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Respiration and Immune Wellness in Autumn: the Metal Element

Five Element theory teaches us to understand our health in terms of the cycles that govern our bodies and the natural world. Here are a few tips for living with the seasons to stay healthy.

Wind, rain and chilly weather mark the arrival of Autumn. As the seasons change, respiratory and immune wellness are of more concern than ever before. Although we are learning to live with COVID year-round, we still face periodic surges. This is especially true as we transition to spending more time indoors, with windows shut. In addition, we face the expected rise in seasonal flu and colds, as well as outbreaks of RSV. Wildfire smoke has been an added stressor for lung health, especially for those living in the Western states.

How can Chinese medicine and Five Element acupuncture help us manage these health risks? Five Element theory teaches us to understand our health in terms of the cycles that govern our bodies and the natural world. Here are a few tips for living with the seasons to stay healthy.

Autumn and the Metal Element in Nature

After the brilliance of the harvest season and late Summer, Autumn is a time of decline and loss. It feels both exquisite and sad. Living things prepare for the colder months to come, conserving energy and returning to the root. Trees lose their leaves, and vines wither and die. Insects, mammals and other species may nest, seek out shelter and prepare to hibernate.
On the flip side of withering and loss, Autumn brings the rotting and composting of all the debris that plants have let go. Mushrooms and fungi flourish with the clean rains, allowing the breakdown and recovery of precious nutrients, returning them to the soil where they will nourish the next cycle of life.

In Five Element acupuncture theory, the dynamic qualities of Autumn are represented in the Metal Element. The energy of Metal gives us the ability to let go of what no longer serves us. It allows us to break down and recover in pure form what is valuable and precious within us, and expel the waste.

Our Bodies and Minds: the Metal Element Within

Our internal being is governed by the same cycles that govern the natural world. Like the rest of nature, our energies move inward as the days shorten and the nights lengthen. We may feel tired and fatigue more easily. This is the time of year to do one less thing.

On an emotional and spiritual level, our wellbeing at this time depends on our ability to let go of what no longer serves us, and recover what is precious. Grief is the emotion most closely connected to this process of loss and recovery. Focus activities on internal wellbeing, as our energies move inward. The season of Metal brings clarity to our inner lives, allowing us to recover what is of value and to let go of what is not.

Metal also represents the body’s defenses and boundaries, and governs our ability to take in and let go. Lungs, Colon and skin are the systems in Chinese medicine most closely connected to the Metal Element. The respiratory tract, beginning with the nose, brings in vital air but also helps filter out pollutants and pathogens. The skin forms a permeable boundary over the entire body. The Colon allows us to expel wastes and toxins.

Chinese Medicine Health Tips for Autumn

  1. Get additional rest and sleep. Ancient Chinese medicine teaches that we need more sleep as the days grow shorter and our energy returns to the root. Allowing time to rest, especially if we are feeling “under the weather,” helps to strengthen our bodies’ defenses and ward off illness.
  2. Continue to exercise outdoors, properly dressed. This allows the body to gradually adapt to the cooler season. Keep your back and neck warm, especially if it is windy. In Chinese medicine, pathogens are said to “enter through the back,” where the lungs are close to the surface of the body.
  3. Eat a nutrient-dense whole-foods diet, with plenty of vegetables and adequate protein. Give your body the nutrients it needs to support immune wellness.
  4. Avoid dairy, refined carbohydrates and sugary foods. These foods tend to be mucus-forming and may foster imbalances in the body’s microbiome.
  5. Use a saline nasal wash, such as a neti pot, to reduce mucus, pathogens and dead tissue in the nasal passages.
  6. Respect your emotional responses to the season. As our energies turn inward, feelings of sadness and loss sadness may come to the surface. Embrace the opportunity to look inward, however uncomfortable that may feel.
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