The Fall Season according to Chinese Medicine

By Helen Spieth, L.Ac., M.Chem

Chinese Medicine places much importance on both circadian rhythms and seasonal energies in understanding the nature and the rhythms of the body. Waking up is analogous to springtime, midday relates to the peak of summer, late afternoon and early evening reflect the energy of fall, and nighttime reflects winter. Contemplating the kind of activities you engage in, or ideally will engage in, at a certain time of the day is a reflection of the energy of the corresponding season.

For those living close to the land, Fall culminates in the harvesting of crops, reaping the benefits of the hard work of Spring and Summer. Initially it's a busy period of canning, pickling, jam making and stocking the cellar with root vegetables for the winter. And then we rest, satisfied with the work we've done. The late Fall energy predisposes us with the ability to go inward and slow down. In the late afternoon we might be doing a final push at work to complete the day's tasks, but then we should go home and rest with our families and companions.

The seasons also relate to life phases. Noon or summer when the sun is at it's peak, relates to our later 30's and 40's when we are at the peak of our established career, be it a skilled job or raising a family, or a combination of both. In our 50's and 60's we enter our "Fall" period and fully reap the benefits of our hard work but we also begin to slow down. It is less a time of external activity, and more a time of internal reflection, bringing wisdom we can share with the younger generation.

The seasons also relate to the five elements, water, wood, fire, earth and metal which are mutually dependant on one another. Each element corresponds to certain organ systems of the body, which in turn relate to certain qualities and emotions.

The Fall season relates to Metal which corresponds to our skin, lungs and large intestine. These are the primary organs of elimination. We release through our pores, our exhale, and our bowel movements, that which no longer serves us, just as the trees let go of their spent leaves in Fall. The Fall season, the end of a day and this later stage of life is a period of letting go.

The quality of the Metal element is judgment. In our maturity we assume positions in society based on the wisdom of our years. The elders in traditional communities are looked to for their powers of discernment and decision making abilities. I think that's why judges wear grey wigs; grey hair brings wisdom :)

Along with letting go comes the emotion of grief, and this is the emotion associated with the Metal element. It is natural for us to feel some melancholy after the joyous exuberance of summer or the beginning of retirement. We could not thrive if it was "Summer" twelve months of the year. We need periods of rain and darkness to render earth fertile and allow periods of rest. Equally, we cannot recognize joy unless we also experience sadness.

Our modern, fast paced world often emphasizes early achievement and success based on material wealth. At the same time, it is possible to go back to school in our 50's and launch a new career. There are jobs that require us to work all hours of the day and night. There are no later morning starts for school children or office workers in winter, who have to wake up in the dark, contrary to the natural circadian rhythm dictated by the season that requires we sleep longer in order to rejuvenate, especially in the case of children. In our modern times, it's "go, go dog" all year round, all hours of the day and late into the night, to quote the visionary Dr. Seuss.

The pineal gland is a small endocrine gland located in the center of the brain. It responds to light absorbed through the eyes, being stimulated to produce the hormone melatonin in the dark, which is turned off in the presence of light. Melatonin is the "sleepy hormone", that should be upregulated at night and in winter.

Melatonin is made from serotonin. We should produce more melatonin in winter during prolonged periods of darkness, and so in turn the body is required to produce more serotonin at these times. Serotonin is dubbed "the happy awake hormone" and though it's conversion from tryptophan and into melatonin can be affected by numerous biochemical influences and pathways, the relationship of both serotonin and melotonin with the natural circadian rhythm of dark and light is paramount.

Our bodies are very intelligent machines when we allow them to function as designed. Just as if your expenses increase and you need to find more money to meet that need, the body will produce more serotonin when melatonin is up-regulated in the winter months - if you follow the natural rhythm of light and dark. Setting our alarm clocks for the early cold dark hours of the winter months as well as staying up late in artificial light, working on our computer or watching tv, has a significant negative impact on the natural function of the pineal gland and it's production of melatonin and serotonin in response to dark and light.

Seasonal Affective Disorder, with the appropriate acronym "SAD", as well as other manifestations of depression, may simply be the way the body communicates that it is being prevented from following it's natural circadian rhythm on a daily basis. Or your body may be letting you know it is not content ploughing through Winter as if it were always Summer. Perhaps you are reluctant to let go of your youth and accept the way your body is now, functioning below what you have come to expect of it, being unwilling to accept that wisdom and the ability to reflect and move inward is exactly the role you should be stepping in to.

Living against natural rhythms, and our purpose, creates disharmony in our bodies and that eventually leads to undesirable physical symptoms in an attempt to alert us to that.

For this reason, Chinese Medicine and related cousins such as Ayurvedic and Tibetan Medicine, find their limelight as preventative medicine. These ancient philosophies honor nature as a guiding principle in understanding the integral cycles in our external world that play out in our physiology. They recognize the rhythm and flow from the smallest cycle there is - an in breath and an exhale - to the full cycle of a life time, conception to death, and every cycle that comes in between.

If you feel out of synch with your life and purpose, feel that you are not following your path, or suffer from anxiety, insomnia or depression, consider embracing the wisdom of nature, your body, and their corresponding rhythms. Chinese Medicine uses these as it's foundational guiding principle and offers the body an opportunity to realign with balance and harmony within our modern stressful world that tends to prevent us from finding our true rhythm. When living in sync with life and its natural rhythm, you may find that certain of your physical and mental emotional complaints will fall away. When combined with a Chinese Medical diagnosis for your individual complaints, you can actively address the root energetic cause of your imbalance and engage your body in a journey towards re-establishing harmony.


Helen Spieth L.Ac, M.Chem is a graduate of the Masters program in Chinese Medicine at the National College of Natural Medicine in Portland. With a background in Biochemistry, Helen blends Classical Chinese Medicine and traditional eastern dietary therapy with the latest clinical research. Helen offers complimentary 20-minute consultations by phone or in by person for those wishing to discuss how Chinese Medicine can help individual health concerns. Please call Natural Health Choices Clinic at (503) 445.7115 to schedule your complimentary consultation.


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