By Sherra Cunningham
Thousands of years ago Chinese Medicine theorists developed ideas about human physiology, disease patterns and treatment by observing and experiencing Nature. One important model called the Five Element theory views physiological processes as reflections of the larger ecological processes of nature. Each element (Water, Wood, Fire, Earth and Metal) possesses qi or energy which is associated with everything from stages of development and seasons of the year to colors, temperatures, flavors, actions, tissues, organs and emotions. (Maciocia, p26). Everything is moving in continuous cycles acting on each other in various capacities to either support or disrupt the balance that sustains life.
The goal of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is to recognize these patterns and to utilize the available energy to create a balanced state in patients. Acupuncture, herbs, nutrition, exercise and lifestyle advice are important tools TCM practitioners use to do this. It is a holistic approach which focuses on each unique individual while paying attention to the environment the patient creates and inhabits both physically and emotionally.
“One of the most typical aspects of Chinese medicine is the common resonance among phenomena in nature and in the human body.”(Maciocia, p25). Spring has begun in the Western hemisphere. The Earth is alive with young flexible plants growing upward and outward bending easily to spring winds. Earth energy is regenerating from the dark quiet resting Yin of winter into the bright Yang movement and action of spring and summer. Five Element theory associates this season with the Wood element.
Organ correspondences to Wood are the Liver, Gallbladder and eyes. The tissues associated with the Wood element are the sinews/tendons. Liver blood is nourishing, it feeds the body and keeps it supple. Blood moistens tendons and eyes for clear vision and movement. Spring action requires suppleness, clear vision and smooth movement.
Qi is a Chinese word used for energy. According to Five Element theory the renewal activity of springtime stimulates liver qi to reach a highpoint. Liver qi, like spring growing action, moves upward and outward. Ancient Chinese theorists were remarkably accurate in describing liver function. According to their principles the liver stores the blood and “controls the smooth flow of qi in all directions.” This smooth flow assists all the other organs and helps them to channel their qi in the correct directions.” (Maciocia, p56). Current physiology describes the liver as a major filter for venous and arterial blood. Smooth flow is required in order to perform the continuous process of removing toxins, including fat, and returning clean nutrient rich blood back into circulation.
Modern science confirms that the liver is a major source of qi because it makes and stores an important form of energy called Glycogen. This polysaccharide is a form of energy made from extra Glucose in the blood. While small amounts of Glycogen are stored in other parts of the body, the majority is stored in the liver. Only the Glycogen stored in the liver can be used by the other organs, including the Central nervous system when energy is needed. (Wikipedia).
The body depends on liver harmony. An excess or stagnated liver is a disharmony TCM practitioners often treat. Symptoms include distention anywhere under the ribs and above the stomach. Feelings of depression, irritability, moodiness and anger are prevalent. Hands may be cold and a feeling of a lump in the throat is common. For women periods are irregular and PMS irritability with breast distention are typical complaints. Overeating, stress, various medications such as Acetaminophen, alcohol, a diet high in fatty, greasy, over processed and sugary foods can overload the liver with toxins and cause it to become sluggish and stagnated.
Modern nutritional science has shown that green does indeed have special significance to liver function. Chlorophyll, the phytochemical that produces the green pigment in vegetation decreases toxin loads in the liver by binding with them and removing them from the blood and the organ. It can be obtained from “green leafy vegetables (broccoli, Brussel sprouts, cabbage, lettuce, swiss chard, kale, mustard greens and spinach), algae (Chlorella and Spirulina), wheat grass, and numerous herbs (alfalfa, damiana, nettle, dandelion and parsley).” (Healthline). Eating these foods on a daily basis is beneficial to reducing liver stagnation and also nourishes the liver blood.
The Wood element is associated with the sour flavor, but eating too many foods with a sour taste can weaken a deficient liver. To soften and harmonize the liver, Chinese herbalism often combines sour herbs with sweeter herbs because the sweet taste nourishes the liver. (Maciocia, p39). As previously mentioned, current science has confirmed that Glucose or sugar is used by the liver to produce Glycogen, one of the body’s most important energy sources. Krispy Kremes and Coca Cola were not the types of sweet foods ancient theorists were promoting. The sweet, starchy young produce of springtime, such as beets, carrots, grains, legumes and seeds are the complex carbohydrates that most efficiently nourish the Liver blood. (Pitchford, p317). Nutrient rich blood is important to healthy body function in many ways.
Deficient liver blood can’t nourish the body. “When blood returns to the Liver with the body at rest, it contributes to restoring the person’s energy; when it flows to the muscles and sinews during exercise, it nourishes and moistens the muscles and sinews to enable them to perform during exercise.” (Maciocia, p118). Symptoms of deficient liver blood include dryness especially of the hair, nails and eyes. For women the menses may be scanty or absent. The body and lips are pale and muscles are weak. Sinews/tendons become dry and tear and vision is blurred. A person may have feelings of depression or aimlessness. (Maciocia, p521).
Folic acid or Folate is a B vitamin found in many spring foods. Some of the richest natural sources of Folic Acid include green vegetables such as “asparagus, spinach, brussel sprouts, broccoli, beans, as well as liver and orange juice.” ( Dr. Briffa). Folic acid is key to the development of red blood cells or erythrocytes. According to several studies a deficiency of this vitamin can increase the risk of depression and dementia. (Newsmax). The B vitamin folic acid is “considered by some researchers as the quintessential nutrient in the correction of myopia (nearsightedness)”. (Pitchford, p326). This nutrient is heat sensitive and most prominent in raw food. While TCM does not recommend completely raw food diets due to the high energy required to digest raw meals; quick sautés, light steaming and minimal simmering are ideal ways to eat spring vegetables to preserve vital nutrients. (Pitchford, p318).
Spring is the perfect time to move body, wakening it as the Earth wakes from the resting energy of winter. Brisk walks and sideways twisting motions stimulate the liver to promote healthy blood circulation and reduce stress. Stress reduction allows for relaxation and restores blood to the liver thus improving energy levels. Eating light meals reduces the amount of energy needed to clean the blood and when vegetables are cooked lightly, important heat sensitive nutrients are preserved, which benefit the liver in a myriad of ways. To further reduce toxic loads in the blood which can be added by eating pesticides and chemicals, it is helpful to consume unprocessed and organic foods because they are free of these toxins.
“As two strings vibrate in unison, we vibrate with Nature.” When we are aware of the natural processes occurring in our environment, we gain insight into the wisdom Nature shares. The earliest Chinese medicine theorists did not have the technology we have today to study the body, yet many of their theories, based only on observation and experience, hold up thousands of years later. Your TCM practitioner is aware that the complexities of the human body evolved in direct relationship with a dynamic and ever changing natural environment. By considering and utilizing all the energy at work, treatment for each patient becomes more powerful in its ability to restore harmony and good health.
Dr. Briffa: http://www.drbriffa.com/2002/03/24/folic-acid-2/.
Maciocia,Giovanii: Foundations for Chinese Medicine. 2nd Edition.
Pitchford, Paul: Healing with Whole Foods. 3rd Edition.