Harmonizing With the Spring

Young Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea) emerging

Young Ground Ivy (Glechoma hederacea) emerging

The spring is an exciting, transformative, and expansive time. The plants and the earth are waking-up. And, since our bodies are a little microcosm of this larger macrocosm, a little spring awakening is happening within us too! Can you feel it?

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and especially 2,000 year old Chinese 5-Element Theory, provides us with a beautiful framework for understanding the spring and its energetics.  Following some simple ancient wisdom described below, we can attune ourselves with natural influences of this season and more easily tap into the rich gifts it has to offer.

This is the concept of harmonizing with the seasons.

 


To more easily begin to harmonize with this magical season, a little background and context will be helpful.....

Spring, the Wood Element, and the Liver-Gallbladder

In Chinese Medicine each season corresponds with an Element and an Organ System.  The spring is associated with the Wood Element and the Chinese Liver-Gallbladder organ system (different from our western anatomical liver and gallbladder) and meridians. Understanding this organ/element pair and its associations is a great place to start since harmonizing with the spring means balancing this element within us, i.e. being sure its not in a state deficiency or excess. 

Young Nettles  (Urtica dioica ) in early spring. A classic spring tonic. Not surprisingly, in TCM the color associated with the spring and the Wood Element is green!

Young Nettles (Urtica dioica) in early spring. A classic spring tonic. Not surprisingly, in TCM the color associated with the spring and the Wood Element is green!

Keywords and phrases for the Liver-Gallbladder/Wood Element/Spring in balance:
Upwards moving energy, yang, growth, expansiveness, clear vision and purpose, decisiveness and decision-making, ambition, hopefulness, starting new projects, productivity

Sounds just about right, doesn’t it?

In the spring it’s easy to see these actions and influences happening in nature all around us (and also feel them within ourselves!) with buds opening, sap running, plants bursting forth from the ground, melting rivers of snow, new growth and renewal of life.  There’s no indecisiveness there- the plants are going to grow!

Using appropriate foods, herbs and daily practices, is the best way to bring ourselves into alignment with these energetics of this season happening all around us. When we do so, we’ll see these qualities reflected in a balanced way within ourselves, on both a physical and mental/emotional level. The Wood Element in balance is a beautiful and powerful thing! It embodies those characteristics described above.

The Wood Element out of balance, however, in Excess, can look like a quick temper, easily frustrated, lack of emotional and mental flexibility, depression, excess heat and inflammation in the system, tight neck and shoulders, and bodily tension in general. In TCM the formula Xiao Yao San (also called Relaxed Wanderer or Free & Easy Wandered) is the classic and super effective treatment for this pattern.

The Wood Element out of balance, in a Deficiency, can look like indecisiveness, lack of flexibility, stiffness, dryness in the joints (osteoarthritis), lack of motivation, irritability, and loss of good judgement.

Whether you feel you you have one of these patterns reflected in you or not, working with balancing your Wood Element in the spring will help you cultivate within yourself the attributes of the Wood Element in balance described above- motivation, productivity, clear vision, decisiveness, and hopefulness.  These are the true qualities and nature of the spring. But if you do feel this element could use some particular balancing, here's a great thing to know- the spring the time that holds the highest potential for healing within the Wood Element. To me that's a really profound concept to reflect on. We can harness the natural influences of this season to catalyze deep healing within ourselves.


The “Gifts” of the Spring

Chinese 5-Element Theory also talks about specific “gifts” of each season that we can experience when we are harmonizing with the season at hand.

 

Gifts of the Spring and the Wood Element:

Smooth Flow around obstacles, Flexibility

 

The image to think about here is a new plant sprouting from the ground, maneuvering around fallen sticks and debris from the winter (like the Snowdrops below) with ease, reaching for the sun.  Or a young flexible sapling easily swaying in the wind with no rigidity or tenseness in response to the force of the wind, just ease. I just love this visual, especially when challenging situations arise that might tempt my temper- be like the sapling in the wind! How wonderful to think about being able to access flexibility and easy flow around obstacles particularly in the spring!

Snowdrops  (Galanthus   nivalis)  pushing through the winter debris and leaves with flexibility and ease

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) pushing through the winter debris and leaves with flexibility and ease


Harmonizing with the Spring

Harmonizing our energy with the spring and the Wood Element doesn't have to be complicated and can be as simple as nibbling young leaves, drinking maple sap, or moving our body daily, but there are some basic guidelines and ancient wisdom we can take inspiration from to guide our choices during this season. Read on for some suggestions. Choose what appeals or works for you. If you don't have access to these particular foods or herbs, come back to the flavors described below and let you taste buds guide you!

Food Energetics
Eat light. Lightly cooked, more raw than any other season. Not a time for an abundance of heavy, oily, and salty foods.

MOST IMPORTANTLY:  If it’s growing outside right now, it’s the best food choice we can make.  When we eat these wild foods straight from the ground we're aligning ourselves with this same upward-moving, nothing-can-stop-it energy of the spring. Also, fresh local spinach, asparagus, arugula and greens from the farmer's market, or any spring green grown locally has this same energetic influence!

Young Knotweed  (Fallopia japonica)  bursting forth. These shoots can grow more than an inch/day. It really exemplifies the upward-moving, yang energy of the spring! Asparagus is a great example of this too. Young Knotweed shots are delicious- I like to cook them like asparagus and often cook them together. Some folks like to use them in place of Rhubarb in desserts.

Young Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) bursting forth. These shoots can grow more than an inch/day. It really exemplifies the upward-moving, yang energy of the spring! Asparagus is a great example of this too. Young Knotweed shots are delicious- I like to cook them like asparagus and often cook them together. Some folks like to use them in place of Rhubarb in desserts.

Flavor
Eat foods that emphasize aspects of yang- upward moving, rising and expansive. The sweet and pungent (aka spicy/aromatic) flavors have this influence on our body.

What….what? Sweet and pungent for the spring? You were probably thinking sour and bitter, for the liver and spring, right?

Paul Pitchford puts it best:
“One misunderstanding often arises regarding the use of flavors for seasonal attunement:  The flavor associated with each Element affects the organ in that Element in specific, therapeutic ways, but it is not used for general attunement to the associated season. “- Healing With Whole Foods, By Paul Pitchford

So, in other words, if you have a hot, angry, over-heated liver, i.e. the Wood Element in Excess, then yes, the flavors for you are bitter and sour, as they are very cooling.  But if you’re looking to attune with the spring, the best flavors to emphasize are sweet and pungent. Why? In TCM it is said that the sweet and pungent flavor have upward-moving, yang energy.  So eating this flavor helps harmonize one with all the seasonal influences of the spring that we’ve discussed above.

It’s important to remember that very few plants have just one true flavor. Look for plants that contain the pungent and/or sweet flavor, which you will almost never find alone, which is fine! Common pairings are bitter/pungent, salty/sweet, and bitter/sweet.  Many other flavor combinations are possible!  And of course, a little bitter in the spring (or anytime really) definitely doesn’t hurt!

Pungent Foods and Herbs
Mugwort (Artemesia vulgaris), Bee Balm (Monarda sp), Catnip (Nepeta cataria), Oregano (Origanum sp), Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), Chives (Allium schoenoprasum), Dill (Anethum graveolens), Garlic Chives (Allium tuberosum), Scallions/Green Onions (Allium fistulosum), Garlic greens and Spring Garlic (Allium sativa), Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata), Evening Primrose Lvs (Oneothera biennsis), Peppermint (Mentha piperita), Spearmint (Mentha spicata), Thyme (Thymus vulgaris), Sage (Salvia officinalis), Onions (especially Spring Onions), Shallots, Mustard Greens, Arugula, and so on. These are all wonderful plants for the spring and among the first to come back in the garden and hit the farmers markets!  And remember, if it's growing from the ground outside right now, it's absolutely the best food you can find for harmonizing with the spring!

Young Catnip  (Nepeta cataria)  emerging. Catnip comes back very early in the spring and is pungent in flavor. Add the tops to salads, make tea, or just nibble on from the garden!

Young Catnip (Nepeta cataria) emerging. Catnip comes back very early in the spring and is pungent in flavor. Add the tops to salads, make tea, or just nibble on from the garden!

Sweet Foods and Herbs
In terms of getting that sweetness in- we’re not talking sweet like sugar or really even honey. What we want is that mild sweetness found in many greens (that is often paired with some bitter and salty flavor), especially in the spring when that yang energy is the strongest. Remember that many greens are sweetest in the spring before they become more bitter in the summer. In terms of domesticated species, the Brassicas like kale and collards, asparagus, spinach and some lettuces really exemplify this. Spring Asparagus is quite sweet too. In terms of wild greens, Dandelion Lvs (Taraxacum officinale), Violet Lf (Viola sp), Plantain (Plantago spp), Lambs Quarters (Chenopodium album), Chickweed (Stellaria media), and Nettles (Urtica dioica) are have some sweetness to them, particularly in the spring.  A garden plant with lots of sweetness is Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum).  And don’t forget the roots! Dandelion Rt (Taraxacum officinale), Evening Primrose Rt (Oneothera biennsis), Burdock Rt (Arcticum lappa) all have some sweetness paired with the bitter flavor, and are quite abundant in our northeast bioregion. And don't forget the early spring fruits like Strawberry, and also sweet fruits in general clearly contain the sweet flavor and are appropriate.

Supportive Daily Lifestyle Practices
Create a little Spring within! Launch new projects, be decisive, forage for wild foods, get plenty of movement and exercise, plan and set goals for the year, get your hands in the dirt- grow something! Keep trying to embody that flexible young sapling swaying in the wind, or the daffodils or spring bulbs pushing through the leaves and sticks without an hesitation, yet with flexibility and ease. Nature is truly our biggest teacher- when in doubt look to her for inspiration.

Wishing you all a wonderful spring full of flexibility, ambition, decisiveness, and clear vision and purpose.


Some spring recipes and articles from this blog to get you going

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Folks often confuse this with Violets, but Garlic Mustard has a more curly edge to the leaf, comes-out earlier (it's our earliest wild green!), and- of course- smells strongly of garlic when you crush the leaf. This pungent wild green contains the wild and expansive essence of the spring, and harmonizes us energetically with the spring.

Garlic Mustard (Alliaria petiolata). Folks often confuse this with Violets, but Garlic Mustard has a more curly edge to the leaf, comes-out earlier (it's our earliest wild green!), and- of course- smells strongly of garlic when you crush the leaf. This pungent wild green contains the wild and expansive essence of the spring, and harmonizes us energetically with the spring.


Spring Garlic (Allium sativa). Simply harvest some of your garlic early in the spring before it fully matures. It is delicious and quite pungent- perfect spring medicine

Spring Garlic (Allium sativa). Simply harvest some of your garlic early in the spring before it fully matures. It is delicious and quite pungent- perfect spring medicine


References

Healing With Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition
By Paul Pitchford

Staying Healthy With the Seasons
By Elson M. Haas

Foundations of Chinese Medicine
By Giovanni Maciocia

The Web That Has No Weaver
By Ted Kapchuk

The Yellow Emporer’s Classic of Medicine/ The Neijing
Circa 200-400 BC

“Living Medicine”
Larken Bunce, Herbstalk 2014

Clearpath School of Herbal Studies
Chris Marano, Clinical Herbalist


Hungry for more herbal learning? In addition to our in-person classes, we also offer online learning through our Patreon Community! Membership starts at just $5/month and there are offerings like monthly online classes, monthly herbal study groups, and more. Join by June 15th to get my herbal ebook “For the Love of Nettles” as an added bonus and thank you! It’s also just a great way to say “thanks” if you enjoy the blog!


 

Placenta Medicine

Note: This piece was originally published on the Birth Institute Birth Wisdom Blog in 2016

Prepared Placenta/Zi He Chi

Prepared Placenta/Zi He Chi

In our current model of healthcare, there is often quite a bit of emphasis put on pre-natal care and preparing for the birth itself, but when it comes to postpartum times, quality care (and education) for the mother is often lacking. However, in many traditional cultures the proper postpartum attention for both the mother and baby is of the utmost importance, with a myriad of time-honored treatments and protocols adhered to. In some of these traditions, incorporating the placenta as medicine is an important part of the postpartum recovery for the mother.

Medicinal Use

The oldest recorded use we have of the use of the placenta as medicine comes to us from Chinese Medicine, the system of medicine in China that is over 2,000 years old and still in use today.  In this system the prepared placenta (more on how to make this preparation later) is called Zi He Chi, is considered a supreme medicine for restoration, and is said to store the vital essence for the baby.  Some specific indications for its use postpartum in Chinese Medicine are fatigue in the mother and insufficient lactation.  It is also used during menopause- a testament to the high hormone levels it contains.

Modern-day science on the benefits of ingesting the placenta (called placentophagy) is lacking, but on the rise, and we do have some scientific studies (see references below) and lots and lots of empirical evidence.  Once study by the National Institute of Health showed that the placenta is very rich in Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone (CRH), which is a stress-reducing hormone, and that the placenta secretes so much into the bloodstream during the 3rd trimester of pregnancy that the CRH levels increase three times their normal levels.  Normally this hormone is secreted by the hypothalamus, but during pregnancy it isn’t, as the placenta takes care of that.  After delivery of the placenta, however, it takes the hypothalamus some time to get the signal that CRH levels are low and that it needs to start producing it again, and ingesting the placenta- rich in this hormone, and others- can help mitigate this fluctuation and also shows some scientific evidence for its use to prevent postpartum depression.  Also, interestingly, nearly every mammal consumes its placenta after birth- even herbivores- and one study showed that animals refused to eat other meats offered and preferentially ate their placenta.

Other medicinal benefits observed by midwives, herbalists, placenta consultants, doulas, birth professionals and traditional healers include increased general energy, better mood and prevention of postpartum depression and the “baby blues”, improved sleep, improved milk production and nutritional quality of the milk, prevention of iron-deficiency anemia, and faster postpartum healing.  The placenta may also be used anytime a mother is going through a time of increased stress- even if it isn’t immediately postpartum- and can be helpful during menopause as well, as mentioned above. It is sometimes recommended for the child too if they are undergoing a lot of stress.

It’s also important to take a moment to discuss the nutritional content of the placenta. Remember the placenta is an organ, which makes it an organ meat, which are universally revered in traditional cultures for their life-giving properties due to their high vitamin, mineral and hormone content, and the placenta is no different! We know it is high in protein, fat, iron, minerals including sodium, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, copper, manganese.  It is also rich in hormones- many of which are in flux in the days and weeks following birth- including estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, prolactin, oxytocin, thyroid stimulating hormone, corticotropin releasing hormone, cortisone. (For specifics on how these hormones effect the postpartum body please refer to item #3 in the references below).

Preparing and Using the Placenta for Medicine

There are many ways to take and prepare the placenta as medicine, including eating it cooked or raw, tincturing it, and preparing it according to Traditional Chinese Medicine and making a tea, or powdering the prepared placenta and putting it into capsules. The latter is my favorite for to work with the placenta in my herbal practice, and is the form I have the most clinical experience with and have seen excellent results both in myself and others. One study even showed that certain nutrients were increased by the heating process. I love it when scientific study validates centuries of traditional use!

Here’s how to prepare it according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. (This recipe comes from licensed acupuncturist Amy Mager of Mager Healing in Northampton, Massachusetts):

How to Dry a Placenta

Ingredients:

1 Placenta
1 Peel of grapefruit, lemon or orange
2-4 One inch pieces of fresh ginger
1 Fresh jalapeno pepper

Scrub out your sink and clean your counter to be used as well.  Use a large clean bowl to rinse the placenta, removing any clots or loose blood. Wash and cut the other ingredients.

Place the ingredients in a stainless steel or cast iron pot and cover with filtered water. Simmer until completely cooked.  Test with a fork: No blood should run and it should feel tender and not tough.  Usually this takes about an hour and a half. 

Remove the placenta from the liquid and cool to room temperature on a plate on which it can be cut.  Using a very sharp knife, cut the placenta into very thin, long strips.

Lay the strips upon either oven racks, cookie sheets or on food dehydrator trays.  Allow them to dry in the oven (or food dehydrator) on the lowest possible setting.  Dry until the pieces snap. This may take 5 hours or longer. Leave in an uncovered glass jar for 1 day. Cover the jar after that for storage. Store in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight.

A few more notes on this:

This is an excellent job for the partner, a close friend or family member, postpartum doula or a placenta encapsulation professional (a quick internet search may yield some in your area). The bottom line is that this is not a job for the mother.  Also a few more considerations: For hospital births, bring a cooler to store the placenta in if it cannot be immediately refrigerated and be sure to communicate that you do not want it to be disposed. If birthing at home the placenta should be refrigerated immediately.  If it cannot be processed as above with 24 hours of the birth it should be frozen. It can then be thawed out and prepared according to the recipe.  Once it is prepared and stored in the jar in pieces, it can be ground as needed into powder and then put into capsules, which are available at most health food stores. A clean coffee grinder does a great job of powdering it. In my herbal clinical practice I have seen a dosage of 2 capsules/day be enough for most women, and taking them for 6-8 weeks after the birth is recommended, although I have often seen women intuitively know when they no longer need them.

The placenta can provide amazing postpartum support and I believe the more of us birth professionals sharing this option and information with our clients, the better!

References:

1.      Phuapradit, W. (n.d.). Nutrients and Hormones in Heat-Dried Human Placenta [Abstract]. Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand,83(6), 690-694.

2.     Bensky/Gamble. 1997. Materia Medica, Eastland Press, 549.

3.     Research Studies Supporting Placenta Encapsulation. (n.d.). Retrieved June 22, 2016, from http://www.placentawise.com/research-studies-supporting-placenta-encapsulation/

4.     Amy Mager, Lic. Ac., MS, Dipl. O.M. (NCCAOM). http://www.wellnesshousenorthampton.com/

Let. It. Go. (and other tips for staying healthy this fall)

Whether we like it or not, fall is upon us. While the crisp and beautiful technicolor hues of fall are undeniable, it is also a time of huge transition, a time of mourning and of loss.  Old stuff comes up this time of year, and if we don’t deal with it now it will follow us into the winter months, compromising our immunity and making us more susceptible to sickness and infections, especially those of the lungs.  It’s quite appropriate to be dealing with the these emotions this time of year. In Chinese Medicine, this season is associated with grief.  Luckily the “gift” of this season is inspiration.   I find the lense of Chinese 5-Element Theory and the wisdom it offers to be a magnificent tool for understanding this time of the year and how it relates to our health and well-being.  It views the body as a microcosm of the macrocosm of nature and its cycles. This is just one of many systems that are rooted in this earth-wisdom. If this system doesn't resonate I encourage you to seek-out these correlations in others that do!

Here’s the idea: Imagine the metal element as a shiny gem.  It represents that which is the most valuable to us…that which we really need to, in essence, make it to the next cycle and live through the winter.  The rest is just baggage.  This is a time to take a good look and see what in our lives is really serving us, and what is not.  Just take a look at nature all around us if you need some inspiration here…..the perennial plants dying back to their roots…the trees letting go of their leaves.  And what happens when we let it all go? Health, appropriate grieving and releasing of sadness and things we’ve lost, and space for inspiration, because we’ve made room for it to blossom.…leaving way for a fall and winter full of good health and a mind free to dream.....

Let. It. Go.

Fall is associated with the Metal Element, the emotion of Grief, the gift of Inspiration, and the organ pair Lungs/Large Intestine. Our culture has a huge problem with unresolved grief, and guess where it often goes? The lungs. As in chronic respiratory infections in the winter- deep coughs, bronchitis, and even pneumonia. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard clients make this connection when I explain this to them. SO many a-ha moments…..”After my mom died I had the worst case bronchitis…”   Acupuncturists across the country reported a huge spike in lung-related illness the fall and winter post-9/11, because they noticed these things as it fits into their model of medicine. It’s important to acknowledge this sadness and feelings of loss this time of year so it doesn’t express itself later in the winter.

fall woods.jpg

Do Ritual
Here’s a simple ritual: Write down on slips of paper, thought patterns,things, emotions, people, commitments, losses and attachments that you want to let go of. Light a candle and one by one feed your slips into the flame.  Burning bitter herbs like mugwort and sage will aid this process.  This is just one suggestion. Creating your own ritual can be a powerful practice.

Create an altar for your ancestors and loved ones you have lost
Cultures across the world recognize this time of year as the time when the veil between the worlds is the thinnest. Dia de los Muertos and even Halloween (which is derived from the pagan holiday Samhain) are living examples of this.  Now is the time to set aside some time to remember those we loved who are no longer with us, making time and space to grieve.  Acknowledge the emotions that well-up in us when we make this space; honor these emotions.

Organize your life/space
Folks with a good dose of Metal in their constitutions tend to be very organized with homes that are streamlined and free of clutter. This is an outward manifestation of the energy and influence of the Metal element. Just like we can let go of all the emotional stuff we no longer need, we can do the same with all of our physical possessions and “stuff” in the world….further aligning us with the seasonal influence of the fall and get us in good shape for the winter. This outward practice will support our inward practice and work.

 

Support the Work

In the version of medicine that I practice the mind and body are never separate.  That’s why I consider practices like the ones listed above to be as important to good health as I do all the rest of the things- sleep, clean water, nutritious food, and so on.  These practices can be supported by a few other fall adages.

Stay Moist
This season the cold and wind can dry us right up, agitating our nervous system and compromising the mucous mumbranes in our nose, throat and lungs that are our first line of defense against those invading pathogens that give us the inevitable sore throats and sniffles of the fall. These mucous membranes need to be moist in order to work best.  Demulcent herbs with mucilage such as Marshmallow Rt + Lf (Althea officinalis), Cinnamon (Cinnamomum sp), Sassafrass Lf (Sassafrass albidum) in our daily teas can help with this greatly. As can chia sd, and the basic foundation of drinking enough water. If you burn a wood stove put a pot of water on it, or use a humidifier in your bedroom at night to keep yourself from drying out.

Stay Warm
This is another basic, but so important. Chinese Medicine considers cold to be one of the External Pernicious Influences…..aka things that get us sick! It is absolutely true that if you go to bed with a wet head of hair on a cold night you are much more likely to wake-up with that cold that’s going around. Simply blow-dry your hair and wear a hat to bed to avoid this and still enjoy evening showers and baths in the colder months.  So bundle-up, get-out your scarves, hats, and warm socks; it's all health-building!

Drink Chai
I know this one is sooooooo hard to comply with :)  The spices of chai are warming in nature and cow milk is moistening. If there is one season that chai is super appropriate for most people, this is it!  Of course non-dairy milk for lactose-intolerant people is still the way to go….add extra cinnamon for extra moistening action.

Tend to your Health
The fall is the time to tend to un-resolved grief and emotional baggage, and it’s the same with our bodies. Take the time now to work on un-resolved health issues that are bringing you down, so you can have a sweet, dream-filled, and healthy winter.

Wishing you all the letting-go and inspiration the season has to offer...

 

 

References & Resources
Larken Bunce, Clinical Herbalist
Living Medicine, Herbstalk 2014

Staying Healthy With the Seasons
By Elson M Haas

The Web That Has No Weaver
By Ted Kaptchuk