Autumn is the time of year when energetic yang energy of summer begins to return to the earth, slowly giving way to the time of yin. This mixing of yin and yang results in a vivacious energetic pattern that is clearly reflected in the brilliant, vivid colors of this season.
The element that is associated with autumn is Metal. Metal energies are very important to the development of the human system. They are associated with the Fei and Dachang (roughly, the Lungs* and Large Intestine), as well as the emotion of grief.
Qualities of the Lungs
According to Leon Hammer, MD, “It is said that the first breath brings with it the heavenly spirit, which makes a newborn human, for without it one does not begin to exist on the earth.” The ancient Chinese believed that the qi (or life force) was brought into the body through the Lungs and then mixed with the qi from our food in order to supplement the quantity of pre-natal qi we inherited from our parents. Thus, the Lungs are responsible for not only taking in and letting go, as with breathing, but also to consolidate, gather together, and unify. Its unifying function is an important aspect of what we now call the immune system, while its releasing function is important not only on the physical level, as in releasing toxins, but also on the emotional level, especially in the case of grieving. Its paired organ, the Large Intestine, is also important in this function of letting go. Unhappily, the Metal element is considered to be one of the weakest of the elements for modern people, in part due to poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle.
Fall is the season of the harvest, but it is also a time when things begin to contract, to go inward and downward. During this period we begin to become more organized, more metal-like, in our activities, which include storing up provisions and planning for the demands of winter. To prepare food that is in harmony with the season of autumn, we need to be aware of its abundant yet contracting nature. The cold and cooling foods of summer, such as salads, watermelon, and citrus fruits give way to foods and food preparation that supply greater energy for the cooler season. Cooking methods that focus the energy of the food in a more inward fashion, such as baking and stewing, are favored. Root vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds, which are high in fiber for the Large Intestine, can be rotated back into the diet, as can the lighter animal products such as chicken and eggs, for those who are not vegetarian.
A common mistake concerning the Five Elements is to assume that the taste associated with that element should be the dominant one for the corresponding season. This is an understandable but simplistic way to view Chinese nutrition. The Five Flavors, as they are called, are not used for general attunement to a particular season and they do not correspond to “tastes” as we generally speak of them. In Chinese medicine, the Five Flavors are more of a way to encode therapeutic information about a food, including its thermal nature, its remedial actions, and which internal organ it enters. It can be the case that the Flavor of a food does not correspond to its actual taste.
Despite this, the Flavor associated with the Metal element – pungent – can be of value in autumn cooking. The pungent flavor, which includes spicy, hot, and aromatic flavors, is yang, has a warming energy, is expansive, and stimulates digestion. It stimulates the nose and the Lungs, clearing them of mucus and dispersing sluggishness. Because white is the color of the Metal element, white pungent foods such as onion, garlic, ginger, horseradish, and white peppercorn can be especially helpful. The highest pungency is generally found when these foods are eaten raw, but those with dry, feverish, or nervous conditions should avoid consuming large quantities of raw, pungent food as it can exacerbate their condition. Sour flavored foods, such as vinegar, yogurt, lemons, grapefruit, and sauerkraut can also be helpful in during the fall season, as it has a gathering and contracting affect on the body that mimics the energy of autumn. In additional to being a healthy twist on autumn-time food preparation, seasonal attunement can be a fun and interesting adventure. Just fall-low your instincts!
* Chinese organ names are capitalized to indicate their difference from the Western physical organs or substances.