Derangement by Metal: Grieving and Anxiety in Chinese Medicine

Every acupuncturist has at least one kind of illness pattern they have a hard time treating. For some, the chronic Earth deficiency, with its frequent love of sweets and ability to obsess on anything, is difficult. For others, it’s Liver Fire, with its tendency to be constantly irritable. For me, it’s severe Metal imbalances that affect the psyche. The pain this imbalance creates is hard to watch, especially since the people stuck in this pattern often have difficulty believing their perceptions are unclear.

Metal element deals with the Lung and Large Intestine, and deals with the emotions of memory and nostalgia, grieving, and letting go of anything that no longer serves you. It is also the system that deals with boundaries (a la the immune system) and as such plays a part in the metaphorical “boxes” a person uses to keep things organized and sorted in their mind. The season of autumn is a time when the Metal element has more say-so in the workings of the environment than any other time of year. Many people notice a tendency towards nostalgia in the autumn, and pull out old picture books to remember old times. Others notice more of a tendency to think of past losses, or a desire to clear out clutter and re-evaluate the things you spend your time on in life.

For someone whose Metal element, or Lung and Large Intestine energy, is severely out of balance, this process goes awry, sometimes to the point of becoming irrational. The organizational and boundary aspects of Metal can become hyper-sensitive, making a person a perfectionist, or overly detailed oriented. The boundary-setting function can falter, making a person either too lenient with those around them, or, more often in dealing with Metal, too strict. The person becomes so convinced of their own opinions on a matter that they cannot see the faults in their thinking, and become overly uptight and even paranoid. When these problems occur, a person can suffer from symptoms as mild as being too picky about how the dishwasher is loaded to a full mental disorder, such as eating disorder, debilitating phobias, panic disorders, and other forms of irrationality.

While serious, life-altering disorders will usually require greater intervention from medical sources, there are ways to help your Lung and Large Intestine energies regain balance. In the continuum of Chinese energetics, the Metal element is nourished by Earth, controlled by Wood, and feeds Water. Keeping these three systems in balance will help normalize the Metal element.

Since a tendency to over-control is considered an excess state of Metal in Chinese medicine, one way to decrease its influence is to minimize Earth element. This process is tricky, because the Earth element is responsible for digestions, and has some weakness in most people. So keeping food easy to digest is key. Rather than eating raw or processed food, eat warm, well-cooked food, such as soups, mildly sweet vegetables such as squash, sweet potatoes, and unprocessed grains. Raw food is too difficult for most people to break down easily, especially in cold weather. Warm foods relax your entire digestive system. It also helps relax the muscles in your torso, allowing qi to more easily flow from your chest to your abdomen, linking your Metal and Earth energy.

Another problem comes when the Metal Element “over-controls” Wood energy, which represents the liver and gallbladder functions in Chinese medicine.  Wood is repsonsible for enforcing the boundaries that the Metal element creates, as well as supplying active creative energy for things like art, organizing, and business. When Wood is out of balance, people either become listless and lacking ambition and ability to take action. Alternatively, a person with Wood unbalanced can become aggressive in asserting herself. Often this form of imbalance is predominate in the more irrational forms of Metal imbalance. The Metal element virtually enslaves the Wood energy and uses it to fight the encroachment of reality on the opinions of the person out-of-balance.

To soothe the Wood element, and bring it out of Metal’s abusive orbit, you use small amounts of sour foods and plenty of green foods. These foods help Wood energy to “unstick” itself. And stuck energy is a big issue in the particularly severe Metal overbalances. Getting that energy to move allows a person to release their sometimes irrational thoughts and allow other people to help them.

Finally, Water element, which is the Kidney and Bladder meridians in people and animals, is nourished by Metal. Often this energy is weak in the person with an unbalanced Metal energy because the energy gets stuck and refuses to nourish Water. Alternatively, it pushes so much energy into the Water element that its function of providing the oomph for willpower becomes overpronounced, and the poor person cannot allow anyone or anything, including objective reality, to circumvent his or her own will. Grounding the Water element and using the other tips here allow willpower to move to appropriate self-care instead of sometimes arbitrarily strict rules in diet, cleanliness, or other behaviors.

Strengthening Water element can be done by adding small amounts of sea salt or elements from the ocean. Fish, seaweeds, or adding sea or other unprocessed salt to your food can help. Giving yourself plenty of downtime to meditate, daydream, and have unstructured thought is also important. Water element has the most connection to the subconscious mind in Chinese medicine. As such, it deals with the underlying fears and emotions that stir problems in all the elements, including Metal. Nourishing it gives your body the reserves and feeling of grounding you need to improve any emotional or physical condition.

Severe unbalance in any system should be addressed by as many modalities and professionals as you need to restore harmony in your life. In the case of severe Metal element disturbance, you may need to find someone you trust to define your reality if you are having irrational thoughts. Seek emergency care if a disturbed mental process is affecting your life to a great extent, or you have thoughts of harming yourself or others.

Balance is key to all of Chinese medicine. For more information on dealing with your health imbalances, please call or email today.


Autumn: Grieving, Sorting, Letting Go

Autumn is my favorite season. I love the color in the leaves, the chill in the air, and the natural instinct to burrow in and nest. But I always find myself going broody and a little melancholy just as the summer heat gets that tiny tinge of coolness. For years, I chalked it up to the memories of school starting, year after year, in my childhood–the end of the freedom of summer, and for me the anxiety and discomfort of being an introvert thrown into a more social climate. 

While those memories may be a part of my “autumn blues,” I now know there is a much more powerful reason I have these feelings, and why so many share them. In Chinese medicine, each season is associated with an element, which also relates to different parts of physical and emotional health. Autumn deals with the Metal Element, which is represented in the body by the Lung and Large Intestine systems. These systems deal with your immune system and breathing. But they also have an emotional component. They deal with the process of grief, of knowing what to keep and let go, and have a place in affecting how we organize our lives and set our boundaries.

Just as the leaves shed their leaves and begin to hunker down for the winter, drawing their nutrients inward, so we humans feel an urge to turn inward as the weather cools. Autumn is commonly a time for introspection and review. We look over our year, our relationships, and our homes, deciding what works well, and what does not, and letting go of those things that no longer serve us. We pack away our summer clothes, pull out the comforting shield of our sweaters and blankets, and review our yearly plans. And many of us, for reasons we cannot quite understand, feel the need to pull out old hurts, old problems, or old memories, figuratively running our fingers over our life scars.

This behavior is perfectly natural, and can be beneficial. When we suffer a loss–whether it’s a loved one, an injury, a financial setback, or just a vision of ourselves we fail to live up to–we need time to process the change in our circumstances. We grieve a death, or a breakup, or a new reality after illness, and move one. But as a year or two or ten goes by, sometimes we find there are still issues to process. We reach the age of a parent when they died, we find a new romance, or find our health deteriorates further–or, sometimes more frighteningly, improves, bringing new opportunities but also new responsibility. We have grown and changed, and now we need to revisit that old hurt. Is there something new to learn from our old experience? Is there some new way to let go of a limiting belief or behavior? If we do not revisit our story, we may never know.

Of course, everyone has a friend who is stuck in time. They pick a moment of their life, either for its joy or pain, and refuse to leave it. They dress too young, or continue to make teenage choices into adulthood, because growing up threatens the safety they feel in their perceived youth. Or they keep a room or wall or life revolving around a loved one who has left, or died, unable to accept a new opportunity because they cannot let go of the past. For these people, the natural need to grieve and release has gotten bogged down. Sometimes they obsess on the grieving process; other times they avoid it, distracting themselves with work or vacations or play. If they let their mind go blank they risk the pain of memories welling up, so they choose distraction after distraction to avoid discomfort. For either approach, getting help to grieve properly is important. A mature friend or counselor can help stuck grievers go through the process of sorting memories or circumstances and deciding how life has changed around them, and also how to make changes so they can move on to the next stage of life.

Autumn is still my favorite season, even tinged with grief as it can sometimes be. The other side of grief is nostalgia–a happy memory of earlier times that can be a firm foundation from which to launch an amazing life.

Warm Food for Cold Weather

Photo Credit: Stock Xchang

I am an acupuncturist. My training is in Chinese medicine, which emphasizes giving your body what it needs to live in harmony with your environment. It’s surprising to me how often I’ll ask a new patient about their diet, and she will say “Oh, I eat very healthfully. I eat a bunch of salad, almost no fat, and only drink diet sodas.” I’ll tackle the low-fat and diet drinks another time, but today I’d like to focus on the salad.

In Chinese medicine, we teach that your lower torso area holds your “pilot light”–the dan tian in front and the ming men in back. While they are different areas, their function is similar. They provide the foundation for both yin (the body’s cooling, calming, sleeping, peaceful energy) and yang (the body’s warming, active, moving energy). Our day-to-day energy comes from a combination of Congenital Qi (the energy we inherit from our parents, which acts as our reserve energy in times of excessive stress or work, and Acquired Qi (the energy we get from food, the air, and the functions of our various organs). Two major sources of Acquired Qi are the energy we get from food, and the energy from the Spleen/Stomach system that digests the food. 
In order to maximize the benefit of our food, we must digest it properly. If it is hard to digest, we will use too much energy trying to break it down. So we will either tire easily, or we will do a halfway job of digestion. When you don’t digest food completely, you make extra phlegm, which can show up as cholesterol build-up in your arteries or as simple congestion in your nose and throat.  Poor digestion can also cause problems up-and-down your digestive system–everything from acid reflux to Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or food intolerances. 
So how do you digest your food well? By eating good, wholesome, natural food–that is cooked and warm. It is true that if you take a raw carrot and a cooked carrot and analyze them in a laboratory, you may find more nutrients in the raw carrot. However, there is more to consider in choosing how to eat your food. Raw food is hard to break down into its composite nutrients. It does not add warmth to the body. Cold food–whether a salad or a milkshake–is hard to digest. So if your body is already struggling with making enough energy to thrive each day, trying to digest cold or raw food limits the energy you get from food. You will also actually have to dip into your reserves–your Congenital Qi. Anything that dips into your reserve energy is a serious health concern, because that energy is hard to regain once lost.
So raw food is never a good idea. But in cold weather–the nice crisp weather of fall and winter–it is even more of a problem. Your body needs extra energy to warm itself in cold weather. When it gets too cold, qi, or energy, cannot move well. Muscles tighten and hurt, digestion slows down, energy retreats deeper into your body, numbing your extremities. The cold also “tightens” emotions–when qi cannot flow, the body systems that process emotions do not work well. Many people find themselves becoming depressed, apathetic, or easily frustrated.
The simple act of eating warm food–all year long, but especially in the cold months–will make a huge difference to health. A belly full of a healthy warm meal feels content. Contentment leads to a peaceful feeling, which reduces stress. Cooked food is less work to break down, so your body gets the benefit of it immediately.  The warmth relaxes your torso, improving back and neck pain.  Warm food also assists digestion, diminishing the chances of gas, bloating, constipation, or pain in digestion. 
If you are not used to eating mostly cooked food, I suggest choosing two weeks and trying it religiously. Have nothing cold–no iced drinks, no salad, no ice cream. Drink plenty of hot liquid–tea, hot water with lemon, brothy soups–and have wholesome meals that are warm. At the end of two weeks, most people feel  improvement in their overall health–fewer pains, better digestion, a more peaceful mind. Give it a try and let me know what happens!