13 May The changes in seasons and how it affects us
By Michael Ryan
In TCM climactic factors are a major part of illness and disharmony.
The Climactic factors are:
Wind, Damp, Cold, Heat (fire), Dryness, Summer Heat.
We call these External Pathogenic Factors or EPF’s for short. In Chinese Medicine the body is seen as a microcosm of nature. At all times we are looking for a perfect balance to maintain health. When the balance is disturbed illness and “dis-ease” occurs. The balance can be disturbed by external (EPF) or internal factors e.g. emotional imbalance, poor diet, lack/excessive exercise, accident etc.
In terms of EPF we may not have control over the weather but we do have control over our relationship with it and how it affects us. Eating foods in season is one way to counter the effects of seasonal change. Foods that grow in Spring in and Summer tend to be more Yin in nature and have a more cooling and calming effect on us. Foods grown in Autumn and Winter show a seasonal progression towards being more Yang in nature and therefore are more warming, activating, protecting in nature. In TCM, the actions of Wei Qi or defensive chi are consistent with the actions of the immune system. Wei Qi is more Yang in nature, although there is a more physical Yin component to it and generally it is enhanced in Autumn and Winter by foods to promote more Yang in the body.
In TCM we are always looking to maintain a healthy balance of Yin and Yang and we do, of course, have to take the external Climatic factors into account in order to do this. To maintain a balance of Yin and Yang in Summer we need to consume more Yin foods to counter the external Yang and in Winter we consume more Yang goods to counter the external Yin, therefore, maintaining balance within the body.
Traditionally this wasn’t a problem, it was next to impossible to access foods that were out of season and we had to live more in balance with nature as much out of necessity as desire. However, in an affluent globalised society we no longer have seasonal restrictions placed on us. We can access any food, anytime, anywhere and while this may satisfy our desires it’s not necessarily best for our health.
Wind, in TCM is the spearhead of attack, once it enters the body it allows other pathogens to follow. During the recent storm the wind was quite fierce and combined with cold and damp. The liver is particularly susceptible to being agitated by wind. Many patients report that they don’t mind the cold and rain so much but they hate the wind. Wind can give rise to pain, stiffness, tremors and seizures in the body and can also lead to dryness. Wind, when combined with damp and heat/cold, gives rise to what the Chinese refer to as Bi syndrome which is consistent with what we describe in western medicine as arthritis. This initially manifests on a superficial level with pain in the Jingluo, acupuncture meridians and, over time, can descend into the joints and organs.
Wind EPF attack can also lead to cold and damp penetrating the external vessels where it does battle with the Wei Qi. If the Wei Qi is overcome it will initially go to the lungs, the uppermost and outermost organ of the body. This of course manifests in the symptoms of cold and flu that we tend to experience, primarily in Winter and Autumn but is not uncommon in Spring or even Summer. Spring is the season associated with the liver and wind often predominates in Spring, agitating the liver and giving rise to EPF attack.
The familiar symptoms of cold and flu include chills and fever, pain, headache, runny nose, productive cough, aching back and limbs, tiredness and lethargy. These usually occur in the early stages. As the cold and damp settle into the lungs we tend to produce a lot of phlegm. In TCM cold phlegm tends to be white. Without cold it tends to be clear. If only dampness is present we may experience lots of clear liquid running from the nose (the external orifice associated with the lungs).
As EPF attack progresses and if it is not expelled from the body cold can progress and transform into heat. We see this progression in the phlegm turning from white to yellow to green. Blood in the phlegm and sputum is a further progression of heat. As it progresses phlegm becomes thicker, darker and stickier and is harder to shift. Eventually we can end up with a dry tickly cough manifesting primarily in the throat. This is not uncommon in an EPF attack that has lasted several weeks. This is a further progression of heat where the Yin fluids of the body have been dried out. There may well be headaches with this progression as heat rises internally to the head.
Depending on the origin and progression of dis-ease we approach treatment in different ways. In the early stages when the Wei Qi is “up” and fighting infection, we do not want use a tonification treatment and risk strengthening the EPF. We look to expel the external pathogen and rid the excess. Acupuncture and cupping can be effective in drawing excess to the surface while we can use herbs that are effective in draining dampness and expelling wind. In EPF that is hasn’t yet progressed beyond the surface, Gua Sha (spooning) can be effective in moving it.
When it has progressed to the lungs, we look to drain dampness and expel the EPF. Again we don’t want to risk tonification, especially with herbs, so we look to reduce the excess. In TCM we always look to reduce the excess first before progressing to strengthening any weakness which may have given rise to the EPF attack in the first instance.
Interestingly in TCM, heat doesn’t necessarily dry dampness rather can give rise to a condition known as damp-heat. The heat can essentially boil the phlegm within the body giving rise to the stickier more persistent kind of phlegm that is harder to shift. In this instance, again, we are looking to reduce the excess but if the EPF has now departed the body and this is the residual effect we can look to strengthen the organs and help them work more efficiently in expelling the residual pathogen.
Where Cold EPF has progressed to Heat in the lungs, cupping is effective in drawing the heat to the surface and dispersing it. Acupuncture can be used to open the lungs to expel the heat and herbs can then be used to augment this acute form of treatment and give longer lasting relief.
As in all dis-ease, prevention is better than cure. TCM is primarily concerned with maintaining health and is most effective in keeping you well. A well serviced car is less likely to break down than an un-serviced car. We should treat our bodies in the same way.