It’s starting to feel like spring here in the Willamette Valley. Plants are emerging from their winter dormancy, flowers are budding, the days are getting longer. This same seasonal cycle that we observe in the outer world of nature is also happening inside our bodies. The enlivening and renewing of spring is associated with the Liver and Gallbladder system in Chinese Medicine. This system encompasses not only your physical liver and gall bladder that you know and love, but also with the tendons and connective tissue, the eyes, and the free flow of emotions, the creative drive or as the beginning phase of a new endeavor and the envisioning, planning, decision-making that go along with it, and the emotion of anger (short temper, impatience, frustration also). The upward and outward movement of qi in spring resonates with those same energetics within us.
How can you give your liver a break and move with the natural rhythms of spring?
- Go outside and breathe some fresh air, exercising for 30 minutes. Healthy lung qi helps invigorate stuck Liver qi.
- Do some qigong or yoga to allowing your qi to flow freely, and to maintain flexibility in the tendons and connective tissue, which is associated with the Liver.
- Forgive someone. Holding onto anger and resentment constrains the Liver Qi. Let it go!
- Eat Lightly. Our Livers help us get rid of the heavy stagnation we might have accumulated during the winter (which might manifest as seasonal allergies as the sludge moves up to eyes and nose). Leaving behind the heavier foods of winter, especially heavy meats, dairy products, and wheat, can help you move into spring feeling lighter.
- Consider cutting down on your liver’s workload by eliminating alcohol, refined sugar, and anything artificial like fake sugar, alcohol, pesticides and herbicides. Even if you don’t want to do this forever, consider giving your liver a week or two off from known toxins — a spring vacation from toxins.
- Eat green and pungent. Foods with a pungent taste like onions and garlic, peppermint, basil, dill, fennel, turmeric, rosemary, parsley resonate with the upward, outward direction of the season and can be helpful in eliminating venting the winter sluggishness. Young, tender shoots and green leaves, like asparagus, rabe, bean sprouts, and pretty much anything green and leafy kale, collard greens, watercress, romaine, dandelion, parsley are tremendously beneficial to detoxify that liver. If your digestion is weak, stick to cooked vegetables as opposed to raw, which require more energy to digest.
- Drink hot water with lemon first thing in the morning. A little bit of the sour taste helps to gently help the liver slough off toxins. But too much sour will not be good for the liver, so think moderation.
- Enjoy life!
Recently, one of my patients recommended I read Anticancer: A New Way of Life by David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., Ph.D (Viking, New York, NY, 2009). I am very grateful for her recommendation, as it seems like the number of people I know, both personally and professionally who are dealing with this brutal disease — and the harsh treatment it so often necessitates — is way too high. And yet, there are many things we can do to make our bodies far less hospitable to cancer.
Written by an M.D. who was diagnosed with a brain tumor 15 years ago and was dissatisfied with his oncologist’s assessment that what he did wouldn’t have any affect on his health, this book is highly readable, peppered with interesting scientific studies, and very practical advice. He considers what makes the ecosystem that is each human body conducive to cancer’s growth? Turns out, food, chronic helplessness and other emotions, and toxins in the environment have a lot to do with it.
Some points I found particularly interesting:
The role of inflammation
Cancer can’t grow without supply lines: blood vessels to get it resources. Blood vessels don’t multiply for no reason — only when the body is in need of tissue repair. Cancer hijacks the body’s inflammation process to create the bloods vessel infrastructure it needs to support its rapid growth. Foods that increase inflammation (like sugar, fried stuff, and pretty much everything else in the Standard American Diet) act as cancer fertilizer, and foods that are anti-inflammatory cut off the supply lines.
The power of synergy
Turmeric, a the bright yellow-orange spice common in Indian cooking that adds color and flavor to curries, has long-been recognized by both Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda as an anti-inflammatory herb. It has been shown not only to prevent tumor growth, but to force cancer cells to kill themselves. But when combined with black pepper or ginger, it becomes 2,000 percent more effective.
2-3 cups of green tea per day provides enough EGCG in the blood to settle on the surface of cells and prevents them from being invaded by cancers. It has been shown to even more effective when combined with soy in food form like tofu or miso (and not from concentrated soy isoflavones).
Studies where 2, 3, and 4 anti-cancer foods were combined together showed greater efficacy than administering only one of the anti-cancer foods. In Chinese Medicine, we combine herbs together for the same reason: the blend is more powerful than the individual parts.
Food as medicine
In Chinese Medicine, every time we eat is an opportunity to promote health, simply survive, or to contribute to a disease process. Servan-Schriber makes this point in the his chapter on “the anticancer foods,” as he outlines the healthful properties of berries, citrus, stone fruits, mushrooms, olive oil, leafy greens, colorful veggies, cruciferous vegetables, the mint family, garlic, dark chocolate, red wine, soy and many other wonderful foods. This chapter could easily be called the “anti-arthritis foods” or the “anti-heart disease foods,” as the recommendations are very similar with an edible cast of characters seen again and again as helpful for different diseases.
Breathing, meditation, yoga, qigong and other active relaxation practices produce coherent rhythms in the body, indicating adaptability and thus resistance to cancer and heart disease, increase the body’s ability to handle stress, and boost the immune system.
Women with breast cancer who could name 10 friends (location unimportant) had survival rates 4x higher than those who couldn’t, in a large-scale study of US nurses.
What I appreciated most about this book is its practicality in empowering people to take action: specifically, to eat a variety of whole foods, vegetables, fruits, and spices; reduce sugar and refined flour, animal fats, vegetable oils and other foods high in Omega-6s; deal with old emotions, stay connected to loved ones, and avoid toxins in everyday life whenever possible. This is completely in line with Chinese Medical theory that we are connected to our environment, that what we do and consume every day can move us towards or away from health, and that chronic emotions like loneliness and helplessness are just as much of risk factors for disease as cigarette smoking. I also love that someone else has compiled such excellent and digestible research that confirms what Chinese Medicine has known for thousands of years, with such great charts and graphs.
There’s lots of stuff I’m leaving out. I highly recommend reading the book. Or at the very least, eating a little turmeric with black pepper every day.
Chinese Medicine is based on the notion that humans are connected to the Nature. What’s happening out in nature is also happening in us. Winter is a time when the world gets dark, quiet, stillness, and dormant. Animals hibernate, trees pull their sap inward, conserving their energy until the spring. This time of year is associated with the Water element, which in the body correlates with the Kidneys.
The Kidney is paired with the urinary bladder and is responsible for anything having to do with aging, the lower back and lower body, bones, teeth, hearing, hair on the head, as well as growth, development, reproductive organs, adrenals, the emotion of fear, and the Will. Here are some tips to support your Kidney qi this time of year and help stay in harmony with the season:
1) As the days get shorter, so should yours. Conserve your qi by going to bed early and getting up with the sun.
2) Get quiet and inward with qigong, meditation, or yoga.
3) Stay warm. Dress warmly. Secure the exterior of your body by massaging your skin with warm sesame oil before bathing.
4) Eat hearty soups, stews, especially those involving Kindey-nourishing beans like black, aduki, and kidney, and other foods with a natural salty taste like miso, seaweeds (especially cooked into soup), millet, barley. Seeds and nuts, as the most yin part of the plant, resonate with the season as well. Walnuts, black sesame seeds, and almonds help support Kindey yang, yin, and Essence respectively. Avoid salads, fruit juices, and adding too much salt to your food.
5) Warm up with spices like cinnnamon, nutmeg, clove, ginger, if you tend to feel cold.
If you honor your yin this season, abundant yang is bound to spring forth in the next.
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