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September 9, 2013 / Karen R Adams

optimizing autumn

late summer country roadIn the Chinese Medicine calendar, autumn starts on August 2nd, and peaks at the equinox, gradually declining in energy from then on as winter energy grows.   It’s the time of year when plants get rid of anything that is not essential to survive, and animals (including human animals) start preparing for less activity by storing food and building up reserves to get through the winter.

Autumn energy is sinking energy, like the leaf when it lets go of the tree.   Days are getting shorter and nights longer, as summer loses power and winter gains in strength.  It’s the Metal time of year, in Five Element philosophy,  and has everything to do with letting go through the Large Intestine, and connecting with the divine through the inspiration/Inspiration of the Lungs.

Every Element has an emotional pathology, and Metal’s is grief.  (Now, before you start thinking ‘oh, man, does that mean I’m supposed to feel bad every fall?’, let me remind you that grief is just an emotion, and there’s nothing wrong with any emotion as long as you don’t resist it – because resistance is what makes it linger.)

Besides, I find that more often what people feel this time of year is melancholy (you can read my previous blog on this by clicking here).  Things are dying, and there’s a sadness to that.   Things die away so we have enough resources to make it through the cold winter, and then to make room for new things.  Spring always comes.  So while we mourn the loss of summer, we can be the seed that builds in power over the winter and becomes new life.

Paul Pritchford says ‘Those with healthy lungs tend to hold onto their principles and keep their commitments, but when it comes time to let go… they sense this and do it without emotional repression, feeling the associated grief and sadness, but soon resolving it.’


To optimize autumn, we need to strengthen the Lungs and Large Intestine.  We can do that by not resisting the melancholy of this time of year.   We can teach ourselves to slow down, to not run on the same high octane we’ve been using all summer.  We can go to bed a bit earlier, stay there a bit longer, try to be more in sync with the sun.

If you’re thinking your job/life doesn’t allow you to do that, make a smaller effort to just move more slowly and get more rest.  You don’t have to make a huge change, because those little adjustments will get bigger when you see how much better you feel.

‘Spring cleaning’ should also happen in the fall.  De-clutter, organize, get rid of whatever complicates your life.  Keep only that which sustains you, whether that’s stuff or relationships.

To be really practical, try to add some of the following foods to your diet.  Remember, you just want to add these to what you normally eat – unless you have lung or large intestine issues, and that’s another column.

  • Add pungent foods to your diet, like hot peppers and chilies, garlic, ginger, horseradish, cabbage.  These clean, strengthen and protect your Lungs and Large Intestine, and therefore your immune system.
  • Seaweeds and flaxseed help renew the mucous membranes.
  • Deep green foods  and golden-orange vegetables like  pumpkin, kale, carrot, winter squash, broccoli, coriander, arugula and so on strengthen the immune system, pretty important as we come into this time of year.

You’ll also want to begin to weed the following out of your diet:

  • dairy products unless they come from goats
  • cold and raw foods – you can maybe get away with these in the summer, though I never advise them, but they will begin to drain your Qi as the weather cools
  • cut back on fruits over the next couple of months – except pears and winter melons – and increase root vegetables
  • sugar

Embrace this time of year, and this time of your life.  We here in New England know how absolutely stunning autumn can be, with its last blast of summer energy and glorious weather.   This is when we harvest the fruits of our labor, a time to store up and pull back.  Try not to dread the future; being fearful of dark, snowy days does absolutely nothing to prevent them.  Learn to be like that leaf as it falls, anticipating nothing, regretting nothing.  It will show you how to be in the now – which is all there is.

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