Fall is the season which Chinese medicine associates with the metal element, the lung organ, and the energy of letting go. This time of year we prune away the excesses of summer like we prune a fruit tree after it bears, consolidating our energy, focusing on what is most important, and preparing for winter. It is also a time of year when our lungs are vulnerable, and it is easy to catch a cold or flu. The flu shot is just one of many ways to protect yourself. I’ve been eating a lot of the wonderful Shoo Flu sauerkraut our neighbors at Cultured make with star anise and gouji berries for immune enhancement.
Many of the foods we find at the farmer’s market at this time of year help our bodies fight the effects of breathing polluted air and exposure to pathogens. Onions, garlic, and other naturally spicy foods are thought to be protective to the respiratory system. Dr. Irwin Ziment, a professor at UCLA, based on the finding that Hispanics who smoke in the polluted Los Angeles area have a surprisingly low rate of lung cancer, routinely prescribes chilies for respiratory problems (Pitchford, 2002). In addition to chilies, radishes, turnips, ginger, cabbage and white pepper are considered mildly spicy in flavor in Chinese medicine and will help strengthen the lungs. Modern research has validated the age-old remedy of chicken soup for fighting respiratory infection and it is even more effective with the addition of garlic and chilies (Ziment, 2006). Many common culinary spices, like turmeric, ginger, fennel and rosemary, have been found to have cancer-fighting properties as well (Aggarwal & Shishodia, 2004). Pears and Asian pears are another traditional remedy for lung irritation from illness or pollution, and can help soothe a dry cough.
The fall season brings the nut harvest. Fresh nuts are wonderful sources of vitamin E and essential fatty acids. Vitamin E has been shown in numerous studies to help protect the lungs from the ill effects of breathing contaminants. Look for walnuts, almonds, pecans or other nuts that grow in your area, and buy them freshly shelled or shell them yourself to get the most benefit. Soaking nuts overnight before roasting, grinding or cooking them into foods will make them easier to digest and increase their nutrient value. Cold-pressed oils such as sesame, olive and walnut, avocados and freshly ground whole wheat flour (available at the farmer’s market in my area!) are other good sources of vitamin E.
Selenium is an immune-stimulating, cancer protective mineral. It is found in many whole foods, especially those grown in selenium-rich soils. Good sources include whole wheat, liver, butter, lamb, nuts, and brown rice. Ellagic acid, related to flavonoids, blocks the cancer-causing actions of many airborne pollutants, but is destroyed by heat. It is abundant in raspberries and blackberries and also found in other berries, most fruit, and nuts, such as walnuts and pecans. Fiber is found in most whole foods and helps to eliminate some pollutants, although excess fiber, as from fiber supplements, can block mineral absorption. And of course mushrooms of all varieties are well known immune enhancers. Mushroom soup anyone?
Keeping our diets focused on whole foods from quality sources like the farmer’s market will help keep you healthy into the winter months.