By Jim Kulackoski
If you are like me, when you think of Chicago, it’s hard not to think about all of the amazing things it has to offer. Whatever your taste, Chicago is truly a gem when it comes to things to do. From hosting the world’s best orchestra or an Opera company that rivals the Met to incredible art, theater, museums, and diverse food options (not to mention the beautiful parks and lakefront), there is always plenty to do in Chicago.
Although we may have missed out on a lot this past year in terms of getting out and enjoying everything our city offers, there is one show that comes once a year regardless of the state of the world-Springtime. As far as spring goes, Chicago has no shortage of incredible things to take in and enjoy through the senses throughout this season.
Spring in Chicago is a gift that keeps on giving, and the coming weeks offer plenty to look forward to. Beginning with sweet peas and crocuses poking through the snow and later giving way to an unfurling of magnolias and forsythias and finishing with the sweet fragrance of lilacs, Chicago offers a wonderland of color, freshness, and ambiance that rivals Paris in the spring. One of my favorite things to do this time of year is to observe and track the stunning cadence of nature as it moves from an inward, dormant state to an outward expression of life and fullness.
The natural changes we see in the springtime are not only all around us but inside us as well. Our bodies constantly change with the flow of the seasons. One of the best ways to enjoy and get the most out of any season, particularly the spring, is to explore and participate in the rhythm of nature as it occurs within our bodies well as outside.
Doing so makes each season a more rich and meaningful experience and improves our health and well-being.
TCM and The Spring
As an acupuncturist, I like to observe the seasons through the lens of Traditional Chinese Medicine, or TCM. This ancient, continually evolving system of health and medicine is about treating diseases and aims to help us stay as healthy as possible and make life as enjoyable as possible.
In TCM, the body (just like nature) is said to change dramatically between the summer and winter months. For example, in the winter, our energy must move deep inside to keep us warm and protected against the cold. We tend to be more inactive as we adjust to the short dark days. Winter is a time of introspection where we reflect on the previous year and plan and adjust to the coming year for many people.
By contrast, in the spring, we burst into action as everything in nature transitions from an inward state to an outward expression. This is evidenced everywhere, from the trees which literally pop with buds to the grass and flowers which abruptly spring forth. Suddenly everything comes to life, signaling nature awakening from its dormant state. As humans, just like other animals, we wake up and are excited to get out again and engage with our surroundings.
Although in our modern/western paradigm, we generally behave in the same manner regardless of the season, in TCM, the body is considered an aspect of nature itself, behaving and reacting in accordance with its cycles. When we go against nature, we ignore our own innate rhythms. According to TCM, this incongruity between our own internal clock and that of nature can ultimately result in disharmony and disease.
Therefore, by making some simple adjustments to our habits and behaviors each season, we not only feel even and balanced, but we also can significantly improve our overall health and well-being, allowing us a greater enjoyment of both the season at hand and our lives in general. This year, as we anxiously emerge from a year of being inside, the act of paying attention to our health and well-being is more important than ever.
TCM, Spring, and the Liver
As the fall and winter were times to fortify and build our bodies, spring is a time to cleanse, slim down, and literally “lighten up.” In TCM, the body is a collection of several “organ systems,” each with a specific function that contributes to the body’s overall functioning. Each of these systems is said to be more or less active during different times of the year. In TCM, the liver system is said to be the most active system during the springtime. This system includes the liver, gallbladder, and other parts of the body, such as the blood, the eyes, reproductive system, and tendons.
In TCM, just like in western medicine, the liver is responsible for metabolizing waste products and detoxifying the blood. In addition, the liver is also given a special function of making sure that “energy” flows smoothly and correctly throughout the body. Although energy or “Qi” (pronounced chi) as it’s called in TCM may be a foreign concept to our contemporary paradigm, it is easy to understand what it feels like when energy flows smoothly or doesn’t.
Imagine you are driving along the highway and suddenly encounter a roadblock or traffic jam. Even though you may not be in a hurry, the lack of momentum or movement of energy can make you feel anything from anxious and tense to annoyed and even angry.
Similarly, if the liver is not functioning optimally, or if too many things to process burden it, it too may become congested or overloaded. This can lead to a number of symptoms such as digestive issues, weight gain, headaches, feeling sluggish or tired, or even feelings of annoyance, impatience, or anger. This situation is called “Liver Qi Stagnation” in TCM, and in more pronounced cases, this state can lead to more significant problems such as seasonal allergies, high blood pressure, reproductive problems (in both men and women) as well as the experience of depression and anxiety.
Fortunately, there are a number of simple things we can do to supplement our bodies as well as counteract and even prevent these sorts of problems from arising during the springtime. Here are a few things you can do to make sure you have the most comfortable, enjoyable time during the season.
Get outside and enjoy the season.
One of the best ways to adjust to any season is to spend time outside and take in the weather. This allows your body to acclimate to the season at hand, as well as enjoy the unique things each season has to offer. This is even more important during the spring and summer months. Increased activity, fresh air, and sunlight all help to reset our internal clocks and attune ourselves to the warming weather. In addition, what nature offers in terms of colors (especially green) and fragrances from flowering plants are scintillating to the senses and help to balance the functioning of the liver, according to TCM.
When getting outside, it’s important to make sure you dress comfortably. Although you may be tempted to put away your winter coat and jacket as soon as possible, make sure you dress warmly enough to prevent getting chilled. This allows your body to gently adapt to the significant changes in weather which occur this time of year. In addition, in TCM, in the springtime, the liver is said to be affected by “wind,” more than at other times of the year. “Wind,” in this case, refers to the system’s abnormal functioning, which can lead to compromised immunity. In other words, just like in the fall, our bodies are more susceptible to getting sick. One easy way to protect yourself is to keep your neck and the back of your head warm with a scarf or shawl. Besides being a protective measure, a scarf is always a great accessory to any outfit.
Adjust your diet.
We all indulge in the winter, particularly during the holidays, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. In the winter, our bodies need extra food, as well as dense foods to help keep us warm and fortified against the cold. However, it’s essential to shed the extra weight and density we may have acquired during the colder months in the spring and summer. Fortunately, nature gives us plenty of options when it comes to foods that are lighter and help us accomplish this. Here are some easy ways you can adjust your diet to help the transition into the warmer months:
Although you can pretty much get any type of food any time of the year, paying attention to what is available in your local environment and eating those foods can significantly improve how your body functions within each season.
During this time, the main foods, such as leafy greens and fresh spring vegetables, help to detoxify the liver and rejuvenate the entire digestive system. In addition, these foods are lighter and contain fewer calories, so adding them to your diet now can aid in shedding any extra pounds which may have accumulated during the winter months. Whatever your preference, the spring offers so many great options. Try incorporating some of the following foods in your diet daily throughout the spring season.
Asparagus is not only delicious but both nourishing and cleansing to the system. It is also a diuretic, meaning it naturally eliminates excess water in the system. According to TCM, eating asparagus can help cleanse the arteries as well as strengthen the lungs.
Leeks, ramps, and cabbage all gently stimulate the digestive system while clearing excess heat from it. If you have sluggish digestion or suffer from heartburn or discomfort after eating, eating a lighter diet, including these foods, can help. In addition, these foods aid in the digestion of heavier foods, particularly meats.
Fennel and mint are refreshing, cooling, and rejuvenating to the digestive system as well. Try steeping fresh mint leaves in hot water and drinking after meals to gently cleanse and relax the stomach and ease digestion.
Celery cools the entire body, but specifically the liver, according to TCM. For this reason, celery is often used regularly to help with headaches, high blood pressure, and nervousness. It is also said to strengthen the eyes, tendons, and fingernails, which are all related to the liver system in TCM.
Avocados, besides being a great source of so many vitamins, minerals (particularly B vitamins magnesium and potassium), and essential fatty acids, are also said to aid the liver and are often used in TCM to ease feelings of anger and irritation.
Sour citrus fruits, like blood oranges and lemons, are also helpful as they help rid the body of fats that have been stored up during the winter months.
Radishes are also good, according to TCM, as they are said to open the liver channel while their pungent flavor circulates energy and stimulates digestion.
In addition, foods with a bitter taste have a strong effect on the liver, causing it to release bile, which is the result of its detoxification process. Bile helps the digestions of fats and keeps the digestive system operating smoothly. In other words, eating bitter foods help the liver to do its job, which is increased this time of year. Arugula, lettuce, chard, artichokes, endive and dandelion greens (my personal favorite) all strongly cleanse the liver and digestive system. I recommend incorporating foods like these days to keep the liver clean and healthy and keep the digestive system functioning optimally.
In addition to adding the above foods to your diet, you may want to limit foods that are heavy and cause the liver and digestive system to work harder. These include deep-fried and greasy foods, along with heavy foods like meats, aged cheese, and yogurt.
Keep your Energy Moving.
While it may have felt good to be less active in the winter, our bodies need increased activity in the spring and summer months to stay healthy. Moving the body circulates energy which has a tremendous effect on both physical and mental health. During long periods of decreased activity, such as in winter (and this past year in general), it can lead to not only weight gain but also depression and other health problems as well.
Our bodies are made to move, and exercise is a great way to circulate energy. During this time, it’s a good idea to increase your level of activity or increase the intensity of your exercise regime. Exercise is also a great way to get in touch with your body, how it works, how it feels, and what it needs. Walking, running, biking and sports are excellent ways to accomplish this. They are also great ways to get outside and enjoy beautiful spring presents.
Taiji and Yoga are also great forms of exercise. When the body is relaxed, energy naturally circulates. If you tend to be more of a type-A personality, you may want to look into incorporating these types of activities, which allow you an even deeper connection to yourself and your surroundings.
Whatever form of activity you choose, be sure it is something you enjoy and can be present in. In our culture, especially currently, we oftentimes favor productivity over enjoyment. In TCM, a balance is always recommended. There is a time and place for everything, and time is precious. Therefore, in this short season, it’s a great idea to make every moment count.
Do Twisting Yoga Poses.
When we think of exercise, we generally think of exercising the muscles only. Yoga also has an effect on exercising the internal organs as well. Whether you practice yoga or not, it’s a good idea to incorporate some simple yoga exercises into your routine, especially twisting postures. Twisting the body releases areas where you feel tight or congested along the spine. The act of twisting also has an effect on the internal organs, particularly the liver. The liver contains a large amount of blood, which is expelled during the compression that takes place during a twist. When released, new blood flows into the area, increasing circulation and detoxification.
In addition, twisting also opens and stimulates the liver and gallbladder channels due to their location in TCM.
I recommend stimulating these areas several times per day by pausing from whatever you are doing and doing a twisting pose for 30 seconds or so in each direction to help your liver and other organs during this time.
Do a Spring Cleanse or Fast.
While including cleansing foods in your diet in the springtime is enough to help your body adjust to the season, some people may want to use this time to do a cleanse or fast. Just like we naturally tend to do a spring cleaning on our house or immediate environment, we can do the same to our insides as well. Although there are many types of cleanses available on the market, if a deeper cleanse is something you choose to do, I recommend choosing one which focuses on the liver.
Fasting, although trendy these days, has been a natural part of many cultures and traditions during this time for millennia. Fasting can give your digestive system a break and allow your body to focus its energies on healing and repairing different areas which may need special attention. In addition, fasting offers a way to cultivate discipline and get deeply in touch with your own ability to be in control of your emotions.
If you choose to embark on a cleanse or fast, it is highly recommended that you consult your physician or other healthcare providers, such as an acupuncturist, before commencing such a program.
Spring Clean Your Environment.
Whether you do an internal cleanse or not, cleaning your immediate environment can also have a profound effect on your well-being. As already mentioned, the relationship between our internal and external environments is an important factor in health. Likewise, your immediate environment is considered an expression of your internal condition. By organizing and curating your surroundings, you can affect how you feel on the inside.
Consider spending time going through and letting go of things that no longer serve a purpose for you. This is an ideal way to feel a sense of movement and clarity within your surroundings as well as your psyche.
It’s important to keep in mind that spring cleaning is less about getting rid of things and more about examining your relationship to the things you surround yourself with. If something truly brings you joy, it’s worth keeping around; if it doesn’t, it may be time to let it go.
Pay Attention to Your Mood and Work Through Unresolved Anger.
In addition to becoming more aware of your body, it is equally important to be aware of how you feel emotionally. As mentioned previously, in TCM, when energy is stuck, it can result in the experience of anger. The transition that occurs during the springtime requires movement. When this movement is obstructed, it can produce a strong feeling of anger, which, if not resolved, can turn into depression. Therefore, this is an optimal time to examine situations in your life where you feel stuck and look for ways to create momentum in those areas.
In TCM, the liver is also related to creativity as well as planning and executing actions. One way to get unstuck if you are in a rut is to do something that gives a sense of accomplishment, particularly something that you have wanted to do or try for a long time but hasn’t. Consider embarking on a project such as spring cleaning, a household project, or an artistic or creative endeavor. Such projects create a sense of movement and release, particularly when your feel stagnant or uninspired.
Try Herbal Supplements.
Lastly, TCM often recommends herbal formulas to help create balance in the body and mind. One such formula, called Xiao Yao San, specifically relaxes the mind and body by encouraging energy to flow freely in the liver. This is an ideal supplement to take during the spring and is especially useful for those dealing with depression and anxiety. This formula is available online or through a TCM practitioner. Although it is generally safe for anyone, it is recommended to talk to a TCM practitioner when using supplements like this.
Staying healthy is perhaps the most important thing we can do to ensure that our lives are enjoyable and happy. At the end of the day, if we aren’t healthy, it’s more difficult to live a full and meaningful life. These are just a few things that can significantly help you stay healthy and avoid the pitfalls you may encounter during the change of seasons. In my experience, the effects of routinely adjusting behavior according to the seasons become cumulative, and with practice, the body naturally becomes accustomed to meeting the challenges each season presents. On a deeper level, by connecting to our environment, we not only potentially enhance our health but also gain a greater understanding and appreciation for the interconnectedness of all things.