If we step back and take in the big picture on nutrition, food and our relationship to eating, the human body looks like a miniature version of the universe— everything happening in the external world is also happening within us.
For instance, the qualities and changes in the seasons are reflected in our inner workings. Just as the weather can be hot or cold, cloudy or clear, damp or dry, so can our inner environment. We’ve all experienced our internal thermostat running hot or having trouble shaking the chills. Our minds and thought processes are clear and focused one day, cloudy and incoherent the next. Our skin and even our respiratory tract can feel moist or dry.
Traditional Chinese Medicine addresses these realities with the Five Elements Theory, which describes the changes continuously occurring within our bodies and correlates those changes
with the seasons. The theory can guide us toward dietary choices that align us with nature, provide a platform for healing and enhance our overall well-being.
Embracing the Five Elements
The Five Elements Theory illustrates the patterns of change in life (Reichstein 1998) demonstrated through five elements— wood, fire, earth, metal and water—that create, influence and nourish one another. An intricate balance among these elements allows patterns of life to flow gracefully.
By supporting and inhibiting one another, the elements stay in balance. For example, water irrigates the land so wood can grow, which then feeds fire. Fire melts metal to mold it, and metal cuts through wood.
The elements also correlate to stages in life, specific organs, emotions, colors, times of day, weather and the cycles of the seasons. The cycles
of the seasons bring about growth, change and decay, which influence our own inner processes, both biological and psychological. The closer we align ourselves to the present season, the healthier we will be.
If we observe a tree through the seasons, we witness the continuity of life. In spring, when energy draws upward, the tree starts budding and blooms into full foliage; in summer, it bears fruit. As autumn arrives, leaves and fruit begin to fall as the tree’s energy returns to its roots for winter.
Humans also experience a cycle of growth and renewal every year. Fortunately for us, Mother Earth provides the foods our bodies naturally need during each season of the year. The five elements and their interplay with the seasons illustrate how this works, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine.
The Wood Element
Spring correlates with wood, signifying creation and new beginnings. This phase is associated with the climate of wind, the functions of the liver and gallbladder, sour flavor and the opposing emotions of patience and anger.
Spring has a cleansing and detoxification aspect, clearing out the old and making room for the new. Nutritional strategies to assist detoxification and strengthen the liver include foods with sour and pungent flavors. Sour foods include lemons, limes, vinegar, adzuki beans, grapes and mangos. Pungent sources are onions, garlic, ginger, leeks, scallions, cloves and fennel.
The most beneficial foods to select for spring emphasize the plant kingdom with a strong concentration on dark, leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables such as arugula, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and kale, which contain various health-promoting compounds, including a family of nutrients called glucosinolates (Gupta et al. 2014; Keck & Finley 2004).
As we adjust to spring’s windier climate and focus on detoxification, the Five Elements Theory suggests cooking meals lightly to aid in digestion.
The Fire Element
Fire is the symbol of transformation, when nature is at its peak of growth and we are full of enthusiasm and passion. Fire is associated with change, the season of summer, hot climate, the heart and the small intestine. It is also associated with the opposing emotions of joy and hate.
The fire phase is the most active, full of energy that brings the ideas of the wood phase into reality. Summer creates a hot, dry climate. Bitter foods with contracting and cooling qualities penetrate the heart and support the liver, making them an essential flavor of the season (Pitchford 2002). Foods with bitter flavors include romaine, watercress, endive, escarole, Swiss chard, asparagus, celery and the alkaline grain quinoa. In summer, meals are at their lightest, full of vibrant colors and continuing an emphasis on the plant kingdom. Animal-based foods generate heat and become more appropriate as the seasons shift toward autumn and winter.
Summer is a time to cool and hydrate with watery fruits like watermelon; fruits with central pits, such as apricots, plums and cherries; and beans of a cooling nature, such as mung, soybean, kidney and navy beans. Consider eating the largest meal of the day at lunchtime, when our digestive fire is at its highest.
The fire element has a strong influence on the heart, suggesting a more conscious effort to choose heart-healthy foods. This includes essential omega-3 fatty acid–rich foods such as halibut, salmon, pumpkin seeds and walnuts (Micallef & Garg 2009). A small amount of raw food may be beneficial in summer, depending on the individual and climate temperature. Quick cooking techniques—such as grilling, stir-frying or sautéing—are preferred during summer.
The Earth Element
The earth element is the primary stabilizing force, the nurturer and stable center of all elements. Earth provides a state of grounding; a reliable, consistent belonging that anchors us as we navigate through our lives. Earth can also be associated with the change in seasons and with late summer, a climate of dampness, sweet flavor, digestive health and the opposing emotions of sympathy and anxiety.
Earth’s organs are the spleen and stomach, which are essential to digestive health and overall vitality. The earth element encourages us to place more attention on digestive health during the weeks surrounding a change in season.
Digestive processes are warm transactions and ask for all food to reach a temperature slightly higher than core temperature for effective transformation of nutrients. Steaming, simmering and some stewing are ideal at these times. Consider avoiding raw and chilled foods to keep the stomach from overheating and the spleen from weakening.
Other foods that strengthen and heal digestive systems include prebiotics, such as bananas, raw garlic and raw, unpasteurized sauerkraut (Roberfroid 2002). Seaweed is a nutrient-dense powerhouse that has detoxifying, alkalizing cardiovascular and digestive health benefits (Namvar et al. 2013). Great options are seaweed salads with arame or hijiki; nori, commonly found in sushi rolls; and wakame or kombu, used in traditional miso soup.
The Metal Element
Metal correlates to autumn, a time to begin turning inward. Metal is associated with dry climate, lungs and the large intestine, pungent flavor, the spirit of free will and the opposing emotions of courage and grief. At this time of year, dry skin, respiratory issues, constipation and inflammation are quite common.
Nutritional strategies for autumn target moistening and clearing the lungs, adjusting to cooler, windier temperatures and supporting the digestive system. Pungent flavor brings energy up and out, opening sinuses and clearing the lungs. There are warming or cooling pungent foods to choose from, depending on your personal constitution and local outside temperatures. Cooling pungent foods include peppermint, radishes, watercress and turnips. Warming pungent foods include garlic, onion, cinnamon, nutmeg, basil and scallions. Garlic is considered nature’s antibiotic, with cleansing and healing properties for the respiratory tract (Ankre & Mirelman 1999; Sivam 2001).
During the driest season, foods with moistening qualities include tempeh, barley, millet, mushrooms, almonds and cooked pears. Consider a dietary pattern with generous amounts of root vegetables, including beets, carrots, daikon, parsnips, squash and yams. Food preparation techniques with longer cooking times and a liquid medium are favored. Soups and stews are ideal during the autumn.
The Water Element
Water, signifying wholeness, is associated with winter, cold climate, salty flavor, the kidneys and bladder, and the opposing emotions of calmness and fear. Winter is the time for rest, repair and energy conservation. Life is designed to be simple and introspective, preparing for the new beginnings of spring.
Salt has a downward and inward movement, penetrating the kidneys and bladder to regulate water metabolism and alleviate the dryness that can cause muscle, joint and mental inflexibilities. Salt also has some earthlike qualities that assist in grounding us and removing an underlying sense of fear.
Adding the salt flavor to the diet does not mean shaking the salt dispenser on meals. Cooking with a quality sea salt, obtained through evaporation of sea water with its trace minerals intact, can be beneficial for the grounding and moistening effects on the body. Additional sources of salt are seaweed, barley, miso, sardines and tamari soy sauce (Pitchford 2002).
Foods that are energetically warming at the coldest time of the year include black beans, pumpkin, tempeh, winter squash, oats, buckwheat, quinoa, kale and grass-fed, pasture-raised beef. This is a time to incorporate some animal-based food into the diet. However, consider adding fish, which provides a strong complementary essence to the water element. Pressure cooking, broiling, roasting and slow cooking methods are recommended. This is the perfect time of year to roast root vegetables with warming herbs like rosemary or dill, slow-cook a pot roast or simmer a vegetarian chili.
Getting in Tune With Your Seasons
The external world and our inner worlds are mirrors of one another. Ask yourself self, What season is it? Is it windy, cold, humid or dry? Then take it one step further and ask, “What’s my ‘internal weather’ right now? Am I feeling over-heated, dry or cold? What nutritional strategies can I adopt to align myself with nature and find balance within?” Exploring the Five Elements Theory, the continuous interconnectedness of all in life, is the beginning of making food choices that best serve and nourish us at a given moment in time. It is the start of using nutrition as a pathway to healing and longevity.
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