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Why do I get sick when the seasons change?

If you pay attention to when you and those around you get sick, you may notice that it happens more frequently with the change of seasons – summer to fall, fall to winter, winter to spring, even spring to summer. While many people accept this or internalize this idea – “something is going around, it must be the change in weather” – few explanations are given. But Chinese Medicine is so closely tied to the seasons and the natural world, that exploring some of the Chinese medical theory can shed light on why are bodies are more susceptible to getting sick around these times.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, we talk about 5 elements – Fire, Earth, Metal, Water, Wood. Each of these elements relates to certain physiological functions in the body, as well as certain seasons of the year. The change in the seasons is a passing of the baton from one dominant energy in the universe to another – and that same change is occurring in our own energy in our body. During these changes, no one particular element’s energy is dominant, and weakness in our defenses can occur during this transitory period.

It is agreed upon that Summer is the season of the Fire element, Fall is Metal, Winter is Water, and Spring is Wood. Many traditional medical texts refer to the Earth element season as being Late Summer or Early Fall (ie, where we are right now.) But other texts mention that the Earth element governs the change in the seasons, and that thus the Earth element’s season, by definition, is the transition point between all seasons. By this logic, a weakness in the Earth energy of the body (which governs our Spleen, Stomach, and digestive function), could lead the body to be susceptible to outside illnesses when it is dominant – the time between all seasons. (You can read more about the Earth energy, particularly the Spleen, in this post here.)

Our bodies have many different kinds of energy, and the energy flows at different depths at different times in our lives. On a day to day basis, our energy goes deeper into our body during nighttime, and emerges to be more superficial during the day. This mimics of the energy of the natural world, that springs forth with daylight and slumbers with nightfall. If you look at our lifespan, too, our overall energy flows at different depths at different stages of life – children’s energy, for instance, flows much closer to the surface, and in old age, our energy turns inward and moves more towards our center. This is true, too, to the seasons. At the peak of summer, our energy flows at its most superficial – it is that hot, expansive, fiery energy that lies within all of us that pushes our energy out to the surface of our body. And in the depths of winter, our energy lies at its deepest, slowest, most restful state. In the fall and spring, the energy hovers between these two extremes, but the direction of movement (more outward or more inward) is different for each.

A change in seasons, then, presents a change in the depth and direction of the body’s overall energy. This transition, like the transition between elements, is a time of weakness or susceptibility, as the proverbial baton is passed to the next energetic level. Our resources aren’t what they usually are, and we can get sick.

Of course, each season presents different challenges that may affect some more than others, depending on our body’s unique patterns and tendencies. Fall and spring usually bring new allergens, and the winter cold aggravates many people’s conditions. Lots of rainy weather or changes in barometric pressure can make certain conditions worse (those related to a concept we call Dampness), and the hot months of summer are hard for patients with inflammation or heat-related problems. The body cycles as the seasons do, and our ailments will be better or worse according to how they interact with the seasonal energy at that time.

So what can you do, to prevent a sickness with the change in seasons? Boost your immunity with regular acupuncture, eating right, getting enough sleep, and herbal supplements. Prevent allergy flare-ups with plenty of exercise and hydrating properly. Particularly pay attention to nourishing the Wei Qi (immunity) and Spleen Qi (earth energy) during these changes in seasons – you can read details of how in our previous blog posts.

And lastly, don’t forget to move. Seasonal changes are a reminder that the energy of the natural world is constantly moving, flowing, growing, changing. We are too, and if we forget that, we are no longer in tune with our surroundings and we will get sick. Exercise. Walk in the brisk fall air. Make Yoga or Tai Chi practice part of your weekly routine. Sign up for that race you always wanted to do. Change is in the air  – move with it, and embrace it.

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