Live and let go

by Mary Beth Ladenheim

I am prone to musings as a function of my character, but I also believe this is a function of autumn. It’s a natural time to reflect and to wax philosophical before retreating into winter and the year’s end. It’s our last stroll on the veranda before shutting ourselves indoors until spring.

In acupuncture theory, each season is connected to an element, an organ system, an emotion, a sound, a color, an odor, an animal, a direction, a flavor, and probably lots of other things, too, that I’m forgetting because I don’t understand them as well. This connection isn’t a random selection of items thrown together in a bargain bin marked “Fall”; it is a recognition of the interdependency and similarities of life as a whole. In this post I’ll examine the element, organs, and emotion associated with the fall and offer a few do-it-yourself tips to remaining healthy this season.

The organs associated with fall are the lung and the large intestine. These two organs are the yin (lung) and the yang (large intestine) of the metal element. Hang with me if that sounds crazy, because it’s really pretty interesting. The elements that we’re talking about here are not the same as the periodic table of elements, for example. They are not fundamental bits of matter, rather they are explorations of the nature of the world. The five elements are water, wood, fire, earth, and metal. Each of these elements has its own expressions in the mind and body.

Metal is about letting go. Successful letting go is conscious, repeated letting go.

That’s why the lung and large intestine belong to metal and not to another element. The lungs receive air, but they have to let it go, or the body dies. You can’t just inhale and exhale once and think “Yep, did that. What now?” And it’s even more unpleasant to imagine death by a large intestine that can’t let go. You don’t just check defecation off your list of worldly accomplishments. It has to keep happening, or you can’t go on.

Consciousness is important to the metal element. The lung, as the most exterior of the organs, is the one most easily controlled by the conscious mind. Without much effort you can choose to manipulate your breath in a way that you probably can’t manipulate your heart or your spleen. You can also hold your large intestine back from its functioning, should you choose to do so. But can you do the same with your small intestine? Also, when consciousness leaves the body in death, the lung and large intestine both release their contents.

Another important aspect of having a happy, functioning metal element is routine. Breathing regularly and pooping regularly makes things go much better for a person than not doing these things, and sometimes one helps the other. The lung, which governs the immune system (the defensive qi,) needs routine attention and care to be able to efficiently ward off illness. It also needs the large intestine to eliminate that which is no longer useful.

The metal element is also associated with inspiration (a word whose root is connected to the breath) and grief. If we are blocked up with our own poisonous thoughts and emotions, how can we hope to be inspired? Grief is a natural part of letting go, and appropriate grief helps us to clean out the lung qi and allow for the arrival of new experiences and insights. A visit to certain points on the lung and large intestine channels can help people weather their grief. It’s pretty normal for people to be reminded of old sadness and loss this time of year.

I remember a patient once told me that every fall she found herself revisiting an old trauma from her childhood and she had a congested chest. Because of her unresolved grief about the situation, her lung was vulnerable when the world around her was letting go.

What do I mean that the world around her was letting go every fall?

I mean it quite literally. In autumn, the growing things of summer drift into a trance of dryness until they eventually wither onto the ground. They hang out there a while and seem to gradually melt into the earth. That’s called composting. Similarly, the residue of our experience can enrich our lives… if we properly manage the rotting process. If not, we end up with a slimy, pestilent, fly-attracting mess. Or maybe just a persistent cough.

Either way, you can love your metal element by implementing a few quick and easy habits:

  • wear a scarf, even indoors. Consider it part of your outfit. It is perhaps even more important at this time than your undergarments. A scarf protects acupuncture points that are vulnerable to “invasion” by illness. This helps out your defensive qi.
  •  go to sleep at the same time every night. Even if you go to bed later than you should, your lung will thank you if your bedtime is regular. The defensive qi comes into the chest at night, and it could use the rest.
  • eat juicy local fruits like apples and pears. The lung is easily offended, and it’s pretty rude to pretend that it’s still summer by eating tomatoes and peaches from afar when you could eat seasonally appropriate fruit your neighbors grew. Eating in season shows a respect for routine and the rhythm of the natural world. This is pleasing to the lung.
  • eat some moderately spicy food. Don’t go popping jalapenos; I know how you spice lovers are. But consider putting curry or ginger in your squash soup. Too much pungency can exhaust the lung, but a bit enlivens it. If you sweat, you’ve likely over-spiced.
  • spit out your phlegm. Many, many, many people we see cough up phlegm and then swallow it. It is not rude to discreetly spit your phlegm into a tissue or a handkerchief. It’s okay to say, “Excuse me” and go deal with that. If the person you were talking to would prefer that you swallow your own phlegm, then I’d suggest not returning to the conversation after you spit.
  • defecate when you need to, even if the bathroom is a public one. Please. The world would be such a happier place if we all observed this rule.
  • come see us. We think your lung and large intestine are fabulous.


  1. Sudie Heartwell says:

    Very interesting, Marybeth-thank you for sharing!!!!!!!!! Hope all is well with you! Sudie Heartwell

    1. mayladenheim says:

      Thanks for reading, Sudie!

  2. jake says:

    My favorite:

    “If not, we end up with a slimy, pestilent, fly-attracting mess. Or maybe just a persistent cough.”

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