If yin and yang can be considered the shadow and sun of the natural universe, then the Five Elements are like the colors of the rainbow. Among other things, they provide a more dynamic understanding of the connection between the human world and the natural one. Spring is related to the Wood element, a time when the yang forces are beginning to return to the surface. The often-mentioned image is one of a determined sprout, pushing its way up through the earth. In Five Element theory, springtime is related to the Gan and Dan (roughly, the Liver and Gall Bladder*), the color green, the sound of shouting, and the emotion of anger.
Qualities of the Liver (Gan)
In Western cultures, the Liver is probably the most abused organ in the body. On the physical level, this is obvious when we think of the chemicals, toxins, and unnatural substances the organ has to cope with each day. But in Oriental medicine the Gan is also important in maintaining proper emotional health.
Three of the main functions of the Liver are ensuring the normal free-flowing activity of the qi or life energy and to both store and purify the Blood. When this organ is vital and healthy, people are calm, decisive, and effective. There is enough qi and Blood to allow the hun, or ethereal soul, to be well-rooted.
When the Liver becomes stagnant or deficient, emotions related to anger such as impatience, frustration, resentment, and depression result. In Oriental medical theory, inadequate purification of the Blood engenders degenerative ailments such as cancer and arthritis, and can lead to impairment in the processes that result in the releasing of toxins through the eliminative organs. “Impure Blood” is held to be the root of acne, eczema, and allergies.
In addition, longstanding Liver qi stagnation creates friction in the body and leads to the generation of pathological Heat. This kind of Heat is very destructive, creating conditions that can eventually lead to headaches, hypertension, and strokes. Heat in the Liver begins to consume the yin, which is responsible for the cooling, stabilizing, and nourishing functions. Deficiency of Liver yin can lead to irritability, insomnia, and eye pathology.
The Liver, and especially the Gall Bladder, are fortunately related to the capacity of decision-making. A good example of this quality is the phenomenon of spring cleaning. This is often a time when people intuitively make many new choices, whether it is getting rid of old and broken belongings, remodeling one’s environment, or doing activities of “inner spring cleaning” such as fasting and detoxification. This creates more inner and outer space, leading to an expansive feeling that stimulates the Heart. It is not without reason that the spring is widely considered to be the most romantic time of the year.
In spring, food preparation shifts toward cooking foods for a shorter time but at higher temperatures. Stir frying and quick, high-temperature sautés are excellent spring cooking methods and steaming is the method of choice when cooking with water. There is also a tendency to both decrease the quantity of food and to consume lighter quality foods.
In addition to the mental and emotional causes of stagnation, the two dietary practices that can cause the Liver (and the Gall Bladder) to become sluggish are eating rich, greasy foods and eating meals late in the evening. Thus the heavy, fatty and salty foods of the winter should be replaced with a higher percentage of raw foods that have more life energy, such as fresh greens, young plants, and sprouts.
Continuing the general principle of mirroring the season in our eating habits, the diet should begin to include foods that have the ascending and expanding qualities of spring. In Oriental medicine both sweet and pungent flavored foods have this quality. As with salt, the typically American diet has an overabundance of sweet-flavored items, so the emphasis here is on shifting away from excessively processed foods toward more healthy, complex carbohydrates such as grains, legumes, and seeds. Substituting small amounts of minimally processed sweeteners, such as stevia, unrefined cane-juice granules, or raw honey for processed sugar can also be beneficial.
Pungent herbs such as basil, fennel, and rosemary are desirable, as are pungent flavors from foods such as garlic. As always, these suggestions are general guidelines and may not be appropriate for everyone. While raw food are useful for people experiencing inner heat, warmer temperatures, and greater physical activity, large quantities should generally be avoiding in individuals who are experiencing gastrointestinal inflammation, are constitutionally cold in nature, or who are chronically deficient.
There is no other season when the power of choice is more robust than during the spring. As always, making the choice to understand and live in harmony with the power of nature has immeasurable advantages, not the least of which may be a noticeable spring in one’s step.
* Chinese organ names are capitalized to indicate their difference from the Western physical organs or substances.