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Sun, June 3, 2012
Balancing the Wood Element
As we move from spring to summer, our minds are turning to the great outdoors after a winter of hibernation. Our internal dialogue is telling us to get out there, clear the yard, start the garden, and clean the house; in essence: move! But where does this internal dialogue come from and how do we respond?

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a comprehensive and evolving system of medicine dating back over 5000 years, describes the movement through the seasons in direct relationship with the corresponding changes within our physical and emotional bodies.

Similar to the five elements of matter proposed by Empedocles and Aristotle of ancient Greece: air, earth, water, fire, and aether, TCM theorizes that the human body itself shares characteristics similar to the environment composed of the five elements: fire, earth, metal, water, and wood. The five elements, from a TCM perspective, are a way of classifying different energies, symptoms, and traits within the energetic, emotional, and physical body, with a focus on maintaining proper balance within the elements to ensure optimal health and well being.

TCM relates many functions, as well as pathologies, of the human body as a relationship among the five elements. This being the spring season, we will begin by discussing the function of the Wood element, the element which is strongest during spring, representing growth and renewal.

In TCM, the Wood element, energetically related to the liver and gallbladder, has multiple functions. Similar to a tree, the function of the Wood element can either be strong and unyielding like the rigid trunk of the oak tree or rooted and flexible like reeds of bamboo. Depending on what we encounter in life, both are sometimes needed, but can be inappropriate if the need calls for the opposite view.

The Wood element governs the emotional and intuitive body. If it is nourished and well balanced, we bend and yield when our body requires and we stand up and are strong when that is needed. Very often when the Wood element has been negatively affected, people feel as if they are not in control of their emotions. They are subject to fits of rage, or smoldering brooding. When a person feels stressed this is also an indication that the Wood element is out of balance.

Interestingly, sometimes it is unclear whether some emotional or stress reaction caused the Wood element to be out of balance or the Wood element being out of balance caused the person to react the way they did! Either way, allowing the Wood element to be out of balance can ultimately lead to many physical problems in the short and long term.

How often do we believe that there are barriers in front of us that are insurmountable or that forces are lined up against us? Along with governing emotions and intuition, the Wood element is integral in our ability to make plans and decisions. However, when planning and decision making have lost connection with what is actually happening in one’s life, daily activities can be shrouded in difficulties and frustrations.

A person with a balanced Wood element will adapt their plans with the changing world, while those out of balance will settle into frustration, anger, and depression. The feeling that ‘everything is against me’ is the common lament of someone with an unbalanced Wood element. Spring is the time of year that this can be most prevalent as we plan our summers and set course for the upcoming year.

From a TCM perspective, an imbalance of the Wood element may result in not only emotional responses, but many physiological conditions as well. For women, this can be most pronounced in the regulation of the menstrual cycle. The Wood element, particularly the liver, governs the menstrual flow and ovulation.

When the Wood element is not balanced, many of the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome may arise. Painful periods, breast distention, moodiness, headache, to name a few, are all a result of being out of balance. Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, idiopathic infertility and fibroids are also among the possible long-term effects of an imbalanced Wood element. So many patients of mine are shocked when they are told that PMS and menopausal symptoms are easily treated with TCM and not something they just have to live with!

For both genders, an imbalance in the Wood element can lead to headaches and migraines, gastrointestinal problems, anxiety attacks, and cardiovascular problems, to name a few. Long-term imbalance may also result in chronic fatigue as well as back and joint problems.

Now that we have painted a bleak picture on what was thought of as just a chronic case of road rage, what can we do about it? Never fear, the Wood element can be put back into balance with what we have simply in our kitchen as well as ourselves. As spring is upon us and the Wood element is at its peak, we look to the basics of diet and exercise to right the ship, or the forest in this case.

Each person is individual in respect to their particular physical condition and emotional states and may need a comprehensive understanding as to treatment protocols and plans. By the way, TCM does not see physical conditions and emotional states as separate or individual components of the whole person, but interrelated.

Please consult a TCM practitioner if you have more complex questions and personal needs.

While no person I have ever seen professionally in my clinic ever presents the same way as anyone else, there are some things you can do to make your liver and gallbladder happy each day from a TCM perspective. As Hippocrates stated, “Let food be your medicine.” This is always the best place to start.

First of all, avoid all processed & denatured foods (i.e. refined flours and sugars), high fat foods (i.e. excessive meat consumption, fatty oils and spreads, eggs, milk, cheese, and nuts), food chemicals, and intoxicants. These products restrict the free flow of Qi and blood and wreak havoc on the proper function of the Wood element.

The Wood element is particularly responsive to the flavor of sour and consumption of young green plants. Green is the influential color of the Wood element. From a TCM perspective, these foods can help to move the liver energies and ease the pain of Wood element imbalance. Whether you are having painful periods, chronic headaches or just wanting to honor the Wood element to ward off springtime stressors, adding foods with these properties alone can change the course.

Adding green foods helps to benefit the Wood element, including plenty of young plants, fresh greens, sprouts, and immature cereal grasses (i.e. wheat grass). Basil, fennel, marjoram, rosemary, caraway, dill, and bay leaf are pungent cooking spices desirable for spring.

In addition, the following are wonderful foods to add to the spring diet:
  • whole grains (especially rye)
  • vegetables, legumes and other complex carbohydrates
  • honey (used sparingly)
  • unrefined cane juice, whole sugar cane, licorice root, molasses, and rice syrup.
  • high quality vinegars (i.e. apple cider, brown rice, rice wine)
  • lemon
  • lime
  • grapefruit
  • romaine lettuce
  • asparagus
  • amaranth
  • quinoa
  • alfalfa
  • radish leaves
  • citrus peels
  • mints
  • lemon balm
  • dandelion
As well as what you eat, beverages are just as influential. Here a few things you can do every day to help the proper function of the Wood element that are easy and highly effective:
  • Squeeze a quarter of lemon into a 12 oz. glass of warm (not hot!) water. Done every morning, this has been one of the single most effective remedies I have seen to help keep stress reactions low and even help to reduce PMS symptoms.
  • Tea (avoid coffee!) - any infusion of the following, in any combination, can be very helpful:
    • Hibiscus
    • Dried Berries - currants, raspberry, elderberry, any small, sour berry would be just fine!
    • Lemon grass
    • Citrus peel - interestingly, lemon peel can help disperse the Wood element; use orange peel if stress results in shortness of breath as it can help to disperse lung energies. We will discuss this more when we address the metal element in the fall!
    • Rose petal
    • Dandelion
As well as food being an integral part of keeping the Wood element free flowing, having an established work out plan can be essential. Stretching, Qigong/Tai chi, yoga, light weights, walking, meditation, light cardio, cycling all can be effective workout programs to start with if you do not have an established program for yourself already in place.

As I have mentioned, the Wood element is an integral part of our ability to plan and make decisions. Sticking to a set exercise plan allows us to nurture that part of ourselves. A hodgepodge schedule of on and off workouts frustrates that part of us and usually leads to abandoning those practices. Find out what works for you. And always remember, like the bamboo: be strongly rooted and able to bend to the changing winds of life!

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