I have always felt a deep, soul-level connection with the natural world. Nature has been my teacher, my healer, and my closest friend. It is not a coincidence that for my vocation in life I chose to practice a form of medicine that is completely based upon observing the patterns and principles of nature. In Chinese Medicine, we use these patterns and principles of nature to diagnose as well as to help guide people back into a greater state of balance. As practitioners of this wise, nature-based medicine, we use the ancient technologies of acupuncture, herbalism, Qigong, lifestyle guidance, and other modalities.
With nature being the bedrock for both my personal and professional life, as well as the muse for most of the poetry and prose that I write, this month I'd like to share some of my personal contemplations on the different ways in which nature manifests as medicine for the soul. Each different facet of nature has its own energetic healing qualities; we all will connect with these facets in our own unique way. My hope is that these personal reflections will inspire you to deepen into your own personal relationship with nature, and to explore for yourself what healing medicine the natural world holds for you.
Tomorrow is the spring equinox, marking the season of the wood element in the ancient Chinese Medicine system of the Five Elements. On an energetic level, this springtime energy within each of us is the dimension of ourself that can bounce back and keep growing towards the sun, just like a tree or plant, in spite of life's obstacles. You know when you see little plants coming up through the sidewalk, or the roots of a tree breaking up the concrete? That is the wood element: determined to keep aspiring and growing, concrete be damned! A wonderful symbol of the wood element that many of us can connect with is a redwood tree. Strongly rooted in the earth, they are able to sway in strong winds without snapping or falling down. And always they aspire higher and higher towards the sun, while firmly rooted in the earth. This is the energetic quality of wood and springtime.
When we hear the word "super food" many of us might think of things like spirulina, royal jelly, bee pollen, and acai. But the humble egg, as ubiquitous as it may be, is actually quite the nutritional powerhouse. When eggs are sourced from pasture-raised chickens, they are not only rich in protein, but also in the fat soluble vitamins A and D: nutrients in which many people are deficient. Pasture-raised eggs contain choline and omega-3 fatty acids, both of which are nutrients important for brain health. In addition, eggs are rich in sulphur-containing proteins that are necessary for cell membrane integrity.
Eggs also contain cholesterol, which is actually a good thing! For decades the mainstream medical world had advised against consuming dietary cholesterol; only just recently has it come around to acknowledging that dietary cholesterol plays a key role in health, particularly in hormonal health, fertility, and mental health. For ages, traditional cultures across the globe have been consuming wild caught and pasture-raised eggs (as well as other cholesterol-containing foods), without experiencing the epidemic rates of heart disease that we see in our modern western society. Increasingly, scientific evidence is linking heart disease to the consumption of highly inflammatory foods such as sugar and refined flours, as well as modern industrial vegetable oils like soybean oil and corn oil. These modern industrial foods have never been a part of traditional diets; since they have entered the modern diet we can see a proportional acceleration in chronic inflammatory disease (for more information on traditional diets, I highly recommend the book Full Moon Feast by Jessica Prentice).
Sometimes the most simple self-care rituals can be the most profound, especially when done with great intention. I'm sharing one of my favorite self care rituals for winter, one that is especially beneficial to do when we feel we need to drop into a deep state of relaxation, and fast! Though this can be done any time of the year, I especially love this self-care ritual for winter because winter is the season of the water element, and it is the time of utmost yin, which is the energy of stillness, silence, darkness, and going inward. This self-care ritual of immersing oneself in water and darkness is the ultimate yin experience, and a wonderful way to deeply soothe the nervous system.
In honor of the Winter Solstice I'd like to share a simple and delicious tea recipe that is a perfect accompaniment to this seasonal dynamic. Just as on winter solstice we see the rebirth of the sun from the depth of winter, this warming yellow tea is like a burst of sunlight to warm us on a cold, dark day. Three golden and yellow ingredients-- ginger, lemon, and honey-- come together in a tea that is great for strengthening the immune system and warding of colds, and also for alleviating symptoms if a cold has already set in. I love that the colors of all the ingredients in this tea are yellow and golden; it really does evoke the sunlight we so often crave in the cold and dark of winter.
Tomorrow is the winter solstice, so I'd like to share a bit about what is happening energetically in winter and on the solstice. In the ancient philosophy of Chinese Medicine, we look at nature and the cycle of the seasons as our guidepost towards greater balance and wholeness. Using this lens, we see the cycle of the seasons as a continual dance between the energies of yin and yang.
This is one of my favorite winter soup recipes. It's easy to make, delicious and nourishing. It has plenty of the warming and immune-supportive herbs that are also so delicious: ginger, garlic, and onions. I always freeze a jar of this soup whenever I make a batch; that way I always have chicken soup ready in case I or anyone in my family starts to get a cold. This soup is medicine! If you are grain-free you can simply omit the wild rice. I sometimes will also add a spoonful of miso paste to a bowl of this soup, as miso is medicine in and of itself!
Simple Asian-Style Chicken Soup
1 bone-in organic, free-range chicken breast
2 tbsp. olive oil, coconut oil or ghee
1 and ½ yellow onions
6 celery ribs, 2 left whole and 4 diced
4 carrots, diced
3-4 large slices fresh ginger
3 cloves of garlic, minced
½ cup wild rice, rinsed (optional)
1 tsp. unrefined salt
1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped
4 green onions, chopped
Toasted sesame oil to season
1.)Place the chicken breast, 2 whole celery ribs, and ½ an onion in a crockpot and add about 8-10 cups of water. Turn crockpot to low heat setting and let cook for 6-8 hours.
2.)Using tongs, remove the chicken breast from the crockpot and set it on a plate to cool while you prep the other soup ingredients.
3.)Heat the oil in a large soup pot over low heat. Once oil is warm add diced onion, celery and carrot, as well as ginger slices. Saute veggies on low heat until softened, about 10 minutes. Add minced garlic, salt and wild rice, and saute another minute or two.
4.)Using a strainer, strain the chicken broth from the crockpot into the the soup pot.
5.)Remove the chicken from the bones once cool enough to handle (and the skin if the chicken breast had skin on). Shred the chicken and add to the soup pot.
6.)Bring the soup to boil, then turn heat to low and simmer about 30-45 minutes.
7.)Add cilantro, green onions, fresh cracked pepper, and a few dashes of toasted sesame oil to taste.
I've just finished up this year's autumn cleanse program in my clinic, and I've definitely got food-as-medicine on the brain! Every spring and autumn I offer these seasonal healing programs as a way to help clients "supercharge" and focus on their health, with a strong emphasis on establishing nourishing eating and lifestyle habits. In addition to three restorative and balancing acupuncture/massage sessions, these two-week seasonal healing programs include a detailed nutritional outline for creating optimal health (if this sounds like it would be helpful for you, stay tuned for the spring cleanse that starts next March!). One of the primary guidelines I put forth in the guidelines, backed up with lots of recipes and meal plans, is to include a minimum of six cups of vegetables a day. This basically amounts to at least two cups of veggies with every meal.
The truth is that most of us just don't eat enough vegetables, even many of us who are generally healthy eaters. Why does it matter? One of the primary reasons is that vegetables are really the best source of fiber, and fiber is crucial to completing the body's natural detoxification process. While it's the liver's job to break down toxins, it is the job of the large intestine to make sure those toxins really get out of the body. And without enough fiber that's not going to happen. Not to be gloom and doom about it, but in our modern world we pretty much do live in a "toxic soup." If you think that's hyperbole, just consider for a moment the fact that in 2004 the Environmental Working Group did a study in which they found an average of 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants (such as pesticides, mercury, dioxins, etc.) in the umbilical cord blood of newborn infants. Sadly, we have such a toxic burden in this day and age that we are passing it on to our children in utero. Trace amounts of pharmaceuticals are even being found in our drinking water. The presence of synthetic hormones in the environment is wiping out populations of fish. From purely a health perspective, these are indeed dire times (and most of us might agree that these are dire times in more ways than one, but we'll keep it to just health discussion here!)
Every day our livers are working hard to manage this constant input: pesticides, xeno-estrogens, chemicals leached from plastics, car exhaust, chemicals in body care products that are absorbed through the skin, over the counter and prescribed medications, alcohol, drugs, synthetic hormones (and even our body's natural hormones, which also need to be detoxified by the liver)... the list goes on and on. So aside from minimizing our exposure to these toxins as much as we can, we need to also support vibrantly healthy livers that can effectively manage the inevitable exposures, AND we need a diet rich in fiber (i.e. vegetables) to make sure the detoxification process is complete with our bowel elimination.
The fiber from certain vegetables also acts as a pre-biotic, which basically means it acts as food for the trillions of gut bacteria that inhabit our intestines. These benefical gut bacteria fulfill a myriad of important physiological functions, ranging from immune system modulation to brain neurotransmitter production to hormone balancing. A healthy micro biome is nourished by a diet rich in fiber and naturally probiotic foods, and a diet that contains virtually no processed or refined carbohydrates. Equally as important as the fiber component in veggies is the fact that vibrant, colorful vegetables are our best source for phytonutrients. Phytonutrients are natural plant compounds that have a protective effect on the the body. A couple of common examples include lycopene, found in tomatoes, which supports prostate health, and beta-carotene found in sweet potatoes and kale, which supports lung and eye health. To get a wide variety of these phytonutrients we should eat a wide variety of different vegetables even day; different colors in the plants often indicate the presence of different phytonutrients, hence the advice to "eat a rainbow".
So now that we've taken a moment to explore WHY we need vegetables, let's discuss HOW we go about getting at least two cups of veggies with every meal. A lot of people get stumped about how to make breakfast a veggie-rich meal. This is especially the case if they are accustomed to the standard American diet practice of eating empty carbs for breakfast (which happens to be the worst thing you can do in terms of disrupting blood sugar balance and energy levels). A wonderful way to get veggies into your breakfast, especially as we move into the colder months, is to make roasted roots. Unlike flour-based foods like cereal and bagels, root vegetables are a wonderful source of healthy, slow-burning carbohydrates. Combine these roasted roots with some pasture-raised eggs for protein (maybe scrambled with leafy greens for even more veggies), cooked in a healthy fat like ghee or coconut oil, and a scoop of probiotic-rich sauerkraut, and you really do have the breakfast of champions. Many of the clients doing my autumn cleanse were amazed at how incredible they felt by making this change in their breakfast routine.
This roasted roots recipe can be kept as leftovers and reheated for 2-3 days, which saves time in the kitchen. An added bonus is that roasting veggies in the oven can take off the morning chill while you get ready for your day (an added bonus if you live in an old country house without central heating like I do!). Another thing to know is that eating root vegetables in the fall aligns us with the energy of the season. In autumn, all the energy begins to descend back down towards the earth, so eating veggies that grow underground connects us with this seasonal energetic (in the same way that eating more sprouts and young leafy greens connects us with the energetic principle of springtime). The rosemary that seasons the roots in this recipe is a great antioxidant and circulatory tonic.
Rosemary Roasted Roots
*Note: be sure to use all organic ingredients!
2-3 sweet potatoes
2 beets, red or golden
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, ghee, or coconut oil
1 tsp. unrefined sea salt
2 tbsp. fresh chopped rosemary (or 1 Tbsp. dried if fresh is unavailable)
fresh cracked pepper to taste
It is spring, season of the wood element in the Chinese Medicine system of the Five Elements. On an energetic level, the wood element within each of us is the dimension of self that can bounce back and keep growing towards the sun, just like a tree or plant, in spite of life's obstacles. You know when you see little plants coming up through the sidewalk, or the roots of a tree breaking up the concrete? That is the wood element: determined to keep aspiring and growing, concrete be damned! A wonderful symbol of a healthy wood element that many of us can connect with is a redwood tree. Strongly rooted in the earth, they are able to sway with very strong winds without snapping or falling down. And always they aspire higher and higher towards the sun, while firmly rooted in the earth. This is the energetic of Wood.
When the wood element within us is healthy, we are able to sway with the external winds of life without either snapping or collapsing. When our wood element is not in balance it can look a few different ways, depending on what's out of balance. One is that we find ourselves "snapping" at everything! Irritability, frustration, and even rage are all signs of stagnant liver energy (the liver being the organ associated with wood).
Or, conversely, there can be a sense of just collapsing in the face of challenges, of just giving up. This can happen when our wood element is more deficient, and isn't receiving enough nourishment to feel strong and empowered like the mighty redwood trees. This can also manifest as feeling insecure, self-judging, or indecisive about what to do with one's life. Just as all trees and plants grow towards the sun, so too should we grow and aspire to what shines the brightest in our lives.
The wood element has a lot to do with resiliency. We can think about the liver, the organ associated with wood. The liver is a pretty resilient organ, if you think about it! It can really take a beating. It works to continually detoxify the body (not an easy task in our day and age of unprecedented toxic burdens), and yet it continues to regenerate and carry out so many vital-- essential-- physiological functions. On an energetic level, when we are resilient we are able to keep going on our path in life, even if we encounter obstacles. Healthy wood means being patient, calling on our creativity for problem-solving (another aspect of healthy wood), and staying resilient even when the winds of life get rough.
Interestingly, because the wood element is also associated with vision and eye health, it has a lot to do with perspective. When we come up against the inevitable frustrations in life, our ability to step back and get a broader perspective is a sign that our wood element is functioning well. One of my favorite acupuncture points that supports healthy wood has a spirit-level quality of allowing one to get a bigger perspective, as though climbing to the top of a mountain out of a thick, dark forest. Getting to a place where you can really get a panoramic view of your life, and see the big picture. The name of this point is Wilderness Mound.
Spring is the perfect time to focus on the health of our wood element and liver, both on the energetic and the physiological levels. Because wood is so much about growth, this is a good time of year to explore our own personal growth. Wood is that part of us that wants to grow towards the sun; it's about direction, goal setting, and aspiration. We can ask ourselves, how have I grown this past year? In what areas do I still need to grow? What do I aspire to? What are my goals for this next growing season? Wood is the part of us that can hold a goal or a vision for what we want to achieve in life (the yin aspect of wood), and then come up with a plan for how to achieve that goal or vision (the yang aspect of wood). Spring is the time to do this inner reflection and exploration.
With Valentine's Day coming up, I wanted to share one of my favorite chocolate recipes. I'm not talking about the super sugary Hershey's or See's Candies type chocolate, I'm talking a medicinal grade chocolate treat that is absolutely delicious as well as nourishing. Interestingly, in Chinese Medicine, the bitter flavor (a flavor that real cacao certainly embodies) corresponds to the heart and the fire element~ the element that governs connection and intimacy. It's no wonder that this naturally bitter food is associated with Valentine's Day! Cacao is also a great source of magnesium, a mineral in which most people are deficient, and contains antioxidants. The chia seeds are what makes the pudding consistency in this recipe. Chia seeds are an excellent fiber source, and contain omega-3 fatty acids. Put cacao and chia together, along with the super healthy fat from coconut milk, and you have a delicious and nourishing Valentine's Day Treat! This recipe is super simple to make:
Creamy Chocolate Chia Pudding
2 cups coconut milk
1/3 cup chia seeds
8-10 dates, pitted
¼ cup raw cacao powder
1 tsp. vanilla extract
pinch of sea salt
Blend all ingredients in blender until smooth. Pour into medium bowl, cover and refrigerate for at least three hours, until a thick, pudding-like consistency is achieved. Serve in small dessert bowls, topped with fruit (raspberries are divine with this!). Serves four.
I am a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist with a Heart-centered practice in the Santa Cruz mountains. See my About page for more about me and the work I do.