This post is part of an ongoing series on Wellness, which looks at the importance of health and healing in living a Simple, Good, and Tasty lifestyle. Also check out the previous Wellness posts on spring cleansing and massage as preventative care.
Throughout the past several years, I have become increasingly more dedicated to eating locally grown food and this commitment has had several profound influences on my life. First and foremost, I have the honor and privilege of never having a meal without a personal connection – I personally know the farmer who raised at least one of the ingredients of every meal I eat. This connection is satisfying to me both emotionally and cerebrally – I take pride in knowing that my food dollars are going to support local, small farmers, and, in the process, I am broadening my community and developing friendships with some of the smartest, most interesting, and wonderful people I know.
In addition to this emotional and energetic connection with my food, I have noticed an interesting physical benefit of this diet: I experience the seasons in my body. I notice this phenomenon the most at this time of year as spring fades to summer. Early spring is really not a good look for me, but I am glad to report that it gets easier and easier every year. Even so, I can generally expect that as March rolls around, my skin will get greasy and break out and my body odor will change in a bad way. My digestion will have a teenager’s indecision, oscillating between constipation and diarrhea, but you can guarantee that I’m bloated and gassy. And no food is appealing. In fact, even the thought of the breakfast I ritually eat all winter long – breakfast soup with chicken broth, poached eggs, and kimchi – now makes me disinterested and mildly nauseous. I don’t even find my appetite until late morning, though I am an early riser. This lack of appetite and craving for lighter food makes it easy to lose that extra weight I put on over the winter.
Emotionally, I feel insecure and sensitive during the spring, and I’m prone to frustration and quick to anger. I’m also forgetful, have a hard time concentrating (it’s like white noise between my ears), and am easily distracted by the limitless options I have for rearranging even the most successful and satisfying aspects of my life. (“I should move my practice.” “I should give up yoga and take up weight lifting.” “Let’s get a dog.” -- you get the picture.) What a surprise that I am totally exhausted by the end of the day, so even as the days lengthen I want to go to bed early.
In contrast, summer is like a party that never stops. Am I right?! Seriously, I feel great all summer long: my digestion is amicable and regular. My skin clears up and my eyes feel sparkly bright. Muscles and joints that were bothering me all year long now don’t even twinge. I love and enjoy the company of my wife, family, and friends without any of the alone time my extreme introversion requires. I feel smart and creative and fun and everything is awesome! And I have tons of energy, so it’s easy to fill my social calendar with potlucks, BBQs, beach parties, pool parties, backyard parties, work parties, cabin parties, party parties…
Just living life feels so fluid and easy but, as I said, that abundance of energy is not due to getting plenty of sleep and eating well and doing all the things my holistic health care training has taught me I need to do in order to maintain and optimize my health. On the contrary! In fact, I’m eating brats and drinking beer and staying up late and my only alone time is riding my bike to work. But I don’t care. I’m like a plant fed by the sun and that’s all I need to live. It’s pretty amazing, summer is.
So the cycle continues.
I feel much more cool, calm, and collected come late summer. The autumn stimulates a spontaneous grieving in me and I find myself reflecting on loved ones I’ve lost. And as soon as winter comes, I’m ready to eat second portions and curl up with a book. Winter is the season introverts long for – there’s always the excuse of “it’s snowing” to ditch out on plans to stay home and relax.
Ok, but why do we experience the seasons in such distinct, unique ways?
I am convinced that eating locally-grown food realigns our internal environment with that of our external environment, helping to balance the system and, as an added bonus, manage weight. I believe experiencing the seasons in our bodies is our natural state, but we’ve lost it with the industrialization of the food system in which we have access to whatever we want whenever we want it. Add to that ready, abundant access to food processed foods with artificial ingredients – foods that our bodies struggle to even recognize as food – and we’ve got a whole lot of bodily confusion. What season is it? Should I conserve heat to combat the cold or release it to stay cool? What do I do with red number 5? Where’s the fat?
It is such a wonder that merely the change of season can have such a great effect on us. But is it really that surprising? I mean, we are always in communion with our environment – an attribute we really can’t (and don’t want to) evolve out of. From this communion we learn a few things about our self and our relationship with the Earth. Our relationship with our environment is a very spiritual experience aptly revered in simply eating local food, but let’s considers a few specific elements of this diet season by season.
The shift into the spring season initiates a period of natural cleansing, hence the moderately uncomfortable symptoms we may experience at this time (breakouts, digestive discomfort, foggy thinking, unstable emotions, headaches, low energy, etc.). If we listen, our bodies are craving bitter greens like spinach and dandelion and really enjoying the last of winter’s tart grapefruits and lemons. These foods all nourish and tonify the detoxification organs – namely, the liver – and support its cleansing efforts. Spring ephemerals like fiddlehead ferns, ramps, asparagus, artichokes, and nettles also have a cleansing effect on the body. Transitioning from eating noodle-based casseroles and roasted root vegetables to eating these lighter foods explains the weight loss I typically experience this time of year, which you may also experience and is totally appropriate. It’s as if our bodies know summer is coming and want to shed those extra pounds that will only make us uncomfortable as the temperatures rise. Forget bikini bodies! Spring weight loss is about staying cool.
As we transition to summer – a very slow process this year in the Midwest – our energy changes again. The groggy fog that comes over us in the detoxifying spring lifts and with it so does our mood. April showers bring May flowers, right? You probably crave cooling foods like lettuces, peas, and radishes. As the summer heats up, foods with high water and electrolyte content that keep us hydrated come into season: cucumbers, melons, and tomatoes. We are inclined to cook less and eat more raw foods, so we are taking in more naturally occurring enzymes that help us with digestion. Spending time outside, our skin transforms sunlight into vitamin D, which lightens our mood, contributes to the synthesis of hormones, and strengthens our bones. It’s beautiful outside, so we’re more likely to move our bodies and socialize, two more factors that contribute to mood and general wellness. Summer is a building season when it just feels good to be in our bodies. So no wonder we can get away with “misbehaving” a little bit, eh?
The subsequent seasons have similarly relevant characteristics.
Late summer roots and starchy vegetables like corn, carrots, and beets make us feel grounded and satisfy our craving for sweet. During late August and September, the days begin to shorten again, and around mid-September, the axis of the sun shifts so that the vitamin D-stimulating UV-B rays no long enter our atmosphere north of Atlanta, Georgia. Boo!
I can feel vitamin D, a mood-boosting nutrient, seep out of my pores as we transition to autumn. Perhaps losing our source of this vitamin is the culprit of my autumn-time mourning. Autumn is the season to harvest the high carbohydrate storage crops like roots, winter squash, and grains. With their arrival, we start eating more cooked foods, so we lose the vegetables’ natural enzymes to the heat. In my body, I notice that my digestion becomes less efficient, so I plan a gentle colon cleanse to rid my body of the summer’s party and prepare to stock up my fat stores for winter.
In the Upper Midwest, winter is cold, seriously cold For protective insulation, it’s natural to gain a few pounds by eating high carbohydrate foods throughout this season – rice, pasta, squash, potatoes. Perhaps, now that you know spring will bring you the lightening foods, like burdock root and bitter greens to promote detoxification in your body and help you shed any weight gained, you can indulge a bit more fearlessly in the foods that warm and comfort you throughout the winter. As I build this insulation around me, is it really a wonder I want to stay home and spend time by myself? Winter is made for introverted activities, extra servings at mealtime, and a lot of hot tea.
There is a lot to learn from our environment. By honoring the seasonality of our bodies and fueling the body with the foods it needs to express those seasons, we gain a flexibility that promotes health and wellness. Call me a hippie woo woo, but I feel the seasons very powerfully in my body. Listening to these sensations has not only helped me maintain a healthy weight for many years but has also given me a connection to my home that is very fulfilling and enriching.
I challenge you to try the same. Eat locally as much as possible and track the transformations you experience in your body and your life. What do you notice? Don’t expect to be floored by some radical change, but acknowledge the subtleties and allow yourself to truly feel connected to your home. And, please share them in the comments section below.
Jesse Haas uses a combination of nutritional counseling, whole foods education, and bodywork to help her clients learn new ways of integrating self-care and good food into their lives to improve their health. To learn more about her wellness practice, visit her website, www.jessehaas.com. Her last article for SGT was Spring Cleansing/Detox: A Little Liver Love.