Spring is the beginning of the year, when the earth awakens and new life bursts forth. It's a time of planting seeds, physically and mentally. This season stirs the uprising of vital energy; just as sap begins to rise in trees, so our inner fire stirs and ascends in spring. The hint of new growth surges through us, moving us out of winter's cocoon with renewed vitality. It's time now to shake off any excess or sluggishness developed during winter. This is the key to spring: cleansing.
The Chinese associate spring with the wood element and its Organs, the Liver and Gallbladder. A healthy Liver is like a young sapling growing strong, yet flexible, flowing and rooted. Thus, the Liver controls the smooth and even flow of Energy and Blood. This is nurtured by the trust fund energies in the Kidneys, just as a tree (the wood element and Liver) is nourished by water (the water element and Kidneys). The Liver also stores and replenishes Blood, a function similar to the Western understanding of the Liver. Spring is the time to cleanse the Blood and Liver, and to regulate our habits and activities.
If spring winds invade, or stir Internal Wind, they cause tension, stiffness, spasms, tics, clumsiness, numbness, headaches, allergies, convulsions, itching, skin conditions and pains which change severity and location. The Liver then becomes congested, resulting in anger, frustration, irritability, stiff neck and shoulders, hypertension, PMS, depression, mood swings and irregular menstruation. People who feel worse in spring often have congested livers.
Those who experience red face and eyes, irritability, propensity to outbursts of anger, dizziness, dry mouth, splitting headaches or migraines, insomnia, thirst and constipation at this time of year have excessive Heat in the Liver. Prolonged ingestion of caffeine (including coffee, black tea, cocoa, colas and chocolate), alcohol, sugar, fried, fatty and greasy foods, dairy, nuts and nut butters, turkey, avocados, chips, cheese and spicy foods causes this condition. It is further aggravated when the Kidney's trust fund is depleted from prolonged over-activity (mental, physical or sexual) and insufficient food or protein to sustain that activity.
To balance Spring's energy, eat plenty of dark leafy greens, such as collards, kale, mustard, and chard, as these cleanse the Blood and Liver. Include other greens naturally growing at this time such as watercress, lamb's quarters, malvae, chickweed, nettle, purslane and dandelion. Add lemon juice (to make iron more available from the greens and clear Liver Heat) and an oil high in gamma-linolenic acids (GLAs), such as flaxseed oil (which supports normal liver function). Ingest white meats (except turkey, which 'heats' the Liver) instead of red, legumes, a large variety of cooked vegetables, some fresh fruit and whole grains. Use grain drinks, green tea or dandelion tea instead of coffee for energy, and chamomile tea in place of alcohol to relax.
Others may experience Dampness and Heat in the Liver this time of year, with symptoms of nausea, jaundice, vaginal discharge and itching, migraines, headaches, redness and swelling of the scrotum and frequent urinary infections. Dampening and Heating foods help cause these conditions, such as caffeine (including coffee, black tea, cocoa, colas and chocolate), alcohol, sugar, fried, fatty and greasy foods, dairy, nuts and nut butters, turkey, avocados, chips, cheese and spicy foods. Further, if digestive powers are diminished from prolonged intake of cold and damp foods (iced foods and drinks, juices, raw foods, salads, soy milk and flour products) then Dampness accumulates and impairs the Liver function.
These folks should eat plenty of protein from white meats (except turkey) and legumes, a large variety of cooked vegetables and dark leafy greens (collards, kale, mustard, dandelion and chard) and a small amount of whole grains. Avoid all cold, raw, greasy, damp foods and iced drinks and foods. Drink herb teas or green tea, and eliminate caffeinated substances and alcohol.
Many may experience symptoms of pain in the sides and chest, depression, moodiness, frustration, anger, PMS, swollen breasts before periods, irregular menses, nausea, belching, poor appetite, alternating diarrhea and constipation, abdominal distension and lumps in the neck, breast, groin or sides this time of year. Due to Stagnant Liver Energy, these are caused by a sedentary lifestyle and lack of exercise, long-term stuffed or repressed emotions, unexpressed creativity and/or weakened Kidneys.
Physical movement and exercise are extremely important to moving Stagnant Energy. Moderate your habits and balance your focus between inward and outward activities. Set routines for eating, sleeping and exercising and keep them with regularity. Alternate work with rest and play. Discover creative outlets and actively pursue them, yet pace yourself. Use appropriate channels to express pent-up emotions.
Go to sleep by 11 PM, as the Liver peaks between 11 PM and 3 AM (you'll actually feel more rested than if you went to bed later and got the same number of hours of sleep). Directing the Liver's energy into other activities during these hours diverts it from cleansing and renewing the Blood, causing tiredness, toxicity and stagnation. Eat the foods suggested for a Damp and Heated Liver above, as these protect the digestive powers and nourish the Kidney's trust fund, both of which support the Liver.
If you start dressing and eating as if it were already summer instead of spring, or if you inadequately exercised during winter, then you'll more easily experience colds and flu now. Although your internal body heat is moving toward the surface, there is still sensitivity to cool air, so remain well-covered up outdoors. This is the windy season, and External Wind blows colds and flu into the body at the back of the neck. Wear a scarf until it warms up. Likewise, refrain from eating cold foods and drinks (iced drinks and foods, juices, raw foods, salads, soymilk). Continue eating cooked foods, including beef, pork, chicken and eggs, to help your body adjust to temperature changes. Add in a large variety of cooked vegetables, dark leafy greens, some whole grains and cooked fruit with spices.
Gently stimulating herbs with pungent, bitter or sour tastes are particularly good for spring. Sorrel, dandelion, nettles, watercress and other young green leaves provided by nature now are perfect balancing foods for the liver as they cleanse the blood and release toxins. Dandelion, gentian, barberry, sarsaparilla, turmeric, chamomile, isatis, burdock, yellow dock and gardenia cleanse the liver and bowels and strengthen digestion. Bupleurum, fennel and green tangerine peel regulate Liver energy, as lycii and dang gui build Liver Blood. Milk thistle is particularly helpful for spring allergies, while an antiviral tea of one part each dandelion root, forsythia fruit and isatis leaf quickly clears spring colds and flu.
Fasting, a traditional spring ritual, cleanses the Blood and assists the Liver in releasing stored toxins and winter's accumulated fat. A good fast benefitting the Liver combines 8 ounces each water and apple juice with 1-4 cloves garlic and 1-4 tablespoons olive oil. Take each morning on an empty stomach for four days. Follow with decoction of equal parts fennel seeds and dandelion root.
If appropriate for your body, also fast on warm apple juice and green vegetable juice, and take 1-2 '00' capsules cayenne powder 1-3 times daily.
Alternatively, eat spring kicharee for four days (or add into your regular diet): make kicharee (see Michael's blog post for a basic kicharee recipe), adding shiitake mushrooms, burdock root, carrots and dark leafy greens. Season with lemon juice.
Online cooking resources:
Harvesting and preparing dandelion greens (and flower and root)
Ideas for cooking with purslane
A recipe for spring sorrel soup