The Winds of Spring and Liver Imbalance

Spring is officially here, and with Spring comes many imbalances that we in Chinese Medicine attribute to the Liver organ and meridian system. 

Image from:    designua / 123RF Stock Photo       This image shows the Five Element cycle and its ability to "generate" each element.  Wood feeds Fire which burns to ashes, creating Earth.  As Earth compacts, it turns into Metals, and in time, the runoff from the distillation of Metals turns into Water.

Image from: designua / 123RF Stock Photo  

This image shows the Five Element cycle and its ability to "generate" each element.  Wood feeds Fire which burns to ashes, creating Earth.  As Earth compacts, it turns into Metals, and in time, the runoff from the distillation of Metals turns into Water.

As I wrote in the last article, Wood Pillar and the Art of Movement, in Chinese Medicine, we have a particular philosophy that guides us, called the Five Element cycle.  In the simplest of definitions, the Five Elements connect to form a circle.  As Gail Reichstein describes, “the elements – Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water – are stations of that circle. …the cycle of the Five Elements integrates human activity with the natural rhythms of the universe.  From its beginnings, the Five Element cycle connect[s] various aspects of experience to its individual elements.  Season, body organs, emotions, sounds, colors, directions, and climates [are] all distributed over the cycle of five.” [1]

Spring is the season associated with the Wood element, as Spring’s energy is like that of wood, explosive in growth capacity, from a seed to a bud, shooting out of the partially frozen ground to eventually become a majestic canopy of earth.  Animals come out of hibernation and we see humans also taking advantage of the longer days, warmer weather, and the beauty of the natural world blooming around us.  Wind is the climate associated with Wood, as wind has the dramatic capacity, in its most violent form, to turn into a hurricane or typhoon, and destroy houses, cars, boats, and buildings.  In Spring, we see a lot of windy days, as it is heralding the change of icy cold, drab Winter days to vibrant, life-affirming Spring days.

In Chinese Medicine, the Liver is the organ associated with the Wood element, and like Wood, we say, "Liver governs growth."  The Liver organ is responsible for maintaining a smooth flow in our bodies; thus, when the Liver is healthy, it helps us to take things in stride without getting stressed out.  The emotion associated with Liver is anger.  If the Liver energy is not flowing smoothly, people become easily angered and often have anger management issues.  Another manifestation of the Liver energy not flowing smoothly is anxiety via the "attack" an angry or overworked Liver does on Spleen/digestive system.  This organ is also responsible in keeping our sinews – tendons, ligaments and skeletal muscles – working smoothly.  The main channel system of the Liver starts from the lateral side of the big toe and ends in the liver, but another channel starts from the liver and ends in the eyes, thus vision, visual acuity and eyes are associated with the Liver system.  Liver is also responsible for controlling immune response.

When the spring season comes forth, the organ system associated with Spring -- the Liver system (both organ and channel) -- gets activated, bringing any imbalance present in the Liver system to the forefront.  This explains why it is so common to see allergies acting up in Spring.  Not only does Spring bring life back to earth, but this life brings an abundance of pollen and hay, activators in many hay fever sufferers.  The winds blow the pollen and hay into the environment, triggering an allergic reaction in people who have a Liver system imbalance.  If you remember, Liver is in charge of controlling immune response.  Spring is when we also often see a sudden burst of conjunctivitis, a.k.a., pink eye, because of the Liver channel ending in the eye.  See the Liver channels illustrated here.  You may also notice yourself getting unusually irritable--or outright angry--for the most minor of triggers during Spring. 

With the preponderance of windy days in Spring, we will then also see a lot of what Chinese Medicine calls Wind symptoms.  Wind affects the environment we live in: moving branches, changing temperatures, and picking up dust from the environment.  This same Wind can also affect us internally in our bodies.  If you have what we call Liver Blood Deficiency, then the quality of your blood may not be as nutritious and vibrant, allowing for a “hollowness” in your blood vessels.  This hollowness invites “Wind” to enter, causing wind-like symptoms such as muscle twitching and cramping, tremors and weakness/numbness.  Think of this condition like a subway system.  When a train is running in the subway, it comes and leaves with a huge gust of wind, rattling everything in its wake, just like the twitches and tremors of your muscles.  You may wake up one Spring morning inexplicably with a stiff neck or your eye twitching, either the top or bottom lid.  I would not be surprised if the day before, it was quite windy and you were out in the park playing with your child.  Other types of Wind symptoms in your body are: dizziness or spinning head, restlessness (like the wind rustling in your mind), and rigid or spastic muscles.[2]

If you have noticed yourself or your family member with a propensity toward these symptoms, and particularly so in Spring, you might very well have a Wood or Liver imbalance.  What can you do to bring your Liver back to balance?   

Dietarily, adding sour flavors to your food will help to invigorate the Liver system.  As we say in Chinese Medicine, "Liver favors the sour flavor".  Sour flavors can be found in foods like sauerkraut, pickles, lemons, sour plums, plain yogurt, berries, olives, goji berries, certain cheeses, sourdough bread and vinegar.  All vegetables, but in particular green vegetables, will also help to soothe an often overworked and overwhelmed liver, as green is the color associated with the Liver system (think leaves of trees and plants).  Hydrating with a little lemon-spritzed water, plain water, and clear broths are also excellent for the liver, as we say in the Five Element cycle that the element Water feeds and nourishes Wood.  Plants cannot grow without water.  Though not sour, drinking peppermint tea is also a great preventative for heat in the Liver system.   Peppermint enters the Lung and Liver channels, clears heat, clears the head and eyes, courses the Liver, disinhibits the throat and release viral pathogens.  It is quite suited for the myriad of symptoms that manifest in the Spring, so consider drinking it as a preventative or at the first sign of a fever, sore throat or itchy eyes.  Chinese Food Medicine has even more specific breakdowns of what types of foods to eat based on the diagnosis your Physician of Oriental Medicine will make, but this is a good start.[3]

Exercises to relax and soothe the tired and stressed Liver system will be smooth, continuous movements like tai chi and qi gong, and rhythmic, flowing movements like walking, swimming, vinyasa yoga (flowing movements coordinated with the breath), running, bicycling, and ballroom dancing.  Do any of these exercises even 10 minutes a day and you will see your stress and anger melt away in no time. 

Spending time in activities, like a hobby, and with company you enjoy will also do wonders to relax the Liver.  Any focus or attention that generates laughter, joy and connection will vent the steam from an "overheated" Liver.  Laughter, joy and connection are attributes of the Fire element, which is the next station after the Wood element in the Five Element cycle.  By sparking the Fire element, we say it drains the excess heat and energy being generated by the Wood element, thus relaxing and decompressing an overworked Liver.

To protect yourself from strong Spring winds, wear a scarf and/or a hat on those windy days, as we say in Chinese Medicine that "the Wind is the Carrier of One Hundred Diseases."  Traditional wisdom also asserts that diseases like to enter the body through the neck (and other connection points, like ankles and wrists); therefore, protecting the neck with a scarf is paramount to protection from external pathogens.  If you get caught being outdoors, unprotected from gusty winds or the oft-freezing air-conditioners Americans love to blast, take a nice warming bath that night.  This increases your metabolism and fights off any Wind pathogens.  In conventional medicine, these would be airborne pathogens discharged from an infected person via sneezing, laughing or in close contact which you may have caught unprotected.  Plenty of good sleep is also always a wise daily preventative measure you can take to keep your immune system strong, your Liver happy, and your body healthy. 

Lastly, acupuncture and Chinese herbs are excellent at bringing balance back to the Liver and ridding the body of Wind.  Depending on the severity of the symptoms, one treatment may be all you need, like for the sudden onset of eye twitching or a stiff neck.  If anger, irritability, depression or menstrual irregularities are what you or your child suffers from, then a longer-term approach may be required.  (In Chinese Medicine, Liver also stores blood.  The liver's channel system circles the reproductive organs, affecting women’s menstrual and reproductive abilities intricately.)  

By taking preventative measures and incorporating daily routines promoting Liver health--diet, exercise, joyful activities and a little Chinese Medicine--you can bring better harmony to your health during the Spring season.

 

[1] Gail Reichstein, “Wood Becomes Water: Chinese Medicine in Everyday Life.”

[2] To learn more about Wood conditions in your body, refer to Gail Reichstein’s “Wood Becomes Water: Chinese Medicine in Everyday Life.”

[3] To learn more about Chinese Food Medicine, refer to Paul Pritchford’s “Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition” as well as Yuan Wang’s “Ancient Wisdom, Modern Kitchen: Recipes from the East for Health, Healing, and Long Life.”

Chinese Medicine for Swimmer’s Ear/Ear Infection and Summer Colds

Summer is a wonderful time to be outdoors and enjoy the sun.  Many of us splash around in swimming pools for fun and exercise.  Children take swim classes and compete.  Swimming is a wonderful whole-body workout and learning to swim is vital for water safety.  However, many children end up getting swimmer’s ear, ear infections and/or colds because they are in the water so much.  Why does Jimmy get swimmer’s ear or an infection but Johnny practicing next to him does not?  This is directly related to a child’s constitution and daily dietary habits.

Cold-Damp Environment and Ear Problems

Children who are prone to swimmer’s ear and ear infections from swimming tend to have a weak constitution, "Cold" constitution, or their diets promote these ear problems.  (There are children that always run hot, no matter what, even in the dead of winter, and then there are children who always tend to run cool or cold.  There are also children who are in the middle.  When I say “Cold" constitution, I am talking about those children who easily run cold – cold hands, cold feet – in particular.)  In Chinese Medicine, we consider water to have a Cold, and in particular, Damp quality.  Be in a cold, wet, damp environment long enough and the body’s immune system begins to slow down because that environment, in this case, the pool or ocean, is so overwhelmingly stronger and bigger than a child.  So that Cold, Damp, wet energy literally seeps into the body, slowing down the child’s metabolic activity.  This creates a “Damp” condition in the ear, like a mold or mildew growing in a unventilated, damp environment.  Though the body tries to fight this Cold-Damp pathogen, if a child’s immune system is Cold or weakened from swimming, its attempts at fighting off the pathogen is weak.  Instead of being able to properly discharge and eliminate the Cold-Damp pathogen through natural means of lymphatic drainage and heated metabolic activity of dissipating fluids, this weak response turns the Cold-Damp pathogen into a lodged ear infection instead.    

Diet and Ear Problems

The way diet plays into ear problems is similar to the above-mentioned Cold-Damp environment.  The food children consume on a daily basis promotes, from a Chinese Medicine perspective, a cold, damp environment within their bodies.  Foods that are Cold and Damp in Chinese medicine are sweets, juices, carbohydrates, iced drinks, ice cream, nuts and nut butters, processed meats, and dairy products.  Isn’t this what most American children eat and drink on a regular basis?  A child who eats these foods regularly already has a Cold-Damp environment in their system.  This will manifest in the child as cold, clammy hands and/or feet, runny nose, tummy aches, irregular bowel movements, frequent colds and ear infections, phlegmy cough, and/or asthma.  These Cold-Damp prone children then enter the pool, and after repeated exposure to a cold, wet, environment--BAM--the double whammy of Cold-Damp from outside and inside the body turns into ear problems.  The ears are affected by swimming because there is constant assault of water entering the ears, which is not a normal occurrence.  Again, liken it to mold or mildew, i.e., improper water metabolism, happening in a dark, damp, unventilated environment.

Air Conditioners are Cold, Too

Don’t forget air conditioners!  The temperature rises and many of us naturally turn on the A/C to cool down.  This is another Cold environment a child walks into, often right after playing in water.  When a child enters an air conditioned car or house and his/her pores are open from swimming and sweating, this unnatural cold air penetrates into the skin and attacks the body further, festering into an ear infection.  A/C in particular is very damaging to children, and especially to a child with a Cold constitution, because of the unnatural bone-seeping cold air it creates. 

Summer Colds

If you’ve gotten my gist of Cold-Damp and children, you probably already know what I’m going to say about summer colds.  Children who catch summer colds often have this interplay of a weak or Cold constitution and Cold-Damp-heavy diet, plus playing, sleeping or sitting in an unnaturally cold (i.e., air conditioned) environment. 

Chinese Medicine to the Rescue!

Chinese Medicine is extremely effective in combating ear infections, swimmer’s ear and summer colds.  To treat these kinds of conditions stemming from Cold-Damp, we practitioners of Chinese Medicine look to the Law of Nature first.  What in nature combats coldness and damp?  Heat.  Heat warms and counteracts coldness.  Dry, warm air purges moisture and dampness.  Therefore, in treating children, we will often use Warm/Hot medicinals that contain Cinnamon and Ginger, and techniques that use moxa to treat a child with these conditions.  Shonishin and/or acupuncture will also help to dispel Cold-Damp as well as improve fluid and blood circulation, and strengthen the constitution of the child so that the child’s own body can fight these infections.  Depending on the severity of the condition, or the chronicity of the condition, one to five treatments often resolves these conditions, along with administration of herbs and changes to the child’s diet.  But before you come in to see me, try the home remedies below to prevent these summer ailments.

Home Remedies

Here are some very effective strategies available at home to help combat swimmer’s ear, ear infections and summer colds:

  • Dry off children immediately (including their hair) after they’re done swimming and change them out of wet, cold swimsuits into dry clothes.  If they tend to be Cold, I suggest dressing them in long pants and long sleeve shirts or a light summer jacket or sweater as well to help conserve body heat.  Use a blow dryer to dry them completely if you’re going to an air conditioned environment right after swimming or the sun is not out that day -- or let them dry and warm up completely in the hot sun before going into a cold car or house.  The sun is a powerful tool to help Cold or Weak children really warm up from the core of the body.
  • In addition to drying their hair, use a blow dryer (on low heat setting) to warm the back of their ears where they attach to the head, the back of their necks, their bellies, their lower backs, and their wrists and ankles.  Do this right after swimming and before they go to bed.  Blow drying these body points has a wonderfully warming effect on the whole body and helps to maintain proper fluid drainage and keep their immune system strong.
  • Have children sip warm honey water (babies should be one or older), cinnamon water, or ginger water from their sippy cups after swimming.  Seep a cinnamon stick and/or pieces of ginger in hot water for 5 -10 minutes, let it cool down a bit, remove the cinnamon or ginger, and then fill a Thermos sippy cup for the child to drink from after swimming.
  • Avoid dairy, ice cream, sugary foods and iced drinks surrounding the days that your children swim.  Instead, feed them hot porridge, oatmeal, soups, warm drinks, beef and lamb.  Cook often with warming ingredients like garlic, ginger, and onion to warm up the foods they are consuming.
  • Employ topical Swimmer’s Ear drops right after swimming.  One or two drops in each ear.
  • Dress children protectively at night: have them wear socks to sleep in and tuck their shirts into their pants to protect tummies from Cold and Wind (i.e., fans, A/C, open windows) while they’re sleeping.  Ideally, don’t turn on fans or A/C while sleeping and if you must have a window open, don’t place a child’s feet or head right by the window.
  • Keep the A/C to a minimum.  Keep it at a temperature just enough to get rid of the oppressive heat or humidity, but don’t make it Arctic cold.  If your child’s hands, feet or nose are cold to the touch while in the car or house, you know you’ve got the A/C on too cold.  Reduce the A/C and warm up your child in the sun or the blow dryer to prevent the Cold from seeping deeper into the body.
  • Consider using a fan instead of the A/C, or combine a fan and the A/C.  Use the A/C just to rid the environment of humidity or oppressive heat, and use the fan to keep the air circulating and cool.  Fans are a more natural alternative to cooling the body, so if at all possible, employ just natural air, letting the fan cool you and your child. 
  • Let kids play a lot in the sun to really collect the wonderfully nature-derived warming energy of the sun.  Modern kids don’t get enough sun and nature time.

Our bodies are highly attuned to nature.  In summer, our pores naturally open to help keep our bodies cool by allowing us to sweat more easily.  And summer is when our bodies are supposed to detoxify naturally.  It is important to sweat during the summer because this allows us to also expel toxicity and gunk that has built up over the previous winter and spring, cleaning us out to prepare us for the fall and coming winter again.  We can collect and harness the warming energy of the sun to detox unwanted elements and effectively strengthen the body.  Children who are prone to allergies and asthma in the fall and winter will really do well to play in the sun and sweat during the summer.  This helps them strengthen their constitution during the abundant warm energy of the summer while dispelling toxic heat, inflammation, and mucus/phlegm build up through sweating.  (But of course, do utilize smart sun strategies for your child!)