Autumn Wellness: The Gut and Immunity

By: Amanda Gawrysz, L.Ac, MSOM

The summer season is slowly coming to an end. School has started back up, the hectic pace of summer is beginning to slow down, and the weather may soon begin to cool off. When the seasons change, the energies within our body’s and the way those energies flow also change.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the energies of the spleen and lung are associated with this time. Soon enough we may be experiencing more fatigue, sluggish digestion, colds, and flu-like symptoms. In Ayurvedic traditions, we are entering the vata season where the elements of air and space combine to create this dosha. We may begin feeling anxious, nervous, difficulty sleeping, poor concentration, and like our energy is not grounded during this time. You also may be feeling more body pains and dryness of the skin and membranes. If you are aware and sensitive to your body’s wants and needs you may be noticing these changes happening already.

In TCM, the lung energy is known as an immuno-barrier, our first layer of protection from external invasions. Its actions are similar to our mucosal linings and membranes. The lung energy also controls the opening and closing of our pores which is a gateway for the element of wind to enter our internal environment. This external wind can cause colds and flus if we are not nourishing ourselves and taking preventative measures to strengthen our immune systems.

Additionally, the energy of the spleen is an important factor during this seasonal change. In TCM, the spleen is the source of blood and Qi production. It controls blood flow and our digestive processes. It transforms and transports the foods and drinks we consume. It is associated with the element of moisture or damp where excess of this element decreases the spleens ability to function properly. The spleen also promotes immune functions and assures bodily protection against diseases.

Certain emotions are also associated with each organ in TCM. It is important to keep your thoughts positive and limit worrying as this damages our spleen energy causing abdominal bloating, loose stools, and sluggish digestion. The lung is associated with sadness so we should not dwell on the past too much and on the things in life that bring us down. Our thoughts and actions towards others truly reflect what happens to our own physical bodies and to how the energy flows within us. Try journaling to get some of these negative, non-productive emotions out. It is very beneficial and practiced by many to burn in natural fire whatever negativity or emotions you may have written down as a letting go process.

Integrative medicine is also in tune with how important gut health is to our immune systems. Our 30 foot-long GI tract contain hundreds of “good bacteria” as well as neurotransmitters like serotonin which gives us a sense of well-being. Studies have shown that 90% of our serotonin is made in the digestive tract. This explains why our mood, mental clarity, sexual drive, and quality of sleep can all be affected by what we consume. Have you ever ate something you shouldn’t have like a large portion of fried food? You may feel sluggish, bloated, sleepy, and moody after a meal like that instead of rejuvenated, energized, and productive. If your digestive tract is not functioning properly, this can result in poor nutrient absorption or even malnourishment which can lead to an array of chronic health problems. It can also impact our immune systems because the gut contains natural killer immune cells and hormonal health.

How can we balance our body and internal energy during this seasonal change? Diet is always one of the most important aspects to consider. By diet I mean lifestyle changes and a holistic plan to use food as medicine. In both Chinese and Ayurvedic traditions, it is very important to begin eating warm, cooked foods and drinking warm or room temperature beverages at this seasonal change. Our digestive symptoms work hard and by providing it with warm, nourishing, and easy to digest foods, it will make the process easier on your body. Food that is lightly prepared helps to ensure that nutrients are preserved and are more readily digested and absorbed. Beginning our days off with warm lemon water on an empty stomach is a great jump start to our day. It gets the digestive juices flowing for the day and stimulates the liver. Caffeine will aggravate the vata dosha as well as the energy of the spleen. Try incorporating spiced teas and limiting caffeinated beverages. Eating smaller meals more frequently, eating without being rushed or stressed, and chewing thoroughly are important factors to keep your lung and spleen energy strong.

Movement is important during this seasonal change as well. We need to be looking for activities that are more grounded and fluid in their movements. Remember that vata is a combination of air and space and we need to balance those energies by practicing the opposite. Meditation and holding longer poses in a vinyasa yoga class or chair yoga are great options to begin with. It is time for us to establish a new routine for the upcoming cooler months to build up our reserves like a bear preparing for hibernation.

If you are feeling any negative effects after eating including negative changes in your mood, it is a perfect time to look into your diet and begin a process of elimination. You may like to consult a holistic nutritionist or acupuncturist to help you throughout this journey. Adding in high quality probiotics, prebiotics, or digestive enzymes through a health practitioner is a good start. Probiotics form a barrier on the intestinal wall, serving as a powerful line of defense to prevent pathogens and germs from being absorbed.

In TCM, most issues begin in the earth energy of the spleen organ so make that spleen happy by eating seasonal and cooked foods!  

Below is list of recommended foods for this seasonal change. Your diet should not be limited to these foods:

Cooked whole grains, glutinous rice, oats, roasted barley, sweet rice, spelt pumpkin, potatoes, sweet potatoes, taro root, squash, carrots, corn, parsnips, yams, peas, stewed fruit, onions, leeks, garlic, turnip, shitake mushrooms, oyster mushrooms, daikon root, chickpeas, black beans, walnuts chicken, Chinese black chicken, beef, lamb, quail, goose, rabbit mackerel, tuna, anchovy black pepper, fresh ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, fennel, molasses, rice syrup, barley malt, dates, figs, and honey.

Foods to restrict or avoid during the cooler months include:

Salads, raw fruits, citrus, wheat, sprouts, wheatgrass, raw vegetables, tomatoes, spinach, swiss chard tofu, dairy, nut butters and other high oil foods overly sweet foods, refined sugars, high doses of vitamin C, seaweeds, chocolate, cold foods including ice water, strong tea, and wine.

Other supplementational options you may like to choose from may include:

  • Zinc: An important nutrient for digestive health, which also plays critical roles in hormone regulation, immune health, and neurological function.

  • Chinese Cardamom: Offers numerous benefits for digestion, increases antioxidant levels and boosts immunity. Also helps to combat unhealthy cellular growth and balance hormones with the compound Indole-3 Carbinole.

  • Cinnamon: Soothes digestive discomfort, improves digestive capacity, boosts immunity and balances blood sugar.

  • Ginger Root: Improves digestion, reduces inflammation, purifies GI tract, increases antioxidant levels and boosts immunity.

  • Fish Oils: Reduce inflammation and help heal GI tract lining, improve nutrient absorption, balance hormones, improve neurological function and boost immunity.

  • Protolytic Enzymes: Increase digestive capacity and nutrient absorption, boost immunity and increase vital energy.


Chinese Dietary Therapy. Liu, J. Churchill Livingston: Edinburgh. 1995. “The healing cuisine of china. Zhao & Ellis.” Healing Arts Press: Vermont. 1998.

Cryan, J. F. and O’Mahony, S. M. “The microbiome-gut-brain axis: from bowel to behavior.” Neurogastroenterology & Motility 23. 3 (2011) 187-192.