Updated January 2023
View Spring through the lens of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and discover how to adapt your diet and lifestyle to enjoy this season in optimal health. TCM considers your health within the broad context of all the factors that affect your life, including the changing seasons.
The gifts (and challenges) of Spring
Spring is a time of rebirth, renewal, regeneration, and growth. Time to awaken from your winter hibernation and brush off the cobwebs. Like most animals, humans tend to slow down during the colder months and in the process pack on a few extra pounds.
As the first ambitious flowers of spring start to show themselves, so do many humans. Be honest. When was the last time you went for a walk, or willingly spent time outside? No need to feel bad about being more sluggish during the colder months. But with the coming of Spring, it’s time to get more active.
Spring is also a time of transition, when the weather can alternate between extremes. Similarly, we too can experience swings, one day feeling energized by warmth and sunshine, and the next day discouraged by strong winds, cold rains, and, if you live in Chicago, even snow!
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) offers help for navigating these seasonal changes more smoothly, with less disruption to our nervous and immune systems.
Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Spring
The ancient Chinese lived and worked in harmony with the rhythms of nature, concepts that carry through in TCM’s modern-day approach to maintaining health.
According to TCM and the theory of Five Elements, every season relates to one of the Five Elements, along with other qualities or characteristics that are important to health in that season. For Spring, these correspondences are:
- Season — Spring
- Element — Wood
- Yin Organ system — Liver
- Yang Organ system —Gallbladder
- Developments — Birth
- Color — Green
- Sounds — Shouting
- Emotions — Anger
- Taste — Sour
- Tissue — Sinews
- Sense organ — Eyes
- Climate — Wind
Remember that in TCM, what’s being referenced is an energetic system relating to the organ, not just the organ by itself. The Liver organ system is related to the smooth flow of energy throughout the whole body. And because Spring is the time of the Liver, the best time to nourish and soothe the Liver is Spring! Think of it as spring cleaning for your body.
The Element of Wood embodies the properties of a tree. For a tree to live a long healthy life, it must be flexible, bending and adapting to changes in its environment, while staying rooted and strong. These are qualities we can also cultivate in ourselves, with the right nutrition and physical activity, and Spring is the ideal time to do so.
Liver, Gallbladder and the Tendons
The Liver and Gallbladder are associated with the tendons. Tending to our tendons will help us stay flexible and strong (like the tree). In TCM, the Liver blood nourishes the sinews and tendons, making them pliable and moveable.
Being drawn outdoors and engaging in outdoor activities on the warm days of spring helps strengthen the Liver and Gallbladder systems. Simply being in fresh air also invigorates and improves the liver and gallbladder functions. An added benefit is that the negative ions produced in nature and by moving water have been shown to have a calming effect and help decrease stress.
Green is the color of Spring
Fresh greens are not only abundant in spring, but are beneficial for cleaning the Liver. Dandelion greens are especially good for liver detoxification and strengthening the liver and gallbladder meridians.
Eating for Spring
To be active, we need proper nourishment. More specifically, we need to nourish Qi (energy) by consuming healthful foods associated with the season we are in. There are different types of Qi. The one that we will focus on here is the Qi associated with the Spleen and the Liver.
In the TCM view of the digestive system, the Spleen’s primary function is to take the nutrients that we receive from our food and send them to the Liver where they are made into blood. The Liver (with its pair organ the Gallbladder) is then responsible for using that blood to nourish the sinews, tendons, muscles, and the rest of the body.
Dark green leafy vegetables and sprouting vegetables are beneficial for the Liver. Since the Liver is also responsible for detoxification of the body, it is beneficial to eat organic whenever possible, and to limit the amount of chemicals that you expose yourself to.
The Liver is prone to stagnation, primarily because of the stressful lifestyles that we choose to live. When the Liver becomes stagnant it can manifest as anger, irritability, depression, insomnia, and even pain.
Foods recommended for Spring
- Green Foods: Green foods rich in chlorophyll can help to accelerate Liver rejuvenation. This includes things like spirulina, chlorella, parsley, wheat grass, kale, Swiss chard and collard greens.
- Radishes: Pungent in nature, they help to invigorate Liver Qi and allow energy to move freely through the Liver meridian.
- Sour Citrus Fruits: Certain foods like lemons, limes and grapefruit have been shown to help cut fats that may have been stored up in the body during the winter months. They are also helpful for keeping the Liver qi moving smoothly. A twist of lemon or lime in your water should do the trick.
- Bitter Leafy Greens: Spring is a great time to start a Liver cleanse. Dandelion greens, arugula, radicchio, mustard greens and spinach are highly beneficial. Their bitter properties make them perfect for the job. Not to mention that they are high in iron and nourish the blood.
Links to additional information and recipes for Spring
- Springtime Liver Cleanse – CCHW’s recommended liver cleanse
- Liver and Gallbladder according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)
- Kastner, J. (2004). Chinese Nutritional Therapy. Georg Thieme Verlag.
- Pitchford, P (2002). Healing with Whole Foods 3rd edition. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books
- Hyunbae,K. (2007). Handbook of Oriental Medicine 3rd edition. Harmony & Balance Press.
- Deadman, P., Al-Khafaji, M., Baker. K. (2005). A Manual of Acupuncture. East Sussex: Journal of Chinese Medicine Publications
- Maciocia, G. Xin Ming, S. (2005). The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text for Acupuncturists and Herbalists. London: Churchill Livingstone.
- Wiseman, N. [editor, translator], Ellis, A. [translator] (1996). Fundamentals of Chinese Medicine. [Rev. ed.] Brookline, MA: Paradigm Publications