what you need to know about the lung and autumn


October is Lung Awareness month, so this is a great time to talk about the function of the lung from a Chinese Medicine perspective. 

The Five Elements in Chinese Medicine

Before you can understand the lung, it's important to have a general scope of the 5-Element system, which is one of the main foundations of Chinese Medicine.  It is a system that allows you to navigate the natural world and your body/mind through the process of change reflected in nature.  

Here are the the 5-Elements reflected in the seasons:

  • Water- Winter
  • Wood-Spring
  • Fire-Summer
  • Earth-Late Summer
  • Metal- Autumn

The elements are not like the periodic table of "physical" elements; they are phases and changes of movements in nature.  Remember, the ancients of Chinese Medicine looked at the world through the movement of energy, or Qi.  Each element works with the other elements in a beautiful dance called life.  Examining the 5-Elements is a great way to understand this dance.  In this post, I will cover the Metal element, since the lung and the autumn season is associated with that element.  

Autumn:  The Metal Element and the Lung

The lung is associated with autumn.  With the fall of the foliage and fruit, the earth absorbs the decay and transforms it into nourishment for the roots and fertilizer for spring growth. Like soil draws in the essence from nature's withered harvest to nourish the living and its seedlings, the lungs draw in and disperse Qi (vital energy) to nourish the organs.  Another way to look at it is the lungs take in the new and let out the old.  Like autumn, the lungs deal with transition.  With the 5-Elements you can see the physiological, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of a person.  It is really a system of self-awareness that allows you a deeper connection to yourself.  

Metal Element Attributes

  • Yin Viscera (solid organ): Lung
  • Yang Viscera (hollow organ):  Large Intestine
  • Sense Organ:  Nose
  • Tissue:  Body Hair and Skin
  • Emotion:  Grief, Melancholy, Sadness
  • Transformation of Emotion:  Moving from loss and grief to appreciation and acceptance. 
  • Virtue:  Appreciation of Preciousness
  • Season:  Autumn
  • Environmental Factor:  Dryness
  • Sound:  Weeping
  • Color:  White
  • Taste: Pungent
  • Direction: West
  • Time of Day: 3am-7am
  • Light Attribute:  Respectful, Inspired, Precise, Dependable
  • Shadow Attribute:  Rigid, Sad, Cut-off, Moralistic, Lacking Inspiration

The Lung (Metal Element) in Real Life

Let's meet Peter, Paul and Mary.  They are long time friends who go on an annual fall hike through Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.  They all love this time of year for the fresh chilled air, crisp light, beautiful colors, scent of pine and quiet, calm sounds as Mother Nature gets ready to slumber for the winter.  

Peter really needs to go on this hike.  He is uninspired and has the worst case of "writes block" he's had his whole writing career.  Strangely, his writer's block came on several months ago after he lost his beloved cat to old age.  He has entered into a terrible fatigue that has challenged him to enjoy life's foundational pleasures like eating and socializing.  He seems to be walking around with a grey cloud over his head most days.  

Peter is uninspired.  The lung is about inspiration-the act of inspiring (inhaling) air and being inspired.  Breath is at the center of existence.  Without it we die.  We "expire".  Peter is unable to be inspired because he is experiencing grief from the death of his cat.  The lung network has been weakened, and the lung energy is "knotting" and "contracting" due to his grief.  Without this inspiration (metaphorically and literally), his body is unable to cultivate the energy needed for inspiration.  Peter is experiencing the emotional aspects of an imbalanced lung network.  

Paul has struggled with asthma most of his life.  He also catches colds often, especially in the autumn.  He caught a cold from his son a month ago and has not been able to "kick" it.  He is worried he is going to hold up his friends on their hike with his shortness of breath and hacking cough.  Not to mention, his eczema flares up every fall.  He wants to scratch himself out of his skin.  Paul fell the other day when he missed the curb and jammed his right thumb. It is swollen and aching.  When this happened, he noticed a strange ache where his clavicle and shoulder meet.  

The anatomy and architecture of the meridians often explain physical problems.  The lung meridian starts in the upper chest just below the clavicle and runs down the arm to the thumb.  If there is an injury along this meridian, pain can show up in other places along the meridian.  Paul's shoulder and clavicle could be hurting because of his thumb injury. When the energy of the lung network is not strong, symptoms like asthma, bronchitis, and catching colds often show up.  The skin is related to the lung network; if there is weakness in the lung network, skin issues often coincide with lung issues.  Eczema is often a secondary complaint from people who suffer from asthma.  Paul is suffering from the physical aspects of an imbalanced lung network due to trauma and constitutional weakness.  

Mary has a love/hate relationship with autumn. She loves the season, but she knows that she will "shrivel up" like a prune October 1st.  Her nose is like the Sahara Desert and with that comes nosebleeds and crusty mucus plastered to the sides of her nasal passages.  She also broke up with her boyfriend six months ago and has had terrible constipation recently. She is having a hard time letting go of this relationship.    

In Chinese Medicine, organs are paired together through their yin/yang relationships.  One is solid, the other hollow.  The lungs pair with the large intestine.  Again, symptoms often give clues to which meridian is imbalanced.  For Mary, her large intestine network is showing signs of emotional and physical imbalance.  The constipation is an emotional and subsequent manifestation of Mary not letting go of her relationship that ended.  Just as the large intestine gets rid of physical waste the body no longer needs, it also gets rid of emotions and situations that no longer serve us.  The nosebleeds are a physical manifestation of an imbalanced large intestine network.  Mary's dry nose can be attributed to the large intestine (and lung) network along with the change of seasons.  As reflected above in the metal element attributes, dryness comes with the autumn season.  Many people suffer dry nasal passages as the moisture from the summer heat begins to decline.  Mary is suffering from a physical and emotional imbalance of the large intestine and lung network.  

Imbalance Does Not Happen in a Vacuum

It is important to note that the body, mind and spirit are interconnected and so are the meridians of the body. The 5-Element system is dynamic, and all the elements interact with one another all the time.  These caricatures are only showing you one aspect of the whole person.  Each person mentioned above has other things going on within the realm of the 5-Element system.  

We Are All Striving For Health

People stumble through imbalances in body, mind and spirit as they move through life.  Our bodies naturally want to be balanced, which is the most pure reflection of health.  Some imbalances pass easily, while others stick around a while or become permanent changes that require a new normal.  Chinese Medicine allows us to see our health instead of our illness and understand and adjust what our body and mind might be trying to communicate.  I hope this post gives you more insight into the lung network and the fall season from a Chinese Medicine perspective.  Be well!