"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the
-To Autumn, John Keats
I don't want to go all theoretical on everyone (and by everyone I mean the small handful of folks following this blog), but looking at autumn from the Chinese medical perspective is an interesting way to know what sort of things to look for, and possibly prevent, in both ourselves and our animals. Western medicine has a way of looking down on the Chinese system as quaint and simple, when even MDs will say that you "caught a cold", have "chills" or are "burning up", yet still smirk in half-hidden superiority when an eastern practitioner talks of wind-cold or wind-heat invasions, when both are talking about cases of influenza.
Environmental conditions have always been important predictors of disease in Chinese medicine. In five element theory, each season is paired with a corresponding organ; winter with the Kidney, spring with the Liver, summer with the Heart, late summer with the Spleen, and autumn with the Lung. That's right, the lung, which in this system of medicine is not only part of the breathing apparatus but also responsible for the health of the skin and the immune system. This immune system, or wei qi, is thought of as circulating between the skin and muscles, acting like a shield to keep the bad bugs out and keep us warm. Damaged, things like "wind" can bring bad qi like "heat" or "cold" into the body. This wind-heat would cause fever, sweating, a deep cough and thick-yellow mucous production. A wind-cold invasion would cause chills, a dry cough, headache, and a clear discharge from the nose. Sound familiar?
Our animals are no different and are affected in similar ways. Horses tend to get the short end of this seasonal stick. With big temperature swings occurring regularly, a horse can be turned out with a blanket in the morning and come in in a full sweat by evening, with little time to dry before temperatures drop. These wild fluctuations can damage the wei qi and make it easier for a wind-cold or wind-heat to invade, and indeed, this time of year is rife with cases of equine influenza. (the other time being spring, the season of transformation from yin to yang) Another example of cold invasion in horses is spasmodic colic; the sudden onset being an element of wind, the stabbing pain being a sign of cold. Horse people the world over know to be on the lookout for this type of colic whenever a storm front blows in.
Dogs have it a little easier, most having the protection of a house. But as the season comes into itself, we see a syndrome in dogs also common in people: joint pain. People with arthritis in the knee, shoulder, hands, or wherever will often complain that symptoms worsen in bad weather. In Chinese medicine this is called bi ("bee") syndrome and is an accumulation of wind, damp, and cold in the body (usually at the joints). When the environment has more wind, cold, and damp it aggravates the pre-existing condition, stagnates the flow of qi and blood in the body and causes pain. So, dogs with hip dysplasia, or arthritis in the knees and back will often stiffen up this time of year. In all cases, human or animal, the onset of disease mimics the seasonal change: in autumn, diseases of wind, cold, and damp are more prevalent; in summer, diseases of heat, like skin rashes and allergies, are more common.
So do we all just get in a funk, throw our hands up and despair? (interestingly, sadness is the emotion associated with the lung and autumn). Of course not. As humans, we listen to our mothers and dress appropriately for the weather. As owners, we protect our animals from the elements as best we can and try not to expose them to drastic temperature swings, both environmental and man-made (don't put your horses away wet and don't lock your dog in a cold, damp garage). Though not used widely in Chinese medicine, an everyday herb that helps the lung is garlic, which stimulates the immune system and eliminates wind, cold, and damp. A clove or two in a horse's grain bucket can go a long way towards preventing the flu, if not doing wonders for their breath. A Chinese formula commonly used for similar purposes is Yu Ping Feng San, or Jade Screen Formula, which uses Astragalus root as its chief herb, and is stronger for immune support than garlic. For bi syndrome, many people find tumeric to be helpful. Called Jiang Huang, or "yellow ginger" in Chinese, this herb is often used as an ingredient in formulas for reducing swelling and relieving pain.
Fall, like all seasons, is part of the natural cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. It brings with it the bounty of the harvest, respite from the heat, splashes of color, football, and plentiful opportunities for some serious comfort-food consumption. It also heralds shorter days, cooler weather, and plentiful opportunities for some serious lung infections. For ourselves and our animals, the best defense is to keep protected from the elements, keep stress to a minimum, keep the joints warm and wei qi strong. And if you do find yourself in a doctors office and he or she diagnosis you with a cold, make sure to compliment the good doctor on their knowledge of Chinese medicine.