The Transformational Power of Fire in Nature and in the Body

by Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac. & Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac.

This year Indian Summer, which in Chinese Medicine refers to as Late Summer, came on historically strong in California with extreme heat waves. This dry, hot time of year often coincides with fires sprouting up in our forested regions and we are reminded of how this is a cycle of life that is natural for the earth to become replenished.

In fact, during our visit to Sequoia and King's Canyon National Parks a couple weeks ago, we were reminded how important fires are for the survival of the majestic, magnificent Sequoia trees.

Fire is a necessary process for the earth to gain nutrients through the burning of plant material.

Many of the Sequoia trees we saw during our visit to Sequoia National Park wore wounds from past fires they'd survived. The bark on these trees is an effective fire retardant and the scars left on these incredible trees following a forest fire slowly heal over time.

Many of the Sequoia trees we saw during our visit to Sequoia National Park wore wounds from past fires they'd survived. The bark on these trees is an effective fire retardant and the scars left on these incredible trees following a forest fire slowly heal over time.

Forest fires are a natural and necessary part of the ecosystem. Fire turns dead trees and decay into ashes that become nutrients that return to the soil instead of remaining captive in old vegetation so that new plants and trees can grow and flourish.

In Five Element Theory, Fire nurtures the Earth energy. In nature, as fire burns, ash forms to enrich the soil. The same idea holds true in the body's energetic system as Fire is also needed for our own internal Earth energy to be strong as well.

Fire supporting the Earth within the body can be explained with Stomach acid, more specifically called hydrochloric acid.

If the Fire within the Stomach is strong, digestion will be healthy. If it's weak, digestive power will also be weak.

Many people are misdiagnosed with excessive stomach acid.

People who suffer from GERD or acid reflux are often erroneously given medications to reduce acid production in their stomach. Symptoms may be alleviated, but the condition often will not change because the root of the problem is actually a lack of stomach acid.

To clarify, it is not uncommon that digestive disorders such as GERD and acid reflux are rooted in a digestive system that is under producing hydrochloric acid (HCL). Therefore food sits in the stomach and travels upward into the esophagus because there is a lack of acid to stimulate the emptying of the stomach.  

It was once believed that stomach acid declined with aging, but this idea has been disproven. With that said, many people through a history of excessive medication usage and poor diet, have weak stomach fire or a weakness in stomach acid production. In Chinese Medicine, we can assess this by taking a person’s pulse. There is also a simple test a person can do at home to make an assessment if they have weak stomach acid.

You can do a simple test by drinking 1-2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar in a glass of water 15 minutes before eating a high protein meal. If this alleviates your acid reflux or indigestion, you'll know that you lack stomach acid to stimulate enzyme activity to digest your protein intake.

Betaine hydrochloride with Pepsin can be purchased as a supplement to increase your ability to digest protein and reduce symptoms such as bloating and acid reflux.* Over time, your need for such supplementation will be reduced as these substances act as a tonic to strengthen the stomach's function.

When a stomach is weak and under producing hydrochloric acid, as you restore the Fire of the Stomach, not only are you likely to alleviate digestive problems like GERD and bloating, but your body will also be able to better utilize the amino acids in the protein ingested to rebuild tissue for regeneration.

This simple example shows the importance of enhancing Fire energy to support Earth energy, which is essential to optimize our overall health. (For other tips on how to specifically support your Earth energy, read this article).

 

Essential Oils to Manage Stomach Fire and Improve Digestion

Here are some cooling essential oils suggestions to alkalize excessive Stomach Fire:

  • Peppermint is a popular choice to help with symptoms of indigestion including gas, bloating and even intestinal spasms that can occur with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). It also helps decongest the liver and is useful when stress is a trigger for digestive difficulty. Peppermint is a cooling oil so it helps calm the nerves and is very useful for headaches. Peppermint should be avoided for cases of GERD related to hiatal hernias as this oil can relax the esophageal sphincter and exacerbate the symptoms of acid reflux.
  • Lemon and Orange Peel based Essential Oils such as Sweet or Wild Orange, Bergamot, Bitter Orange and Blood Orange all help with acid reflux, nausea and bloating. Citrus oils are especially useful to relax diaphragmatic or epigastric constriction and help the Stomach energy descend for improved digestion. As the citrus oils are very cooling, they tend to work well when a person has too much Stomach Fire with excessive appetite or food stagnation from overeating. 
  • Chamomile is another popular choice to reduce symptoms of abdominal distention, gas, nausea and diarrhea. 
  • Lemon Verbena is a very useful essential oil for excess Stomach fire causing halitosis, burning epigastric discomfort and nausea or vomiting. It also is especially useful to calm an over-active stress response that is interfering with the digestive process. Lemon Verbena is an important oil to reduce fire in the Liver and Heart causing symptoms such as anxiety, tachycardia and nervousness.

Here are some warming essential oils that are best used when Stomach Fire and digestion are weak:

  • Anise Seed is a popular choice when a person has overeaten causing food stagnation that leads to vomiting, nausea and excessive gas and bloating.
  • Cardamom is said to descend Stomach Qi and harmonize the Spleen and Stomach. It is used for poor appetite and weak digestion leading to diarrhea, nausea and indigestion. It may be beneficial for gastric ulcers causing acid reflux.
  • Black Pepper is useful when a person has very weak digestive fire resulting in Cold in the Stomach that causes epigastric pain, nausea, vomiting and constipation or diarrhea. This type of person also tends to have a very weak appetite, fatigue and lethargy with poor concentration and weak, cold extremities. Smelling Black Pepper essential oil is very powerful to make the mind more alert and sharpen concentration.
  • Clove is beneficial to expel cold in the Stomach and Spleen. As described above, this person will tend to have a poor appetite and suffer with abdominal pain as well as nausea and diarrhea. Clove is also used if intestinal parasites are involved. Smelling Clove essential oil is also a powerful stimulant for the brain to increase focus and concentration.
  • Oregano is also used to promote appetite and helps with intestinal pain as it destroys parasites. If taken internally, Oregano should be used short-term such as for periods of 10 days then take a break to reduce strong die-off symptoms called herxheimer reaction.
  • Coriander is a much safer and gentler oil to use. It is a Spleen tonic to promote healthy digestion when a person has poor appetite, loose stools and abdominal bloating. Used over time in can help reduce fatigue, weakness of the limbs, poor concentration and depression. 
  • Cumin is a common culinary herb especially popular in Indian and Persian cuisine. Cumin is a Spleen Qi tonic and beneficial for a person with weak digestion, poor appetite, fatigue and a tendency to have loose stools.
  • Lemongrass is another culinary herb that is very useful for weakness of the digestive system. It is said to strengthen the Spleen's Qi to support its function in transforming and transporting that which is ingested. In this way, lemongrass can help reduce flatulence, abdominal bloating, increase a weak appetite and even help with fatigue, lethargy and poor concentration. Through it's function of increasing the Yang Qi of the Spleen, lemongrass is especially useful to slowly bring warmth back to the body when a person has cold limbs.

These oils can be taken internally if they are food grade quality.

Please consult a holistic practitioner who specializes in Essential Oil therapy for specific guidance regarding your needs. We offer this service at our clinic. 

 

*Any form of orally ingested hydrochloric acid must be taken with food otherwise it will cause burning and pain. Furthermore this treatment suggestion is contraindicated in the presence of any ulceration of the stomach or small intestine. In fact, in the presence of ulceration, antacid medication or supplementation is often beneficial. In addition, it is not uncommon for stomach ulcerations to be caused by an excess of H-pylori bacteria. H-pylori infections require either anti-bacterial medications or herbs to eradicate this type of pathology and the associated digestive problems.

Setting Boundaries is Essential to Your Health

by Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac.

About a year ago, my husband and I adopted a 1 year old Italian Greyhound mix we named Crystal. When we first brought her home from the rescue, she was terrified of everything. In fact, she'd spend most mornings hiding under our China cabinet shivering when we'd take her out of her crate.

She'd obviously been traumatized and likely been abused, so we decided to hire a trainer to help break her out of her fear.

After some trial and error, we hired Mike, an experienced trainer who would gently force her to stay present each time she got fearful and wanted to run away. By essentially forcing her to move into her fear it didn't take long for Crystal to realize she was safe and there was nothing to fear. Through this initially challenging process, Crystal quickly became loving and trusting of our trainer who created a very strong boundary with her.

Crystal loves to feel contained. Boundaries are essential for all beings to feel safe.

Crystal loves to feel contained. Boundaries are essential for all beings to feel safe.

The training worked wonders and though she resisted the process during many of the sessions, Crystal became more relaxed, more trusting and more affectionate after each session. Mike also helped us learn how to assertively yet lovingly hold boundaries to heal her behavior. 

The stronger we set boundaries around her reaction to fear, the more relaxed she became.

As a result, the anxiety and fear that once ruled Crystal settled down, and she continues to feel more safe and be more present than ever.

Humans have similar behavior patterns. Healthy boundaries between children and parents are crucial to cultivating healthy relationships and to prevent enabling unhealthy behavior patterns. Held with love, compassion and respect, boundaries help create a sense of stability and safety.

In Chinese Medicine, this sense of safety and security is supported by the Earth element as the basis for establishing healthy boundaries. 

The Earth element rules our digestive system and helps us process both food and thoughts. Energetically, Earth relates to all transitions - seasonal and otherwise - and is the ruling element of the late Summer. It's most important to balance and strengthen the Earth element during these times, but since change is a constant in life and we're naturally always going through transitions, cultivating a healthy Earth is essential to all aspects of our health year round.

 

Boundaries and the Earth Element

The Earth Element is the fertile soil that allows plants to grow and flourish to provide nourishment and sustenance; it gives protection and shelter as well as stability and substance. 

Earth contains water, creates boundaries to define continents and carries us through space with stability. Earth represents safety, protection and our home base. 

Being centered, calm, and balanced, feeling at home, and having a sense of harmony and peacefulness are the essence of a healthy Earth energy. Creating a comfortable home and cooking for oneself and one's family are essential factors to nourishing the Earth energy in one's life.

Rice fields from our 2015 trip to China. Earth contains water and provides the fertile soil where nourishment can be cultivated.

Rice fields from our 2015 trip to China. Earth contains water and provides the fertile soil where nourishment can be cultivated.

Cultivating a healthy Earth means understanding and prioritizing our needs. If we pour all of our energy into helping others or work excessively, we'll have nothing left for ourselves. If we don't discipline ourselves around our diet and set boundaries around eating generally healthy foods, our health fails. If we continuously go to bed late because we don't have the discipline to stop working or watching TV at night, we slowly but surely deplete our blood, our Yin, and our essence, which accelerates our aging process.

In other words, strong boundaries around how and with whom we spend our time, what we eat and even when we sleep is fundamental to our health.

In the body, these boundaries are established by the Earth element organs that govern digestion, the Stomach and Spleen.

 

Nourishment and the Earth element

Earth energy is about transformation; transformation of food into energy and raw material to rebuild the body, and transformation of our thoughts so we're not stuck obsessing about negative things and can have clarity of mind. 

Earth energy is also associated with our relationships with ourselves and others, which begins with our relationship to our family, especially our mothers. As the archetype for the Earth type personality, the Mother represents unconditional love and the nourishing qualities that exist within each of us.

Loving, supportive and nourishing parents help children understand they are accepted for who they are, which gives them a deep sense of security. Starting life with unconditional nourishment both through food and emotional support supports a calm and secure demeanor. It also prevents the development of excessive dependence on others to have one's needs met. 

Our first experience with nourishment comes from suckling at our mother's breast, ingesting the colostrum that activates our Earth energy.

Colostrum is so potent for the digestive system that it's been well established as a supplement to heal digestive disorders. For one thing, colostrum restores leaky gut to normal permeability levels. Serious health syndromes which we can recognize as Earth imbalances are now known to be associated with abnormally increased gut permeability. These include autoimmune diseases such as Crohn’s disease, lupus, multiple sclerosis, scleroderma, and rheumatoid arthritis. Colostrum can also benefit Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, chronic fatigue syndrome, hepatitis, fibromyalgia, asthma, and allergies. 

Colostrum contains growth factors and hormones to help repair damage to the intestinal lining, including damage caused by NSAIDS and other medications, and restore gut integrity. Colostrum is high in immunoglobulins to help control harmful fungi, such as Candida, and harmful bacteria, such as H. Pylori, which is known to cause ulcers. Colostrum has also been shown to increase the surface area of the intestinal lining to improve absorption of nutrients. And there are no known side effects from using colostrum.

Colostrum reduces inflammation, protects against irritation from toxins, prevents infection and promotes epithelial growth and repair. It's also a useful supplement to quickly boost the immune system following a strenuous workout or periods of intense stress. 

In this way, colostrum boosts Spleen Qi, which is fundamental for supporting Earth energy and therefore our ability to establish healthy boundaries.

Nourishment begins in the gut first with our mother through breast feeding and evolves into how we nourish ourselves. Thus the connection of the Earth element to our digestive function determines our ability to have healthy, harmonious relationships as well as strong immunity, or Spleen Qi.

 

Earth Element Imbalances

Physiologically, Earth element imbalances most commonly relate to weakness of the Spleen, which manifests as poor digestive function, as well as bruising and hemorrhaging. This is because the Spleen not only transports and transforms food and thoughts, but it is also the organ in Chinese Medicine that's responsible for holding blood in the vessels. A woman who has very heavy flow during her menses for example needs to focus on strengthening her Spleen and blood. Weak Spleen Qi can also cause leakage of Qi, which is a disorder we've discussed in a previous article.

Chronic digestive issues as well as eating disorders are common among people who have imbalances in their Earth element, which may have begun during childhood as a result of lack of nourishment emotionally and physically from one's parents or through excessive consumption of prescription drugs, especially antibiotics, which directly damage the gastrointestinal system.

When there is an Earth imbalance, or weakness in Spleen Qi, dampness or phlegm tends to develop in the body, which leads physiologically to weight gain and psychologically to obsessive thinking. This is why worry and pensiveness are common symptoms of imbalanced Earth energy.

Psychologically, Earth imbalance manifests as neediness, self-absorption, resentment or excessively self-sacrificing and lacking the ability to care for oneself.

A weak Earth also inhibits one's ability to hold strong personal boundaries, making one inclined to meddle in other people’s lives as a distraction from looking at herself or lack the personal boundaries to prevent other people from meddling in her life. 

Earth imbalance often creates a challenging relationship with both food and money, each of which energetically represent a form of nourishment that allows us to feel safe. 

People with an Earth imbalance will not only have digestive issues, but they'll often also have an unhealthy relationship with money management as well as with food, which that may result in eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia or simply addictions to food for comfort.

Balanced Earth means that we know how time, energy, food and money all fit into our lives. It allows us to feel abundant no matter how much we have. Therefore, an imbalanced Earth will cause us to feel lack, especially with our money and our energy.

 

Balancing Earth to Establish Healthy Boundaries

Having a more balanced Earth element helps us feel more calm, secure and nourished. When we feel more peace within, we can make our needs, and therefore our boundaries, more clear. Strong boundaries and a healthier relationship with ourselves allows us to then cultivate healthier relationships with others.

Here are some tips on how to strengthen the Spleen and your Earth element to help you establish stronger boundaries:

  1. Cook - the physical act of preparing a meal nurtures the mind, body and soul.

  2. Eat a healthy, low carbohydrate diet - carbohydrates and sugars increase the damp or fungal terrain in the body so it's important to reduce these foods and increase the consumption of leafy green vegetables, root vegetables and clean meats to clear this dampness, cultivate clarity and optimize your health.

  3. Eat regular meals - Earth thrives on a regular daily rhythm.

  4. Manage your time and money - Earth is about nurturing and abundance. Keeping track of how you spend your time helps you manage your energy. Managing your finances is another way to help consolidate your Earth energy and is an essential aspect to cultivating the feeling of security in your life. Money is energy which when circulated properly helps balance Earth energy.

  5. Journal to replace worry and obsession with contemplation and reflection.

  6.  Get involved in the community - find what organizations, church groups, charities, etc. interest you and see what role you can play to contribute.

Self-care is therefore essential to rebalance the Earth element. When your food, money, time and energy are properly managed, the mind becomes more clear and you're able to naturally set healthier boundaries that allow you to share the best aspects of yourself with others.


Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. is Co-Owner and Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine and Traditional Japanese Acupuncture. Setareh offers clinical services and transformational workshops that blend the ancient practices of Classical Chinese Medicine and Yoga. More information at www.setarehmoafi.com and www.acenterfornaturalhealing.com


Practices To Ensure a Healthy Seasonal Transition

by Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac.

Dr. Setareh Moafi offers simple step-by-step guidance to do Dragon Pose. This Yin Yoga posture is important to open and release the Stomach Meridian and improve digestion. Benefits of the posture and its relationship to the Earth element and Stomach channel in Chinese Medicine are explained.

While this is a transitional period between Summer and Fall, late Summer is itself a season according to Chinese Medicine. August is the end of the Fire season and moving into the Metal season of Fall. The transitional period, known as late Summer, is Earth.

The Earth element rules the late Summer as well as all seasonal transitions, so it's a most important time to strengthen our Earth - in particular the Spleen and Stomach organs.

The Earth element relates to the digestive system and includes the Spleen, Pancreas and Stomach functions. Restoring health to our digestive system is fundamental to restoring health to our lives. The digestive system creates Qi to support a strong immune function and fluids to support the hormones and healthy endocrine function.

Digestion is about transformation; transformation of food into energy and substance to build the body. Having a strong Earth energy also supports transformation in our lives as well so we can create the life we want to live. And perhaps most importantly, creating a strong Earth energy in our lives helps support having healthy relationships especially within our family.

Weakness in the Earth organs can lead to sweet cravings which then cause the body to accumulate dampness. Dampness is a fungal terrain, often resulting from a diet heavy in carbohydrates, fried foods, dairy and sugar (even in the form of fruits).  

A fungal terrain can also develop from using various drugs such as antibiotics, sulfa drugs, chemotherapy, birth control pills, corticosteroids, antacids and acid blocking medications.

Dampness is reflected in our lives through the feeling of being stuck or lacking clarity.  Dampness is also associated with psychological imbalances such as Obsessive Compulsiveness Disorder and hoarding.

Imbalance in one's Earth can also lead to excess accumulation of heat in the Stomach causing acid reflux, indigestion, excessive appetite and even anxiety as the Stomach dumps the overflow of heat into the Heart. 

The Earth element thrives on a simple diet based on unprocessed foods, a calm mind, and a regular daily rhythm with meals, exercise and rest.  

The following tips will help strengthen the Earth energy to help bring clarity in your life and clear the heat and dampness that causes burnout and creates a sluggish body and mind.

6 Tips for a Healthy Earth:
1) Eat meals at regular times and without distractions. The digestive system thrives on eating with a relaxed state of mind. Try also to not skip meals and eat snacks if low blood sugar is an issue.
2) Cut back on sugar, including fruit. Even 'healthy' Summer fruit have a high sugar content that can create dampness and lead to immune suppression and Fall colds and flus. 
3) Eat more root vegetables. Root veggies such as sweet potatoes, parsnips, carrots and rutabaga help anchor your body's energy and calm your mind. 
4) Take enzymes and probiotics daily. Enzymes taken with meals will help break down food and prevent stagnation and heat accumulation in the Stomach. Along with a balanced probiotic supplement, enzymes are essential for your gut health, which is the core of your immune function and brain health. Not sure what to take? Call us at 408-244-8565 or stop in and pick up a bottle of our favorite probiotics and enzymes. 
5) Exercise to strengthen your Earth. Calming exercises such as Yoga and Qi Gong are especially important to integrate into your routine. Join us for weekly Qi Gong classes Mondays at 11:45am. You can also do the short late Summer Yin Yoga practice with Dr. Setareh Moafi in the video at the top of this article :)
6) Go to bed a little earlier - before 11pm is optimal. It's also helpful to go to bed and wake up around the same time every day.

The transition toward the cooler Autumn season through this late Summer period allows us to harness our energy and create a calmer, more regular rhythm for optimal health during the upcoming Yin seasons of Fall and Winter.