Photo caption: Dr. Benjamin Apichai is a faculty member at Bastyr University. Photo credit: Minh Nguyen.

In late-March, Dr. Benjamin Apichai gave a talk at Seattle’s Bastyr University on the relationship between food and health, and how eating seasonally — that is, eating certain foods at certain times of year — plays a central role in the balance of our yin and yang.

In traditional Chinese medicine, yin and yang are internal life forces that fluctuate and vary with the seasons, depending on the presence of the sun and moon; the summer and spring store yang energy and the winter and autumn store yin energy. Sun produces yang qi and moon produces yin qi. Qi is a term that is difficult to translate precisely in English, but to the best of our abilities, it is defined as our “life force.”

“[Qi is] what keeps you moving,” explains Dr. Apichai.

Qi is immaterial, yet it is vital for the organs — the zang fu — to function.

“Qi is what helps your zang fu fall asleep at night, and what helps your zang fu waken in the daytime,” Dr. Apichai articulates.

And the maintenance of the zang fu is the very purpose of deliberately eating according to season.  Dr. Apichai’s lecture at Bastyr University was focused on this very idea, and provided guidelines of foods to eat for every season.

In every season, for example, there is an organ that we depend on for functioning the most; for the summer, it is the heart and for autumn, it is the lung. We need to eat food that keeps the lungs moist and clear the heart fire, because it is the belief of Chinese medicine that during hot weather, the lungs tend to dry. Other foods that are purported to moisten the lungs are watermelon, cucumber, bean sprouts, tofu, edamame, lotus roots and daikon radishes.

The difference for autumn is that since the temperature begins to drop and we begin to gradually store less yang energy, our diets should reflect these changes and consume less cold foods. Additionally, we fuel the rising yin energy by eating grapes, oysters, crabs, and foods that “expel wind,” such as ginger and pepper.

The kidneys are the organs of winter, and in the winter, Dr.Apichai recommends an intake of kidney-nourishing food, such as black sesame, tomatoes and crabs, as well as warm foods such as lamb and hot pot. To maintain health in the winter, Dr. Apichai also recommends harvesting ginseng as many as ninr times to attain a spiciness for stomach warmth.

In spring, it is liver season.

“In Chinese medicine, the liver is the emotional organ,” Dr. Apichai remarks.

People’s temperaments tend to rise and fall quickly in tandem to the weather changes of spring, and Dr. Apichai notes that “high blood pressure happens easily this season.” As yang begins to rise, we eat foods that fuel yang qi such as fruit, rice and chives.

During the talk, Dr. Apichai also provided some year-round tips for mindful eating, such as sitting down to eat, chewing food well. The doctor emphasizes that we should “chew like cows,” which means “chewing 32 to 50 times before swallowing,” not multitasking while eating and not skipping meals.

Eating seasonally may seem intuitive, but in Seattle where many foods are imported and available year-round, it can often require a lot of intention and will power. Sometimes it’s difficult to resist a piece of watermelon in the winter if you’re craving it, for example, especially if it’s available. Yet, from a Chinese medicine standpoint, a piece of watermelon is more than caloric nourishment.  Its properties contain a specific function for the body — to moisten the lungs during the humid season — and in that sense, its role is specific and medicinal. Chinese medicine believes that food and medicine should be one and the same.

Over the years, Western medicine has been increasingly turning to Eastern medicine methods. Bastyr, for instance, has an entire Eastern medicine department.  Dr. Apichai describes Eastern medicine working slow without the use of chemicals, and Western medicine as potentially working faster but with the use of chemicals.  Moreover, “Chinese medicine is the practice of the role of nature,” he says.

Dr. Apichai uses the common cold as an example.

“Usually they just treat patients with antibiotics,” he says, “but now, they are telling more patients to drink plenty of water and rest.”

Even this small change is a nod to Eastern medicine, giving the role of nature and self-care more credibility.

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