Did you know there are 5 seasons, not 4?
According to Chinese medicine, each of the 5 elements — wood, fire, earth, metal, and water — have a corresponding season.
Pretty cool, right?
5 element theory is based on the natural world and it shows us how humans are connected to it and influenced by it, as well as being an inseparable part of it.
We are a living, breathing, embodiment of nature and the world around us, so we are intimately tied to the seasons and their influences.
So what is this mystery 5th season?
And why is it so important?
We’re all acquainted with the 4 seasons of spring, summer, fall, and winter. They evenly divide the year into quarters via the equinoxes.The hidden 5th season doesn’t split the year into 5 equal pieces, but rather it’s a season within a season.
The mysterious 5th season of Chinese medicine is late summer, or the last 6 weeks of summer, from about August 5th - September 21st, or the fall equinox.
Think about how you feel around the beginning of August, and I bet you can grasp this shift from summer to late summer.
By early August, the intense whirlwind of summer is fading, and it’s time to put our feet back on the ground, and reorient a bit to the practicalities of life.
The crops that have been growing all spring and summer suddenly come into abundance, and time seems to stand still for a bit while we enjoy the fruits of our labor over the last two seasons.
The late summer season corresponds to the earth element that embodies this grounded, stable time.
Knowing about the 5th season is an important way to connect with nature and yourself around this time of year.
We feel the shift of the season and we reflect what's happening in the natural world.
And there are many more correlations of the elements to the natural world. Here are a few:
|Stage of Development||Harvest|
|Time of Day||Stomach: 7 - 9 AM
Spleen: 9 - 11 AM
Let’s take a closer look at how all of these factors relate to one another and us.
Late summer is a more peaceful and tranquil time than summer, but a more active time than fall.
Time seems to stand still here in these few weeks. The dynamic energy of summer is gone, but the waning energy of fall isn’t here yet.
We are content and eager to savor the season before the beauty begins to fade.
This is a time of stabilization after the tumultuous, though fun, tornado-like energy of summer.
Late summer is that perfect moment where the swirling energy has died, but things haven’t begun their descent back to earth yet.
It’s a moment of clarity after the storm that seems to stand still.
It's the realization that the ride of summer has been a delight, but that its unsustainable energy must come to an end and the decomposition of fall must begin.
Having this stabilizing season between the two halves of the year reminds us balance is necessary and smoothes the passage from yang to yin.
Stage of Development: Harvest
This is the time of year builds on the growth of spring and the maturation of summer. In late summer, we see the full ripening of the fruits of our labor.
Crop fields and gardens explode with fully transformed and now edible grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables.We begin our harvest to fill our bellies for the day and to preserve it for the future months when food is more scarce.
Because food is so bountiful, we can simply enjoy it without worrying too much about the leaner times of fall and winter.
Plentiful amounts of food lend stability to this time of year, traditionally.
Food is one of the basic needs for all life, and during late summer it is less of a concern than any other time of year.
When basic needs are fulfilled, like food, clothing, and shelter, it frees us up to pursue and enjoy other things not as directly linked with maintaining our survival.
We’re a bit disconnected from this yearly cycle in modern times because food is always readily available.
We don’t feel the natural surge of contentment that arises in late summer, knowing that our bellies will be full for weeks without worry.
Because of the great supply of food, late summer is a naturally giving time of year.
We have more than enough to go around; why not share our harvest with those perhaps a bit less fortunate? Or celebrate with friends and family?We give because we have more than enough to give, and this is the true spirit of late summer.
Late summer is the season of dampness.
The dry heat of summer is waning and moisture is creeping back in that will soon turn to the rains of fall.
During this time of year, humidity reaches its peak.
If you live in a humid area, you can feel the moisture as soon as you walk outside; it’s thick and cloying, sticking to your skin through the day.
Sometimes we can feel this heavy layer set in internally, usually from too much good food and drink, but also the influence of the climate of this time of year.
There is a lethargy that comes with dampness. We feel fatigued and swollen and a bit disconnected.
This is the most common time of year to gain weight, as our body is naturally inclined to store extra calories before winter and there happens to be an abundance of calories around to do so.
Dr. Liz Tips:
- Avoid overdoing it with rich foods and beverages, especially sugar. Indulgence this time of year is natural, but try to moderate how often it happens.
- Avoid damp-producing foods. In Chinese medicine, foods associated with increasing dampness are: sugar, dairy, gluten, lots of raw vegetables and fruits (as in a smoothie or large salad), alcohol, or any foods you are allergic to.
- Add ginger tea to your diet during this time of year. Ginger is naturally heating and help to dispel damp.
Smell: Fragrant, sweet
The smell of late summer is one of too much sweetness. It mimics the season itself, where overabundance and overindulgence is easily fostered.
It’s sickly sweet and cloying, similar to the dampness of the season. It sticks to everything, like thick syrup or honey.
It is the scent of fruit going bad.
The ripening process has gone too far, and some of the abundance has gone to waste.
It can be a reassuring smell, in that there is so much food not all of it could be used.
But it also reminds us of the giving nature of the season; that spreading the wealth of food and resources gives comfort and stability to those around us, making our community stronger and more connected.
Dr. Liz Tip: Smell is powerfully connected to memory.
Venture outside and take in the fragrant smell of the season.
Associate it in your mind with positive feelings of abundance, comfort, and giving.
The color of late summer is yellow, like fields of golden brown ripening grain.We might even begin to see a few leaves turn yellow near the end of the season and notice the glowing amber light of the evenings that are beginning to come earlier.
Traditionally, yellow was thought of as plowed earth or soil. The Yellow River in China is named as such because the amount of silt carried in its waters turns the river the color of earth.
Yellow represents the “golden time of year”, where everything is stable and harmonious, and happy, and the energies of yin and yang are the most balanced at this time.
The taste of late summer is sweet.
Sweet doesn’t necessarily mean super sugary sweet.
And, in fact, too much sugar creates dampness. We can feel this in our mouths, the sense organ of the season, as thick saliva, the fluid of this season. Dampness gums everything up.
Too much damp (often caused by too much sugar) congeals in the muscles, the tissue of late summer, leaving us heavy and lethargic.
We need the right amount of sweet and a little bit of a warming quality to the food in order to optimize the health of the spleen, which is the main digestive organ of Chinese medicine.
Here are some great examples of foods that are slightly sweet and slightly warming that can help keep our digestion balanced.
Dr. Liz Tip: Foods that are yellow or orange in color are generally a great choice for a slightly sweet, digestion-boosting quality. Grains, fruits, veggies and nuts are all included!
There are a TON of foods that have a sweet quality because it’s the most important flavor for maintaining healthy digestion.
Note in the list below there are many foods you many not consider sweet. The next time you eat them, be conscious of the sweetness that is present in each.
|quinoa, corn, rice||cinnamon|
|spelt, spelt, oats||jasmine|
|millet, lentil||slippery elm|
|oyster mushroom||black tea|
|butternut squash/squash in general||rosemary|
|sweet potato, pumpkin, plantain||hibiscus|
|guava, mango, papaya|
|apricot, plum, peach|
|cashew, almond, walnut|
|salmon, mackerel, cod|
|beef, pork, lamb|
Each season and element in Chinese have organs associated with them.
Late summer, or the earth season, is associated with the spleen and stomach.
The organs in Chinese medicine are not exactly the same as how they are thought of in Western medicine.
Sometimes they perform similar physiological functions, and sometimes they function in a totally different way.
Organs from a Chinese medicine perspective also include mental, emotional, and spiritual characteristics.
The physiological function of the spleen in Chinese medicine is to transform food and fluids into qi, or the life force that circulates within us.
The spleen is not only the hub of qi production, it is also the main transporter of qi and fluids around the body.
When the body is healthy, this is an easy task and everything arrives at its intended destination.
When the body is imbalanced or unhealthy, fluids and food essences don’t circulate properly and can accumulate as edema, swelling of the joints, or dampness throughout the body.
Mentally and emotionally, we see that the spleen is the primary nourisher of our system.
It provides the essences we survive on, nurturing us as a mother does her child.
This is similar to the role late summer provides for us; we feel nurtured and taken care of with bountiful food and resources.If things we’re taking in aren’t getting transformed properly or are more detrimental than beneficial, we’ll feel undernourished physically and emotionally.
This can manifest as emotional neediness, or an inability to regulate nourishment through binging and purging with food, other substances, or mentalities.
If we’re not transporting properly, we can see a mental and emotional breakdown in concentration, memory, and thought.
We have trouble translating thinking into action and can develop obsessive thought patterns.
Dr. Liz Tips:
- Take a moment to ask how you nourish yourself on a daily basis. What do you do that’s just for you that feeds you? If you don’t have a habit, what would you like to do? Start making yourself a priority (link), and develop a daily habit to give back to yourself.
- Make an effort to focus on wholesome, nourishing foods and minimize sugar. You’ll be amazed at how much better you’ll be able to think and feel! No cleanse necessary! Just working toward a whole food diet can be transformative.
Supporting ourselves emotionally and physically will help the spleen function its best.
Just as the season of late summer finishes the ripening process of foods to make them ready for harvest, the stomach ripens and rots food into a form the spleen can use to create qi.
The stomach must be functioning properly for the spleen to harvest and receive the nutrients taken in.
When we eat rich or allergenic foods or are exposed to toxic or hurtful mental and emotional circumstances, our stomach reacts.
We have a plethora of idioms for this response.
“I can’t stomach that idea."
“I’m really fed up.”
Many time we get nauseous when we’re expected to swallow things that are incongruent with who we are physically, mentally, or emotionally.
Your stomach is rebelling against the thought of having to churn through this muck.
Dr. Liz Tips:
- Focus on these idioms and ask yourself what you’re having to force-feed yourself in your environment. What are you stomaching every day that you don’t want to? This is a natural time of year to strengthen the stomach by removing irritants.
- Looking for an indulgent sweet treat? Focus on the beautiful ripe fruits of the season like stone fruits (peaches, plums, nectarines). They are easy for your stomach to digest, sweet but not so intensely that they damage the function of the spleen, and you can eat as many as you desire. In Chinese culture, peaches are the fruit of longevity, so eat up!
Time of Day
Each organ is associated with a time of day.
Knowing these correspondences can give you insight into your own energy peaks and valleys. Or, in the case of these earth organs, when your digestion might be the strongest or weakest.
|Stomach||7 - 9 AM||7 - 9 PM|
|Spleen||9 - 11 AM||9 - 11 PM|
Any time of year, but particularly in late summer, these organs can be under or over active.
7 - 9 AM is the time we most associate with our first meal of the day. You’ve been up for a little bit and the hunger signals kick in telling you your stomach is ready for some nourishment.
In Chinese medicine, digestion is thought of as a fire. In the morning, it’s just a little pilot light and breakfast either ignites it for the day or squelches it, depending on your food choices.
Dr. Liz Tip: It’s especially important to make good food choices in the morning in order to set yourself up for good digestion for the rest of the day.
Avoid overly sugary items or cold, raw items. Oatmeal or a gentle grain porridge can be a great start. Or sweet potatoes, squash, and a little meat or some beans.If you want to know more about Chinese dietary therapy, I highly recommend Helping Ourselves by Daverick Leggett. It’s an easy how-to guide with great summaries and an explanation of diet through Chinese medicine.
9 - 11 AM is typically when we start our day. The spleen is responsible for digesting not only food, but all the information we take in from our environment, then disseminating information out to all the other organs who get their energy from the spleen’s digestive powers.
It’s easy to see how digestion could quickly get compromised if we’re eating in a rush and move immediately into a stressful work environment.
Dr. Liz Tips:
- When you’re eating and digesting, focus just on that activity. When we’re distracted or trying to take in more information (multi-tasking while eating), we decrease our digestive power substantially.
- Taking a walk after a meal, ideally outside, aids digestion and keeps us from consuming stressful material immediately after eating. Of course we’re taking in information on the walk, but we are nourished and calmed by the natural world.
- Avoid eating after 7pm if you are having digestive issues. 7 - 11 PM is the time when the digestive organs are at their lowest energy, so they have a very limited ability to digest and disperse the nutrients well.
Emotion: Worry, sympathy
The emotion of late summer is worry or sympathy. Worry can also be described as over-thinking or repetitive thoughts.
This often happens when the earth element gets overwhelmed with feelings of concern or sympathy for others’ physical, mental, or emotional wellbeing.
We can see this emotion as a natural extension of the late summer season.
When we have enough and feel nourished, we naturally want to give; we are more sympathetic to other’s needs.
Traditionally, with the impending fall and winter, we would give food and resources more freely during this time to those in need to help ensure their survival.
Concern for others can easily turn into worry and overthinking if we know they are in dire straights or desperate. We are acutely aware that they may not have enough.
We can become overly sympathetic, enhancing our desire to give.
At a certain point, we can start sacrificing ourselves.
Sometimes a little bit of self-sacrifice is necessary to help others, and sometimes no amount of giving will resolve whatever issue is at hand.
This giving nature can be taken advantage of by those who would rather not take responsibility for themselves.
Dr. Liz Tips:
There’s an old saying, “you can’t drink from an empty cup.”If we get caught in a cycle of self-sacrifice, we run out of resources to rebuild ourselves. Brainstorm ways to rebuild and nourish yourself. Small things you can do daily. Or small things to remove from your life that are draining you.
The only way to break the cycle of worry is to care for ourselves. To refill our cup and to become a little protective of it.
A giving nature is a fantastic and admirable trait, but it must be cared for to prevent being taken advantage of.
Think about new boundaries that might be useful in protecting yourself from overwhelm.
This may be around certain people, work, or an overly demanding schedule. Set limits for what you feel comfortable doing and watch the worry and overwhelm slip away.
The sound of late summer is singing.
In the voice, singing comes out when we talk to animals or babies or those we care for.
It has a calm, bouncing quality, meant to soothe and pacify.
We use this voice when we want to connect with others the way a mother might with her child. It’s a nurturing tone that reassures you everything will be ok.Singing is about harmonies, and late summer embodies peace and harmony.
It brings the contentment only a bountiful season can produce.
There is a sense that everything is working together for the greater good.
Squirrels chirp, bees buzz lazily, birds vocalize. There is singing all around us in the environment. It feels like a very charmed time to be alive.
Late summer is a season of ease. There is hard work to be done in the harvest, but there is instant gratification as the rewards of the labor done earlier in the year can be reaped immediately.
How do you feel about late summer?
Maybe you’ve discovered a new favorite season you never knew existed!
Feel free to leave a comment below and discuss!