And Spring arose on the garden fair,Like the Spirit of Love felt everywhere;And each flower and herb on Earth's dark breastrose from the dreams of its wintry rest.
— Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Sensitive Plant
As someone who travels between the Northern and Southern hemispheres on a regular basis, I am often a little confused about exactly which season is on the horizon. Growing up in the Irish countryside, I was highly attuned to the rhythms and cycles of nature. I knew almost to the day when the first snowdrops or daffodils would appear and when the various creatures of nature went into or came out of hibernation.
Spring is the most joyous season for me. I welcome the longer, brighter days and feel renewed and invigorated, as if emerging from a cocoon. Spring represents youth, vitality and the spirit of playfulness. It's a time to throw off our winter layers and join the dance of nature as new life springs forth after the slumber of winter.
If we are attuned to the rhythms of nature, we will also feel a new surge of energy and awakening. It's a time when seeds are planted both literally and figuratively—seeds that will blossom into foods that will nourish and sustain us throughout the year and ideas, plans and intentions that will unfold into action as the year progresses.
Each season has its own unique energy, and each one prepares us for the next. In the Chinese Five-Element system, spring is the season of the wood element. Each of the five elements—wood, fire, earth, metal and water—has numerous associations, such as the organs of the body, colors, flavors, emotions, activities, foods that are nourishing or damaging to that particular element and times of day when the organs relating to that element are most active.
The wood element governs the muscles and tendons and is associated with the liver and gallbladder. The gallbladder is most active between the hours of 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. and the liver between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. People who have issues with these organs will often find themselves more fatigued than usual during these hours, or unable to fall into a deep, restful sleep.
The color for this element is green, so green foods—particularly leafy green vegetables—are nourishing to these organs. The taste relating to this element is sour. Sour fruits, such as lemons and limes, are cleansing to the liver and gallbladder and keep things running smoothly.
Being out in nature, around trees and in wooded areas, is very healing and supportive to the wood element. However, anger is the emotion associated with the liver and gallbladder. A person who has stagnation in these organs may find himself easily irritated and may be quick to anger. Anger is a natural emotion when appropriately expressed, but repressed anger can be damaging to the liver and gallbladder. From my observation, people with liver issues can be quick to express anger, whereas "gallbladder types" can have a tendency to repress the expression of their emotions.
The liver, located under the right rib cage, is one of the largest organs of the body. Among its numerous functions is the production of bile to emulsify and digest fats.
The liver is one of the most important organs in the body for storing blood and influences the circulation of blood and nutrients throughout the body. In this respect, it is also very much connected to women's menstrual cycles. A healthy liver will ensure a regular menstrual cycle with little discomfort.
The liver is also responsible for detoxifying the body by metabolizing and/or secreting drugs, alcohol, pesticide residue from foods and environmental toxins.
In Chinese medicine, the liver is associated with the eyes, so people with liver issues will often experience eye problems. When the liver is healthy, the eyes will be moist and the vision good.
The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ that is connected to the liver via the hepatic duct. The bile produced in the liver is concentrated and stored in the gallbladder to be released into the duodenum (part of the small intestine) along with digestive enzymes from the pancreas to prepare foods for the next stage of digestion.
A healthy liver and gallbladder is essential to overall health, vitality and disease prevention. When these organs are bombarded with toxins from the foods we eat and environmental contaminants, they can't do their job effectively. The organs then begin to function less efficiently and, over time, many serious health conditions can occur.
Around the spring equinox, which falls on March 20 or 21, the energies of the season are most activated, and this is an ideal time to cleanse, not only the internal environment of our bodies, but also our external environment. It's a time to clear out clutter, mentally, emotionally and physically.
Begin by taking stock of you life—look in the mirror and look around you to identify areas where you might be stuck or out of balance and design a program that will set you out on a healthy path.
Our personal environment, I believe, is a reflection of our state of mind. Is there clutter in your environment? Are things in disarray? Perhaps you need to look no further than inside your own mind. Are you harboring negative thoughts, such as anger or confusion? Do you have fear of moving forward in your life? When we change our minds, there seems to be a ripple effect that is reflected in our environment and other areas of our lives. It can work both ways—by clearing out clutter in our environments, we can gain more mental and emotional clarity and freedom.
Now, I'm not big on radical dieting or long-term fasting. Rather, I believe in integrating healthy diet and lifestyle practices that you can sustain and that will ensure continued good health. That's why I'd like to offer some guidelines to support you in optimizing the energies activated at this time of year and to put a spring in your step!
If you already eat clean and healthy, then preparing for a cleanse is fairly simple. A few days before the cleanse, eat very simple, light foods such as steamed veggies and salads with light olive oil (or flax oil) and lemon dressings, light vegetable broths and soups and fresh vegetable juices. Limit your consumption of animal products and omit fried foods. Start your day with a cleansing tea like dandelion root or nettle tea, and sip on glasses of room-temperature pure water with some lemon or lime juice throughout the day.
If you're not such a healthy eater, give your body time to prepare for a cleanse and follow the steps above for a longer period. This can be anywhere from a week to several months.
There are different approaches to detoxifying the liver and gallbladder, and for this reason I highly recommend finding a qualified naturopathic doctor or health practitioner who can guide you in the best approach for you. For years, I've done an Ayurvedic Panchakarma under the supervision of an Ayurvedic doctor and found it very effective. This involves daily oil and herbal massages, oil and herbal enemas and other detoxifying treatments.
Certain foods are also considered detoxifying to the liver because of their ability to emulsify and break down fats and purge toxins from the body.
Green, leafy vegetables are rich in chlorophyll, which is effective in clearing toxins from the body. My raw kale salad is an excellent dish for detoxifying the liver.
Lemons, limes and grapefruit cleanse the liver and are high in vitamin C, which is important for detoxification.
Radishes, particularly the long, white Asian daikon radish, help break down fats, thus supporting the liver in its major function. Radishes also have a diuretic effect, which helps move toxins out of the system. (The Japanese always serve some grated fresh daikon to accompany fried dishes.)
Garlic activates the enzymes that help clear toxins out of the body.
Watercress is very cleansing to the system. It is high in chlorophyll and minerals and is also a diuretic. Its peppery flavor makes it a lovely addition to salads.
Dandelion is one of the most therapeutic plants for the liver. Its bitter taste promotes the production and flow of bile. The young green leaves can be added to soups or salads, while dried dandelion leaves make a great detoxifying tea. The root is also dried, and when roasted, it can make a great coffee substitute. The dandelion root contains choline, a substance that stimulates the liver.
Burdock root is said to have healing properties for the liver, as it assists in clearing toxins from the bloodstream. It has a bitter taste, which is stimulating to the digestive system.
Apples contain pectin, which helps bind with and excrete heavy metals from the system. They're also high in malic acid, which helps with the smooth flow of bile and can dissolve gallstones.
Certain herbs and tonics support the healthy function of the liver and gallbladder. The most potent liver-support herb is milk thistle, also known as Silybum Marianus, which stimulates liver functioning and supports the removal of toxins from the liver. Other herbs and plants that support healthy liver and gallbladder function are dandelion root, reishi mushroom, artichoke leaf, lycium berry, barberry root, amla fruit, peppermint leaf and licorice root.
Growing up in a large family in Ireland, we weren't always encouraged to express our emotions, especially those considered "negative," like anger. Instead, we were taught to be good and to behave ourselves and to keep the peace at all costs.
This is not always healthy, and it was later in life that I learned that I may be damaging my health and influencing my close relationships by withholding my emotions. It took some work for me to develop this skill, but it's very enriching and healing to learn to effectively express our emotions.
Do-in is a combination of exercises that stretch and activate the meridians in the body. It is also a form of self-massage that, when practiced on a daily basis, can keep your chi flowing and your body healthy and vital.
The exercise: To activate the liver and gallbladder meridian, sit with your legs spread as wide as possible. Holding the left foot, ankle or shin, stretch the right arm up and over toward the left, so you're stretching out the side of your body. Hold for at least 10 seconds, remembering to breathe, then repeat, stretching to the opposite side.
The liver meridian runs from the inside of the big toe, up the inside of your legs, into the abdomen, where it goes internally to connect with the liver then up through the chest and throat to the eye. The gallbladder meridian runs around the sides of the head, behind the ears, into the occipital area of the neck, around the shoulder blades, along the side of the torso through the hips and down the outside of the legs to the little toe.
After you stretch, stand up and tap along the meridians with loose fists all the way up the inside of the legs, the abdomen, through the chest to the face, lightly tapping around the eyes with your fingertips. Then, tap the sides of the head around the ears, squeezing the neck and continuing to tap down the side of the body and legs. This will get the energy flowing in the meridians that will support the healthy functioning of the liver and gallbladder.
Nature: The Great Healer
For overall health and well-being, particularly for the benefit of the wood element, there's nothing quite as healing as long, leisurely nature walks. Take deep breaths as oxygen activates and alkalizes the entire system, and welcome in the healing energies of nature.