Strengthening Autumn Foods

11/15/2008 (last updated: 08/24/2009 13:42)
Judith Benn Hurley

Fall squash“Keep a yang belly!” hollered Uncle Ho. And he waved good-bye as I sailed into Hong Kong harbor on the Star Ferry one early autumn morning.

What Uncle Ho—my teacher, not really an uncle—meant by the odd farewell was that I should keep my digestion in good running order. He taught me that good health comes from nutritious foods and good digestion. If your digestion is off due to overconsumption of fats, sugars, junk food, alcohol, unmanaged stress, or certain medications, your body’s ability to absorb nutrients will be diminished. When Uncle Ho advised me to “keep a yang belly,” he meant that I should keep a digestive system that is warm and active -- able to harvest the benefits from foods that the body need needs for good heath. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, this is especially important in autumn, the Metal Element season of the large intestine and lung, when we reap the vitamins and minerals needed to keep us strong during the coming months.

Envision ancient tribes beneath an autumn sun, gathering and storing wholesome grains and vegetables to sustain themselves. Perhaps they learned the importance of autumn harvest from observing animals, who are instinctively aware of the food they eat. Even today in any city in autumn we can see squirrels storing nourishing nuts, and nonmigrating bids growing stout on seeds. Humans stocking up on autumn provisions are doing what sociologists call “gathering” -- a process (not unlike a squirrel with her nuts) of accumulation of goods that will fortify and strengthen the body.

Western science explains that this autumn gathering of nourishment has a positive effect on the immune system, a group of glands, organs, and body systems that work together to act as a weapon against infectious diseases, thus eliminating pathogens, toxins, and viruses from the body. A healthy immune system helps to strengthen the large intestine and lung, toning them to combat autumn colds, coughs, and flu. Conversely, when the immune system is weak and the digestive system is not “ a yang belly,” we are unable to absorb nutrients. In addition, waste can build up and may result, for instance, in a head cold.

What to do? Although it may seem natural to “bulk up” at this time of the year as a defense against the impending cold, it is best to eat lightly but well to “keep a yang belly.” Eat slowly so your stomach can tell when it’s not quite full, Uncle Ho advised, noting that it takes several minutes for the brain to become alerted to the fact that the stomach is full. Overeating (as well as abundant fat, sugar, white flour, and alcohol in the diet) can cause the digestive system to become overtaxed, and thus unable to efficiently eliminate toxins. These unwanted accumulations can appear as autumn colds, coughs, and flu, -- the body’s way of ridding itself of excesses.

Nutrient-rich harvest foods are a wise and healthful choice, including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, garlic, onions, autumn greens, winter (orange-fleshed) squash, peppers, and such fall fruits as apples and pears. Check your favorite supermarket and health food store for pre-made fragrant veggie-packed soups and stews; convenient pre-peeled and chopped squash and sweet potatoes, ready-to-saute or steam broccoli florets, cauliflower pieces, and pre-washed succulent autumn greens like kale and collards.

More Ideas for Autumn Foods and Beverages:

broccoliBROCCOLI contains immune-enhancing vitamin C and beta carotene; folate, potassium, calcium, and B6 for steady nerves; chlorophyll for good digestion and beautiful skin; and only 22 calories in each half cup of cooked vegetable. In addition, broccoli contains cancer-fighting compounds called “indoles.” To easily get broccoli into your life, steam florets until just tender and bright green, about five minutes. Then toss with fresh lemon juice, olive oil, and a pinch of sea salt. Serve warm or at room temperature as a side dish, or tossed with hot pasta (try whole wheat penne) or brown rice. Prepare extra for lunch the next day.

BREATHE-BETTER TEA -- If you have a cold, the sage in this infusion will help to calm inflamed upper-respiratory membranes, allowing you to breathe more freely. The hyssop is what herbalists call an “antispasmodic,” soothing irritated bronchials and lungs. The tea as a whole is a “diaphoretic,” a substance that, when ingested, helps relieve feverish conditions.

1 teaspoon dried sage
1 teaspoon dried hyssop
1 slice fresh lemon
1 cup just-boiled water

In a large mug combine all of the ingredients and let the tea steep, covered, for 5 minutes. Discard the solids and sip as needed. Makes 1 serving. (Please note that this information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical attention. If you think you have a medical condition, please see a medical professional.)

Judith Benn Hurley is an award-winning author and journalist who has written for such publications as The Washington Post, Prevention Magazine, Ladies Home Journal, Self, and Organic Gardening. She has just finished her twelfth book.