and this conflict can reflect in the bowels. Consider anything you might be holding on to that no longer serves you. Make a list of what you want to let go of, whether it be a habit, a relationship, or a particular memory. Write it down, and then either bury it, burn it, or tear it up and throw it away, consciously letting it go. Letting go of regrets, grudges, and losses helps keep the large intestine strong.
By implementing some of these simple self-care habits into your daily life, you can help the lungs and large intestine become more resilient during the season when they are most vulnerable. I hope you too have success nourishing your lungs and large intestines in fall.
Julie Bear Don’t Walk is a licensed acupuncturist and national board-certified herbalist. After experiencing life-changing results of her own, she decided to spend her life helping people feel better in their bodies and their lives. You can learn more about Julie and her clinic at Julie Bear Don't Walk.