Thursday, February 25, 2010

Spring Cleaning For the Body and Soul

As we awaken from the confinement of winter, we can imagine our ancestors also emerging from their hibernation. The snow is still persistent in shady spots; cold nights and wet snow punctuate the struggle between winter and spring for dominance. Here and there small shoots of green push up through the thawing earth, streams and rivers once again flow cold and clean and the promise of fresh fish and spring greens whets our appetites. Like our elders before us, we can feel the energy rising in us like the sap in the trees. The time for birth and renewal has begun.

If we picture ourselves back in the lives of our forefathers and mothers, we will see that this was the time of year that the food stores in our pantries were becoming bare. Dried meat provisions had been mostly used up, lard stores were waning, any remaining grains were being stolen a little at a time by hungry mice and the canned goods from autumn’s bounty, were scarce. If meat was hunted, it was thin and lean. The sight of fresh foods emerging, warm weather returning and increased activity filled us with anxious anticipation. There would be much work to be done, and anything seemed possible. 

This time of year is encoded within us to be a time of fasting, lean eating and increased physical activity. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), this time of year corresponds to the Wood element; the organ system affected is the Liver/Gall Bladder. The foods available to us traditionally in the early spring are naturally very cleansing to this system, for we were designed to live in harmony with the seasons.

In the winter, we retreat to the indoors just as our body’s Qi (energy) moves inward to warm our interior and lower our surface temperature in order to harmonize with the cooler weather. The foods we consume this time of year reflect the need to store energy and build insulating fat for warmth. Richly marbled roasted meats, soups and stews, slow-cooked root vegetables, sweet squashes with butter and maple syrup, preserved fruits and vegetables as well as salt cured meats and fish all contribute to the deep nourishment of our organs during the cold months. Our activity decreases as our confinement increases and we become slower-paced, more sluggish.

As winter recedes, all of nature is beginning to shake off its sleep and share the need to be reborn. Our stored potential, strength and power are beginning to push to the surface, seeking expression like a seed lying seemingly dormant in the cold hard ground only to break open to send a shoot through all obstacles and find the sun once again. 

And so here we are, standing on the threshold of a new season, hopefully ready to shed the burdens of the past and take on new challenges with renewed vigor and a clean slate. This process is facilitated by the natural cleansing of our systems, particularly of the liver and large intestines. If we’ve followed the examples of the past, we have fasted, reduced the consumption of heavier foods, increased outdoor activities, and introduced the fresher, vitamin rich greens of the burgeoning season to our diets.

Fresh spring foods are conducive to assisting in the detoxification of our clogged organs and provide energy, alertness and strength. Is it any small wonder that the freshest greens available this time of year are the ones best suited to our metabolism? Take dandelion for example. This nutritious wild food, (often found in grocery stores if foraging for it is not an option) is strengthening to the whole body. It detoxifies the liver and gall bladder, promotes the production of bile to improve digestion and rid the system of excessive fats and sweeteners. Sprouts of all kinds are also detoxifying to the liver, provide abundant vitamins and are delicious raw or cooked. One can even find sprouted grain breads which provide complete protein and a compliment of enzymes to benefit digestion in the health food section of many grocery stores. An emphasis on fresh young greens, sprouts, fish and occasionally eggs, mimics the springtime dietary habits of people throughout history.

If these traditions are ignored, as is frequently the case in our modern world, a continued reliance on rich foods, frequent consumption of heavy meats, excess fats (in particular hydrogenated oils, so-called “heart-healthy” margarines and processed vegetable oils), alcohol, processed foods, and insufficient intake of vegetal foods will lead to stagnant liver function. TCM tells us the symptoms of stagnant Liver Qi will vary greatly but include many common ailments such as thyroid problems, headaches (particularly migraine), eye problems, menstrual difficulties, allergies, swellings, eczema, gout, emotional outbursts, high blood pressure, inflexibility, frustration, impatience, depression, excessive anger, insomnia and more.

Herbal medicine can also help to clear the liver and other overworked organs by providing necessary nutrients, helping the body rid itself of waste, tonifying and enriching the Qi and Blood and bringing a person closer to a state of balance. Professional herbalists can diagnose a variety of problems in each individual and prescribe herbal remedies specific to their needs. Personal dietary modification enhances this process as does exercise, fresh air and meditation. When a person gets closer to balance, it becomes easier for them to adopt new, healthier habits and to feel great physically, mentally and emotionally on a regular basis. It’s important not to try to take on too much change all at once, as rapid detoxification is an unbalanced approach for many people. It can also be very difficult attempting to make such sweeping lifestyle changes, and can often lead to discouragement. Start with small incremental changes and do a little more for your health every day.

Although herbal medicine is strong and best left to an expert who can understand your personal needs, some herbal remedies can be of service to most people during the spring cleanse. Dandelion, burdock, clover, mints, lemon balm, cardamom, basil, marjoram, milk thistle seed, rosemary and fresh ginger are all stimulating to the liver and can be consumed as tea as often as desired. (If you are pregnant or experiencing serious health issues, it is advisable to consult a professional before undergoing any herbal regimen.) Concentrated sweeteners are not recommended, but a small amount of raw honey is actually helpful to the liver and can make some teas even more enjoyable.

Not so long ago, access to foods was limited to what was available locally and in season. Springtime fasting was a common practice for spiritual as well as practical reasons. If we maintain a connection to our past, we can once again embrace the relationship between ourselves and our environment which will lead to a healthier body, mind and spirit.

Lisl Meredith Huebner, Dipl.CH (NCCAOM), RH (AHG) is a nationally board certified Chinese Herbalist, and a Registered Herbalist with the American Herbalists Guild. Lisl is also a certified Medicinal Aromatherapist, a level II Reiki practitioner, an Acupressurist, an Auriculotherapist, a photographer, a renowned diagnostician, a teacher and a published writer in private practice for over a decade. She is available by appointment.

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