It's time for the fifth Element - and the fifth season!
One of the most prevalent systems in Chinese Medicine is called Five Element Theory. It's the theory that there are five elements, and a season for each. Wait, well then aren't we short a season? Let me introduce you to...
Lol, no it's not really Leeloo. And it's not actually a mystical being that can save the world. BUT, it is a really interesting time of year, and if you make the right choices during it, you will definitely be healthier and happier into fall. Here's a quick chart with the seasons, and their corresponding elements:
So when exactly is Late Summer? It's usually from mid August, and goes until the Autumnal Equinox, which is on September 22nd this year (2022). It's hot. It's muggy. And it seems like it will never end! But like everything, it will end and we will move into a different season, or phase, very soon. It's a short season for sure, but a pretty important one. Times of transition - liminal spaces if you will - are points when things become more unstable.
When you go from sitting to standing, there's a greater chance of falling. When electrons move to different atoms, the exchange can be disastrous. OR you can get a new element, you increase your strength through training. It doesn't have to be a bad thing, because we cannot grow without change. The transformational power of the shortest season should not be ignored, it should be harnessed!
Okay great, but what exactly does this mean to me? Well, it means you can reframe how you think about this last part of summer. The easiest way to do that is through the concept above, and to focus on the season's element - EARTH
Now there are many ways to think about the earth element. The first is that the earth is at the center of the elements and everything builds off of it - this is known as the cosmological sequence. Another way is through the generating sequence, where the earth element is generated by the fire element. The Five Phases is a third idea that everything is constantly moving through five different phases, each represented by one of the elements above. This concept is overlaid on life cycles, harvest and growing cycles, and even the emotional cycles of dealing with trauma. This can get very complicated very quickly and will be left to another post, but suffice it to say we will talk about the earth element in multifaceted ways.
COrrespondences and phases of the earth element
So let's deep dive into the earth element. What does it relate to and why? The earth element is associated with the organs the stomach and spleen. This makes a lot of sense when you think about grouping those into the concept of digestion, and then thinking about digestion as the basis of our existence. Without sustenance we do not thrive. So the quality of of our gut microbiome, which is often indicated by the quality of stool, is a great way of thinking about and measuring the health of our earth element. That's why your acupuncturist always wants to know about your stool, it tells us a *lot* about your health. It's a little too much to get into right now, but for a deeper understanding you can read this amazing book that puts it in much better detail than I can:
But coming back to earth and digestion, the time of day associated with this element in the organ clock system is 7-9 am for the spleen, and 9-11 am for the stomach. This is why you should eat breakfast between 7-9 am, and one of the main reasons Eastern Medicine practitioners say you should never skip breakfast. We also think you should not have anything cold like cereal for breakfast, or you will douse your digestive fire. Which arguably is another way of saying it leads to gut dysbiosis. We just didn't have that language 2,000 years ago.
So in practical terms this means during late summer, we really need to focus on our gut health. We need to prepare and repair the microbiome so that we get every bit of the nutrients in our food before we enter winter. Of course, it's not as important as it once was to make sure we have enough food for winter. Globalization has led to greater food security for many of us. However, if we want to live healthier, and in accordance with the seasons and the flow of nature, it's a powerful thought. Plus science data shows that a healthier gut means a healthier and happier life in almost every sense.
EMotional Imbalances of the earth element
This leads us perfectly into the concept of the emotions associated with earth: worrying and overthinking. Evidence based medicine certainly coincides with this when we talk about the gut being the second brain, and how neurotransmitters are found in large quantities in the gut. To be fair, we're still not exactly sure what this means, but we definitely know there is a connection. Just like the ancient physicians of China knew this. An imbalance, particularly a deficiency in the earth element, can lead to lots of anxiety, worrying, and over thinking. This can lead to paralyzing indecision, leaving us stuck in a bad place.
We've talked a lot about the gut and our emotional state, but that's only part of the picture. In five element theory there are external pathogens that can throw each element out of whack. For the earth element, and for late summer, it's dampness. It's a little hard to think about since we don't talk about pathogens in this way, but it's a very helpful metaphor once you understand the reasoning. So a great way to think about dampness is in terms of pain. Barometric pressure changes, oncoming storms, these can cause old injuries and joints to flare up. Like when your knee let's you know it's gonna rain tomorrow. It's also just a much more humid during late summer. Here in South Texas we are *feeling* it. Everyone I talk to is feeling a little oppressed by the weight of the air right now.
Damp Heat is a thing
So with the final blast of summer heat, and the added humidity of late summer, we are left with a common concept in Chinese Medicine - damp heat. The main symptoms of damp heat are gastrointestinal, like we've talked about with the earth element and digestion. But it can also cause joint pain, chronic fatigue
Okay But what can we do?
I imagine you are asking yourself why even talk about Late Summer if it's all so terrible? That's because it's not! There's actually of a ton of stuff we can do to nourish the earth element, and our gut! Here's a list of my favorite things to focus on during these weeks before we head into fall:
"The mediocre practitioner treats the disease. The superior practitioner prevents it."
I hope this post will help you to prevent disease in your body, but as always this is not a replacement for medical advice. Please seek out a licensed acupuncturist to find out what is best for you. And stay tuned for Part 2 where I will talk about Qigong!
Stay healthy, friends!
~The Red Raven
Bret Kyle Rogers, L.Ac.
Texas based acupuncturist, qigong teacher, and herbalist demystifying Chinese medicine. The author frequently links to Amazon.com for specific products. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases and appreciate your business!