Finding the Balance: Staying Healthy in Spring

Food As Medicine

In each season the environment changes, and our body/mind also shifts as one season ends and another begins. This is easy to see in the cold weather versus hot temperatures or winter vs. summer. We are more apt to go outside and be more active in the summer, and feel uplifted when a long cold winter gives way to sunshine and warmth. But though spring and autumn may seem milder and more nuanced, from a Chinese medicine perspective, they are transitions times when the greatest transformation occurs.

Spring Energy of Growth

Spring is a time of renewal, growth and creativity. Plants are growing quickly, leaves emerging, flowers budding, and the sap in trees begins to flow upwards again. Birds and animals are coming out of hibernation, often to mate, engaging in the creation of new life. It is the beginning again, the beginning of the cycle of growth and decay. Growth is quick at this time, and the energetic expression is upward and expansive.

The energy of the environment does not exclude human beings, as much as we try to control conditions, temperatures and keep our habits the same from day to day throughout the year. Things actually work best when we go with the flow, and allow our activities, emotional focus and diet, to change fluidly with the seasons.

Yin and Yang of the Seasons

The body is a microcosm of our world, a world that, in East Asian medicine, looks at things through the lens of yin and yang. In the seasonal cycle, yin is dominant in the winter. Yin is the term used for the calm, quiet, cool and inward and downward tendencies. Yang is dominant in the summer, and governs the active, creative, warm and upward outward movement. In the spring, the energy is transitioning to yang and what was dormant, quiet and slow, now begins to move and grow. The upward movement is strong and vigorous. You can see this in the unstoppable, and often incredibly quick growth of plants that seem to emerge and develop visibly more each day.

Not just the plants and animals, but we humans can also ride this wave of growth and creativity, and it is resonant and healthy for us to do so. It is the natural time to re-engage in activities that inspire us, that manifest outward expressions of our creativity, and to put plans in motion. The qi, or energy, of spring, often makes people feel restless, like they need to move in new directions and do something new, and it is helpful to express this or it may lead to a feeling of stagnation. We need to open and release our emotions as well as activities, directing them consciously and productively up and out.

Finding a balance within the flow of yin and yang means recognizing that there is a time and place for all things. Unfortunately, our cultural tendency is to be on the go with multi-tasking and productivity until we drop – all days of the year. The summer can be particularly challenging as the days are long and weather conducive to being outside and socializing, and it is easy to overdo. We are at our best when we maintain a balance, which includes making time for recharging with quiet, relaxation and enough sleep, in order to avoid “burning out” in times when yang activity is strong.

Spring, the Wood Element

In Chinese medicine, spring is associated with the organ/meridian systems of the Liver and Gall Bladder, and the element of wood. This system can be facilitated or impeded by our emotional state as well as how we live and eat. Opening and moving outward is the energy of wood, and it calls us to grow. It is a time to give productive expression to emotions and promptings that we have listened to inside ourselves during the quiet contemplation of winter. Stagnation can be a problem with the wood element, as suppressing growth and movement does not serve us in this season. It is time to face challenges that help us grow, to move past resentment and repression in minds, and embrace forward moving creative activities and expression.

The movement of spring will go most smoothly when the deep rejuvenation of winter has been addressed. In accordance with the balance of yin and yang, as the yang rises, the yin must anchor that movement so that yang does not become extreme. The yang energy can be a welcome boost in spring, but if it is strong, the upward movement may be overwhelming, and then we might experience insomnia, headaches, anxiety or restlessness. These are often symptoms of the fire of yang rising that is not well by balanced by the yin water energy. The key is to ground oneself, and make sure periods of quiet and rest balance the increased energy that you feel.  Use the energy of spring well – to create and grow, and give “new life” to your ideas and plans.

Cleanse and Refresh With Diet and Herbs

Eating seasonally is environmentally responsible as it requires so much less fossil fuel use for transport. It builds strong communities and offers the consumer the freshest produce. From a whole health perspective, an emphasis on primarily eating foods that are available seasonally is simply the healthiest way to eat and seasonal foods give us the freshest fruits and vegetables, and what we most need at that particular time in the year.

Spring is a time to eat nutrient dense foods that support cleansing and growth. It is a time that many people engage in liver cleansing diets, and then move forward with revitalizing foods. Fresh nettles is one of those foods that nature offers just at the right time of the year to support the process. Food as medicine!

Nettle Tea for Vitality

Nettles are a powerhouse of nutrition, rich in many vitamins and minerals. Among the many medicinal effects of nettles, they have anti-inflammatory and astringent properties, and are decongestant to the mucosa, therefore useful for sinus and lung problems. Nettle astringes bladder and urethral membranes, help to flush the renal system for chronic urinary problems, and condition the skin in cases of dryness or eczema. Because the plant is so mineral rich, it is an excellent blood tonic that supports vitality and rejuvenation.

Harvesting and Cooking Nettles

It’s easy, and painless to gather and prepare nettles and it is well worth the effort. With rubber gloves and scissors, venture to your local nettle patch where there have been no pesticides or herbicides sprayed. Cut the nettle stalk so that you have the top 3-4 sets of leaves. Put these in a paper bag and take them home. Not called “Stinging Nettles” for nothing, it is important to avoid touching the fresh nettles with your skin. However rubber gloves are all you need to protect yourself.

At home, rinse the nettles in the sink with cold water. Put a large pot of water on the stove on high heat and turn off the heat when boiling. Still with rubber gloves on, take the nettles and submerge into the hot water to steep. Put as many fresh nettles in the water as you can with them still submerged. The stickers on the nettles will dissolve upon contact with the hot water.

You can use remove these nettles after blanching, drain use the leaves in other dishes, much like you would use blanched spinach, but I suggest simply leaving the leaves and stems to steep for 30-60 minutes, then strain, and drink the tea. In the refrigerator, it will last up to 10 days. It is a wonderfully energizing and nutritious tea, tasting somewhat vegetal, perhaps like water from steaming spinach would taste.

 

Nettles with Garlic-Lemon White Beans and Veggies

Ingredients
Medium-large bunch of fresh nettles
Veggies of your choice such as carrots, squash, onions, mushrooms
One can of white beans
A couple fresh garlic cloves, crushed
Extra virgin olive oil
1/2 lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

Directions
Cut nettle leaves from stems, discard stems and rinse leaves in cold water.
Place nettles into steamer basket and place over pan of water to steam for 10-15 minutes.

Chop veggies and sauté with olive oil and garlic.
Drain and rinse beans, and place into a pot with veggies, garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice. Warm gently.
Combine steamed nettles with beans, and add salt and pepper to taste.