Adiós, slow roasted sweet potatoes and beef. Hello,
green onions! Although the calendar says spring doesn't officially
start until March 20th on the Spring Equinox, we all felt the shift
about a week ago. I'm not just talking about the temperature moving
from 35º to 55º in two days, although that was awesome, too. When
the seasons change, everything changes. If you are remotely in tune
with your body, the earth, the energy of the universe, etc., then
you felt it, too.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the concept of the Five
Elements or Phases shows that each season is connected to one of
the functional organ systems of the body. Winter is the kidney and
spring is the liver. Easy enough, right? Well, there's more. The
body needs to be prepared gently and thoroughly for the transition
to a new season, and while acupuncture and herbal medicine
certainly play their role, dietary therapy is really where it's
The winter was a time of hunkering down, tonifying the kidney
and urinary bladder with salt and animal fats, thickening the
blood, and conserving energy through the cold long season. Now that
spring is upon us, it's time to lighten up -- literally. The
Inner Classic teaches that we should reawaken the body and
prepare for new beginnings by rising with the sun and taking brisk
walks. Spring is the time to gather up stored energy and push
upward, like a sprouting plant in the garden.
Spring is also a time for cleansing, and TCM focuses that
cleansing on the organs that need it most this time of year -- the
liver and gall bladder. After gorging on fatty steaks in the
winter, the springtime requires a diet of small amounts of light
food with yang qualities. Think sprouts, greens, young plants, and
shoots. Heavy foods can clog the liver and gall bladder, leading to
fevers and other springtime maladies.
Want specifics? Lay off the salt -- including soy sauce and miso
-- and heavy meats. Instead, cook with something lighter, bringing
in the pungent flavors of basil, fennel, marjoram, rosemary,
caraway, dill, and bay leaf. Throw in some young garden pickings
like small beets, carrots, and peas. Use more simple, raw foods
instead of slow roasting or stewing. Both the Ayurvedic tradition
and the ancient Chinese encouraged people to choose wind-like, airy
foods during the springtime, to promote cleansing and new
While the Chinese do not recommend eating raw foods in abundance
or all year round, they do encourage more raw foods in the
springtime. If a person is weak, frail, or deficient, then they
might not do well with raw foods, even during the spring. If a
person is hot and full of excesses, then bring on the plates full
of raw celery and cucumbers. As with everything, dietary
recommendations are guided by general principles, but are always
customized to the individual.
In the United States, our climate is mostly temperate. Thus, we
can apply most of the dietary suggestions from TCM, including the
use of light, raw foods in the springtime. You can still cook some
things -- just make it quick. A short, high-temperature sauté is
appropriate, as is a brief steaming.
Why should you care to adjust your springtime diet? You don't
have to. You can go on shoving your face full of rib eye and baked
potatoes slathered in sour cream and butter (Ohh, I miss the winter
diet already!), but tell me how you feel in about a month or
What's the risk? The liver-gall bladder duo can be quite a
beast. The first sign of an imbalanced liver is angry outbursts,
accompanied by frustration, dissatisfaction, and impulsiveness.
Once the gall bladder gets bogged down, too, then add in
indecisiveness and unclear thinking. You might experience eye or
vision trouble or tendon stiffness and joint pain, or pain or
discomfort anywhere along the Liver or Gall Bladder meridians of
I know it's hard to change. I love salt, steak, and butter more
than anyone I've ever met, but I've also learned my lesson. I've
clogged my liver and gall bladder one too many times. I've had the
blurry vision, sticky feeling in the eyes, bitter taste in the
mouth, angry outbursts, and all of the other things the Chinese
warned me about.
This week, I'm doing this -- the TCM Gallbladder cleanse!
Think it's too difficult for you? I think you're wrong. File
this post away under the "if I can do it, you can do it" series.
Unfortunately, this practical how-to post is the result of someone
actually needing to use raw Chinese herbs to feel better--and that
someone is me.
Remember that whole "damp-heat
in the gall bladder" thing from a couple of weeks ago? Yep, me
too. Turns out, I still have that going on. Yes, I self-diagnosed
and self-treated in near silence. Did I say I was good at this? I'm
sorry. No. I'm a student. I know close to nothing. In my defense,
upon an actual visit to the NUHS AOM clinic to exercise my
student-access-to-free-care privilege, I learned that I nailed my
diagnosis and was only one off in my acupoints selection plan.
Ingredients for Treatment
I was indeed on my way towards getting back to normal, but not
quite there yet. No. What I needed was a boost -- a big powerful
boost in the health direction. I needed herbs from Dr. Cai. After
showing my tongue and displaying my pulsating wrists to the masses
of interns, I left the clinic with my trusty sack of Chinese herbs.
At Dr. Cai's request, I also needed to add in a slice of fresh
ginger and three red dates with each batch, which I happened to
have on hand.
Many people would peer into this bag thinking, "What the heck do
I do with this pile of roots, bark, mushrooms, berries, and other
unidentifiables? Technically, there could be geckos and cicada
shells in there...shudder. In fact I refuse to look up everything
in the formula shown on my receipt just in case therearegeckos and
cicada shells in there.... So, here it is--your pictorial
step-by-step guide to using raw Chinese herbs in a decoction. This
is the instruction sheet that goes home with the patient.
Instructions for Cooking Chinese Herbal Formula
What this is trying to say is dump one batch of the herbs into a
pot, soak it, bring it to a boil, then simmer to reduce the liquid
to a drinkable amount. Now, you'll want to find the perfect balance
between "disgusting taste" and "effective dose," and that
isnoteasy. You know you want to concentrate the liquid for potency,
but you also know that you're increasing the taste by the same
Before Cooking and After Cooking
Most herbal decoctions do not taste good. Face it. Most of us
are damp. We eat dairy and fried foods (mmmm...fried dairy), and we
end up with damp-heat. Thus, we need bitter herbs much of the time.
Who's the lucky fella who gets a simple Spleen Qi deficiency
diagnosis that results in a sweet licorice and berries formula to
take home? Not this guy!
So, I soak my bitter herbs, I boil my bitter herbs, I simmer my
bitter herbs. I drink my powerful decoction, and I go to sleep to
let my body do its thing. I wake up a little better, and I know I
have five more nights of chugging down my "bedtime tea" before my
tongue can register just how gross it really tastes.
I could avoid much of the "hard work" in this process by
requesting my herbs in granule form (like a dusty powder that you
stir in warm water to dissolve). But then I'd lose a little
potency. I could avoid all the work and the taste
by requesting a patent pill formula, but then I'd lose even more
potency. No thanks, weak sauce. I need the most full-strength
option known to man -- ancient Chinese man, specifically. I need to
decoct my raw herbs!
Of course this just happened. It's springtime. Spring correlates
with the Liver and its interior-exterior partner in crime -- the
Gall Bladder. I'm unfortunately already prone to the ridiculously
difficult to eradicate pathogen known in TCM as "Damp-Heat." My
protective wei qi was still struggling to recover from the exotic
array of assailants it managed to fend off in Central America last
month. "Oh, Juli, did you get Dengue Fever again this year?" "Well,
not that I know of..."
The pathogenic stars had aligned. The signs and symptoms
appeared over the course of 2-3 days. First, it was just a
seemingly innocent wiry Liver pulse. OK, OK, it's springtime; I'm
irritable and I know it. No big deal. A quick tongue check in the
mirror confirmed that yes, of course, I'm teeming with damp heat in
the lower jiao. What would I be without my characteristic tongue
coat? (A healthier person, for one!)
I go about my day only to realize that by afternoon I'm starting
to feel weird. Really weird. There's no valid excuse for the sudden
and growing nausea, accompanied by an intermittent, unilateral
shooting headache that jumped around as if someone was sprinkling
headache pop rocks all over my temples, vertex, forehead, OWW! I
usually don't get headaches, and I'm not usually nauseous. I wanted
to vomit and get further down the road towards recovery. Then the
blurry vision started in, and I noticed I'd been ignoring a
hypochondrial pain all day. And, oh MAN, what is that strong bitter
taste in the back of my mouth? Did I just crack a filling and let
the poison ooze out? Gross. I'm getting dizzy and don't feel like
lifting the phone to call the dentist.
Aaaaaand it finally dawns on me. It's
all over me, from head to toe. I have Damp-Heat in the Gall
Bladder. As I run to the mirror for a tongue progress report, I get
all the confirmation I could ever dream of. There's the Damp-Heat
coating, yep, and now it's grown in size and had two long greasy
arms on display down the sides of my tongue. But, oh no, what…?!
You have to be kidding me. Are thosepurple spotsall over the sides
of my tongue, too? I mentally scanned the other symptoms I'd
noticed over the week, and realized it was true. I also had Liver
Blood Stasis. Great. Hey, it's not like I had anything else planned
for the next few days.
Why do I always get the stubborn pathogenic scenarios? At my
first visit with a doctor of oriental medicine, she struggled a bit
with my diagnosis. Was it yang deficiency? Or, was it yin
deficiency? Maybe it's both. She said I had Spleen deficiency and
Kidney deficiency. Don't forget the Liver Qi Stagnation! Seriously?
I know this is a first-time appointment, but isn't that almost
So, here's when TCM swoops in and saves my holiday weekend.
After doing the dangerous deed of self-diagnosing (never
recommended) on Thursday afternoon, I started in on an
individualized acupuncture treatment plan. Then I repeated it the
next day, too. What points did I use? Don't try this at home, but I
did: LV3, GB43, GB41, GB40, GB34, SP9, LI4, and LI11. Is that
right? Sure, in my limited opinion. Of course, there were more
difficult-to-reach points that I should have added in, but hey, I'm
needling myself here! And judging by the fact that I felt almost
normal again by Friday afternoon, I'm calling it awesome. Sure, I
also made some dietary changes to balance the Damp Heat and give my
overloaded Liver and Gall Bladder a rest from the constant
inundation of delicious fatty foods.
Yes, whole-fat dairy and meat is good for me, generally
speaking, but when my Liver boss and Gall Bladder assistant are
under siege, I have to abstain from the delights of my life. That's
right -- no buttery popcorn this week. Instead, I emphasized the
cooling foods like celery and watermelon, some beverages like green
tea, and I focused on eating really light for a couple of days.
That went surprisingly well, considering I had completely lost my
appetite from the Damp-Heat in the Gall Bladder thing. Western
natural medicine has noticeably compatible suggestions for altering
your diet during the spring to help cleanse and support the Liver
and Gall Bladder. They emphasize a diet of light, sprouty and
shooty foods; must avoid those heavy, greasy foods for a while!
Gall Bladder Springtime
By Saturday, the greasy coated arms of the Damp-Heat beast that
lives on the back of my tongue had receded, as did almost all other
symptoms. I beat you, Springtime. You got me good -- but this time
I was prepared to fight back. Sorry, Spring -- maybe next year!
• So What Is Chinese Medicine?
• Jabbing Nerves with Needles
• Mission in Nicaragua
To read older blog posts, scroll to the bottom and click the "Older Posts" button.