A little over a week ago I was in the deepest part of the Grand Canyon wearing a backpack. I spent a week carrying my food, clothes, water, and anything else I needed on my back. After living outdoors for a couple of days, it was surprising how quickly my pals and I got into the rhythm of nature. We went to bed when it was dark and got up when it was light. Our focus became water—finding water in an otherwise dry place. We hiked earlier in the day and tried to rest when it was warm. We watched the weather with far more interest than we ever do at home.
For me, this was a physically difficult trip, but it was also good. It put me in touch not only with my inner self and what I was capable of doing, but it also put me in touch with the natural world around me. You see, the foundations of Chinese medicine are based on our relationship with nature. A basic concept of this medicine is that we’re miniature models of the earth and the universe, and as such we exhibit some of the same characteristics of the natural world around us.
Much of the language of Chinese medicine parallels the weather, seasons, and other natural phenomena. Illnesses can be described as warm, cold, damp, wind, dryness, and even summerheat. Your body’s organs correspond to natural elements such as Earth, Fire, Wood, Water, and Metal. And Yin and Yang describe not only the dichotomies of the natural world, but the dichotomies and striving for balance that occur in your own body. In fact, much of what is understood about your body in Chinese medicine is described in metaphor from nature.
Knowing that the natural world is reflected in your body can be one step toward better health. Unfortunately, we spend much of our lives indoors, and in doing so, it’s easy to ignore the signs, signals, and changes occurring outdoors. For example, I see a number of patients for seasonal depression during the fall months. Most of these people know that winter is coming, and they begin to feel sad and depressed. Part of what is happening is that we are experiencing less daylight, and here in Minnesota, it’s getting colder. The animals outdoors know that it’s time either to migrate someplace warmer or to fatten up, store some food, and conserve energy for the coming winter. However, we humans simply keep on doing what we do, without making any adjustments for this monumental seasonal change.
So how then, can you become a little more in tune with the nature of the world, especially as it relates to your health? Here are a few simple places to start:
Pay attention to seasonal changes and do what the animals do. In the fall, gain a little weight, slow down, sleep a little longer, put in some fire wood, can or freeze the produce from your garden or the farmer’s market, and get ready for the coming winter. During the first warm days of spring, come out of your figurative hibernation, get outdoors, and play. Begin eating small early lettuces, spinach, and arugula, and plan your summer garden.
Sleep when it’s dark and get up with the daylight. I know that this isn’t completely realistic, when the sun sets at 5 pm and rises at 7 am during the winter. However, this is a basic guideline. Many people stay up late into the night and sleep well into the day. I also see a number of nurses in my clinic who struggle with working the night shift several times a week. When the sun sets, it begins the quiet, cool, and dark time of day; the time when you’re supposed to sleep. Try to do so.
Eat seasonally and when possible, regionally. Just like the animals in the forest, we’re supposed to eat what’s ripe and in season. During the summer, that means tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, peppers, and whatever else is coming out of the garden. In the fall, produce shifts to apples and pears, squash, and root vegetables. Winter is a little trickier, but nuts, peas, root vegetables, and beans are a good choice, and in the spring, new greens are some of the first fresh produce you find. Again, this is a guideline; finding local produce during the winter can be a challenge. What you’re not meant to do is eat packaged foods that have been processed with chemicals to withstand eight months on the grocery store shelf.
Garden. Whether it’s a plot in your back yard or a couple of pots of tomatoes on your back deck, nothing puts you in touch with what’s happening outdoors better than watching your garden grow. In addition, nothing is more rewarding than making a meal out of something you’ve grown yourself.
Know that extreme weather conditions have the ability to create imbalances in your body and adjust accordingly. For example, cold damp weather is prime time for many people’s aches and pains to act up. The hottest days of summer have the ability to wipe you out, and colds and flu usually kick up during the cold, dark days of winter. Try to stay warm/dry/cool accordingly.
Spend time outdoors. When you do so regularly, you can’t help but notice what’s going on around you. In the fall, butterflies are migrating. In February, the woodpeckers start drumming, and in May, you can practically watch the plants growing by the minute. Remember, you’re part of this natural world, too.