Photo of late autumn mist
When autumn mists roll in, our lungs can be the first to feel the effects [Image: Albert Bridge - Wikimedia Commons]

Healing with the seasons: Autumn

7 October, 2011

Each season is an expression of the cosmic events that the Earth, and all of us living on her crust, are exposed to.

Although we are at the mercy of their whims, we are also lucky to live with four seasons each year  because it gives us the opportunity to fully appreciate the cyclical nature of life.

Autumn is the season in which nature’s alchemy of purification – the letting go of all the excess of the summer and preserving what’s pure and valuable – is the most evident.

In the autumn the cycle of growth comes to a completion, fruits are harvested and seeds are ripe to the potential of new life. When the fruits begin to fall off the tree, the tree is ready to let go of its endeavour of giving and growing outwards, the leaves once green now turn yellow and drop off onto the ground to enrich the soil and nurture the new cycle of life.

The fruit on the ground gently rots providing the nourishment for the seed and potential new life that comes out of it. The sap flows downwards into the roots to the safe warmth of the Earth’s belly. The tree is ready to sit it through the quietude and solace of long autumn and winter nights.

Moving inward

This same process can be perceived on a personal, individual level too. It is the ‘moving inward’ energy of this season that enables us to look at and know our selves in more profound way. Autumn energy returns us to our true essence, moves us to eliminate what we no longer need, and enables us to recognize yet again what is the most precious in our lives.

When the white mists roll in and turn an ordinary landscape into a magical scene, an autumnal sense of loss sets in. There is a sense that all is now bare and exposed and we have nowhere to hide neither inside nor outside of our selves. The loss of light calls for staying in and snuggling up by the fire. Moving inwards physically and emotionally is the order of the day.

In an analogy to the alchemical process of turning base metals into precious gold, the ancient Chinese recognised that the energy of autumn also transforms the gross materials of nature into their pure essence, or the most precious substance, (i.e. out of the rotting fruit the seed is nurtured into the new life). That’s partly why autumn is referred to as the season of the Metal element.

The analogy of purifying and refining goes further to encompass organs in human body which perform this action. The lungs and large intestines, for example, are organ networks associated with metal qualities and therefore considered most affected by the autumnal changes in nature.

Lungs provide the rest of the body with the fresh air and enable the removal of the used and stale air. Strong lungs support a good immune system and general vitality.

The large intestine is the organ most responsible for letting go of what we cannot use in the food we eat. Traditional Chinese medicine goes even further and lets us see that this organs’ faculty to discriminate between that which nourishes us, is good for us and should be kept, and that which does not serves us and should be discarded operates not only on the physical but also on the emotional, mental and spiritual level as well.

The respiratory and digestive tracts are the first line access for attack by pathogens, therefore colds and flu type conditions are prevalent in the autumn.

Skin is also seen as a part of the network of organs and tissues influenced by the element of Metal. Skin is governed by the lung, it breathes and exchanges substances with the outer environment, through the pores, referred to in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as the “gates of qi”, protecting the flow of energy between the internal and the external world).

Not only do our lungs, skin, and large intestine act as a fine membrane-like mechanism through which we directly communicate with our environment, they also form a boundary that protects the inner environment from external factors. Lungs and large intestine, as well as skin, also have a function of gathering in what is essential and of letting go of what is not needed.

A time of transformation

Autumn calls us to transform and reveal more of our true self. Grief, sorrow, melancholy are the emotions of the Metal element and these emotions affect and are experienced by the lungs; they are always an expression of a difficulty in letting go.

An ancient text from Chinese medical tradition, Nei Jing, instructs us that the appropriate response to the autumn is, to still our hearts and minds and to gather and collect the spirit and the qi (energy).

Metal energies enable us to transform ourselves through release and letting go of attachments to ideas and beliefs, as well as emotions and people. Grief for what one gives up is replaced by joy for new life one embraces. Release comes through forgiveness and surrender.

Autumn time is the best time to harness the forces of nature in the autumn to our benefit, and provides us with the best opportunity to lay the foundations of our health over the next year.

Consider these suggestions to invigorate your lungs and maintain optimum vitality at this time of year:

Breathe deeply. This is the best way to gather the qi (life energy) and still our hearts and minds. Autumn’s crisp clear air invigorates the body. Inhale it with awareness, the mind focused on the breath moving in and moving out. Allow your belly to move with the breath – out on the inhale and relaxing back in on the exhale. Keep the breath smooth and with no stopping between the in and out breaths.

Voice projection and singing exercises also invigorate the lungs.

Exercise. Qi gong, tai chi, yoga, swimming and any gentle exercises that help to relax and open the chest and shoulders are beneficial.

Pungent food. Food and herbs such as cinnamon, basil, angelica, fresh ginger, onions, garlic, scallions, chillies and peppers clear mucus accumulated in the lungs, warms the kidneys, stimulates movement of blood, acts as heart tonic and strengthens liver function. Clearing parasites is another therapeutic value of highly flavoured foods. Foods like tofu, yoghurt, (dairy products if tolerated), almonds, nourish the lung.

De-clutter your environment. A clean, orderly environment, a well-aired space, supports the health of the lungs. Let go of all that’s in your way and then de-clutter again. Let go again and again of accumulated excess so that pure, unique simple authentic you can emerge.

Cultivate respect. Respect for ourselves and for others nourishes the lung. Exploring what we value, expressing these values in everything that touches our life, opens us to the energy of the Lung. Everything we touch expresses who we are, what we stand for and what we value – make it all uniquely your own.


  • The late Dragana Vilinac was chief herbalist at Neal’s Yard Remedies.
  • For a great way to use autumnal berries see this recipe for Early Autumn Rambler’s Delight – a delicious smoothie packed with antioxidants.