Practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine
Member of the Association of Traditional Chinese Medicine and Acupuncture UK
Author of Be Your Own Nutritionist
twitter – @byonhealth
The Awakening Season
“The Wise nourish life by flowing with the four seasons and adapting to cold or heat, by harmonising joy and anger in a tranquil dwelling, by balancing yin and yang, and what is hard and soft”
from the Neijing, a Chinese medical classic
A medicine, a lifestyle, for spring seems a bit odd in these days of central heating, air freighted fruit and global diseases. After all, there is very little evidence that we should pay attention to the seasons at all when it comes to health. But then… when we consider that less than 1% of all research funding is spent on Complementary therapies and the like, it becomes clear that there is very little evidence at all, because so little research has been performed in the first place. And as the old saying goes, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”.
Consequently, in my view, health practices for spring are very important, but science provides very few answers, so we have to turn to culture and tradition instead. This leads to four main areas, diet, exercise, sleep and Spirit.
The diet for spring addresses the after affects of richer winter food and clears typical winter sluggishness. In this respect the two key flavours are spicy aromatics and sour. Sourness, the natural taste of acidic food, stimulates the liver and gall bladder to release bile. It is refreshing and aids liver function and regeneration. The best sour foods for this task include cider vinegar, rice wine vinegar and lemon juice. These are all gentler in action than, for example, red wine vinegar or balsamic and so are less likely to overwhelm digestion. That digestion can be overwhelmed is a result of the astringency of sourness, which in excess can inhibit peristalsis and lead to pain or bloating. Hence the reason that spicy aromatics matter; they are expansive and soothing to counteract the astringency of sourness. Many aromatic foods, such as ginger, cinnamon and spring onion also stimulate immunity, which is essential in spring as the typical cold, windy, damp weather inhibits circulation in the head, lungs and skin, leaving us exposed to “seasonal colds”, flu and coughs. Hence the expression “ne’er cast a clout till May is out”.
So, when you tuck into those lovely spring greens make a dressing too from hemp oil, mustard and cider vinegar. And, if you haven’t already, plant your radishes and chives. It’s also recommended to make chicken bone broth with a little splash of cider vinegar and a few slices of ginger. Drink this daily with chopped fresh spring onion.
Exercise for spring is based around its character as the bridge between quiescent, restful winter (at least, this is how we’re meant to behave in winter!), and hot, active Summer. So it’s about waking the body up and preparing it for activity. This means that stretching is very important, to make the muscles, tendons and other connective tissue like a willow sapling; a supple strong body is then not prone to injury. Traditional practices that acknowledge the importance of seasonal variation, like Qi Gong, focus on calming, to ensure that exuberant spring energy doesn’t get out of hand, as happens in the case of hay fever for example. Other exercises stimulate circulation to clear out the winter cobwebs. For women, it is particularly important to invigorate the abdominal circulation, with can be achieved with Qi Gong or Yoga, as well as Zumba, hula hooping or belly dancing.
Whatever you choose, the big lesson from super healthy societies such as Okinawa and Singapore is to have a daily exercise practise. It’s as important as eating breakfast, lunch and supper.
So you’ll be getting up nice and early to bag your prime exercise spot in the park (at least that’s what they do in traditional South East Asia), which means getting to bed at a decent time – 10 o clock is the magic hour. The Victorians slept, on average, for 1 ½ hours longer per night than we do today. They had lighting, but they didn’t have computers, smart phones and televisions – so their brains and hearts were much more restful and rested than ours. Current research shows that watching a screen within an hour of bedtime raises the likelihood of disturbed sleep and depression the next day.
Which leads to Spirit. Surely a British forest on a sunny spring day is the most beautiful place on Earth? A walk among those singing birds, bluebells, wild garlic leaves and flowers, and budding beech trees is pure delight – health and happiness inevitably results.