Fall is both a season and a verb describing movement, a change of direction, and sudden action. Herodotus observed, “People are most likely to be seized with maladies during changes; changes of anything, but especially of the seasons.” According to the Huananzi, “Autumn wind brings frost, retreat, decline….The grasses and trees retrench to their roots, fish and turtles crowd back into the deep. All is reduced to formless desolation: yet we don’t see the effort.”(1) Just as every physical fall shows how one’s body tries to correct for a landing in a split second, revealing structural signaling and resilience or lack thereof, the season of fall creates a torsion point between summer and winter that gives us information about how our body corrects and adapts, or fails to adapt. This allows us to learn, and to make adjustments to support our bodies into the winter.
Doctors in both Eastern and Western medical systems have noticed for centuries that the fall and winter cause an exacerbation of symptoms of allergies, digestive problems, arthritis, heart disease, migraines and many more conditions, including mental-emotional imbalance or malaise. This observation has been given weight with the discovery that our bodies express more inflammation during the winter due to epigenetic changes in over 4,000 genes associated with inflammation triggered by seasonal change. Further research will investigate the details of how the body responds to the environment at a genetic level.
In the meantime, Chinese medical theorists have spent the past 2,000 years creating a huge system of diagnosis and treatment based on principles determined by observation of how the body responds to the environment. One such principle is exemplified by the treatment application of “dong xia bing zhi,” or “treatment of winter diseases in the summer.” This is both a general guiding theory and a specific treatment protocol to boost all of the body’s defense systems in the summer and the depth of winter so that the body won’t respond to the seasonal (epigenetic) changes in an inflammatory, symptomatic way.
Acupuncture acts on the mental-emotional level in a parallel fashion- the positive effects of a stress-reducing treatment often aren’t known until a strong stressor occurs, testing the tensile strength of one’s emotional resilience. Most patients recognize the stress relieving effects of acupuncture and acupressure during their times of highest stress, noting the ability to move through emotions more quickly, to perform executive function in the moment more effectively, and to recover from the physical and emotional effects of stress more quickly. A stressful event represents a microcosmic torque to the system, a change of direction requiring quick adaptation, that parallels the macrocosmic environmental stressors of the fall and winter which require an entire epigenetic shift.
In a clinical setting, receiving acupuncture and herbal medical treatment at this time of year is highly valuable. The goal of individual acupuncture treatments are to address both the immediate, acute symptoms that brought one to treatment, as well as the longer term adjustments to the body to support the resilience of the entire system. The gentle yet profound nature of acupuncture (and acupressure treatments like Shiatsu or Thai traditional massage) are particularly well suited to allowing deep change to happen without having to expend great effort. We fall back, conserving energy and allowing our bodies to repair, in order to spring forward.
1) Kuriyama, Shigehisa. The Expressiveness of the Body and the Divergence of Greek and Chinese Medicine. Zone Books; Brooklyn, New York. 2011.