Nutrition for Every Season

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP

He that takes medicine and neglects his diet wastes the skills of his physician.

Chinese proverb

Hippocrates also said, "let food be thy medicine" in the fifth century BCE. These two pieces of wisdom tell us that it was well understood many hundreds of years ago, in very different parts of the world that what we ate was an important factor in maintaining health as well as recovering from disease. And even today with advances in medicine and technology, food is still the best medicine and the easiest and most impactful way to stay healthy and disease-free.

Food As Medicine

Nutrition is one of the foundational elements of Chinese Medicine. The ancient Chinese understood very well that the best medicine is not the herbal remedy given when you have a cold or the salve when you scrape your knee, the best medicine is the food we ingest every day. It helps to build our immune systems, fortify us against disease, cool excess heat, drain dampness, move stagnation and warm us when we are deficient.

Our ancestors were intrinsically connected to nature, and this connection was necessary for survival. They paid attention to the seasons, but more specifically, changes in the weather, the cycles of crops, migration of animals, and the cycles of the sun and moon. They were attuned to the natural rhythms of the planet and were able to adjust their behaviours to maintain a sort of equilibrium with their surroundings. This focus on prevention was also very important and was knitted into the foundation of Chinese Medicine as it was practised then as well as today. But, the key to living preventatively is that we have to really be attuned to our bodies and our surroundings. We have to be able to hear what our bodies are telling us so we can give them what they need, and that is something that many of us have lost living in the fast-paced city life in the modern world. But this listening, this attunement is something that Chinese Medicine teaches. Your body is always communicating with you, you only have to listen.

The Thermal Nature of Foods & People

So, how does it work, to use food as medicine? Good question. Chinese Medicine has a pretty elegant system for understanding how to use food as medicine and stay healthy in every season. Foods have a thermal nature and so do people. It is that delicate balance of yin and yang. Some foods are cooling and some are heating. People also have a thermal nature. They usually have a thermal nature that occurs naturally when they are in a healthy state and knowing this is very helpful as you move forward. And then, the weather and surroundings also have a thermal nature, so it is a dynamic balance of these three ingredients that we are after. Granted, this can all get a little complex and you can get pretty deep into it (if you are a nerd practitioner like me), but there are some basics that will help you get started. Think about the seasons as a continuously fluctuating cycle of yin (cold) and yang (hot) energies. Summer is the height of yang or heat energies and winter is the peak of yin or cold energies. Summer gradually cools off and moves into fall, which cools further to transition into winter. Winter comes to an end and the yin energies gradually are infused with yang with spring, which further heats up as it moves into summer.

So, you want to balance the temperature of the season you are in with foods that are generally its opposite. Cooling foods in summer, and warming foods in winter. Gradually more warming foods in fall and gradually cooling ones in spring as those are the transitional months. You can also affect the thermal nature of the foods you eat by different cooking methods, which is why those change according to the season too. This is very very general, but it gives you an idea and a place to start. Then you can introduce the idea of constitutions and it adds another layer of complexity, but as you practice and becoming aware of the seasons and the thermal nature of the foods you are eating, it actually becomes this really beautifully nourishing and healing way to eat, and one your body will love. I will work on an article about constitutions to explain that a little bit more, but in general, a person is also a dynamic balance of yin and yang energies. Some people are naturally more yin and some are naturally more yang. When you know what you are, you work that into the equation too, which will only help you to keep all those energies balanced and this will help keep you healthy. When that article is finished, I will link it here.

The Seasons

Chinese Medicine was developed over thousands of years of observations of nature, human beings and their relationship to each other. In times past we have always had a symbiotic relationship, the earth nourished us with its bounty and we tended and nurtured the planet in a continuous cycle of loving interaction. Human beings followed the natural cycles of the planet and lived in harmony with the seasons.

The Summer Season

Photo by Nadine Primeau on Unsplash

Summer is the season associated with the heart, the colour red and the emotion of joy. In the hot summer months, people rose early and went to bed later to capitalize on the yang energy represented by outward expression and activity. They ate foods that grew in abundance, like fruits and fresh vegetables, eating salads and lighter fare, many of which are considered cooling to balance the external heat. People also took time to get together with family and friends, connecting and feeding their heart energy, as the heart is the organ associated with summer and with it, the emotion of joy. Everything we do in summer should be an attempt to cultivate the joy in our lives. Summer is the season to feed the heart energy, and in terms of foods, many red foods are good for the heart. Cooking methods should be lighter and of shorter duration to preserve all the freshness and nutrients the food has been soaking up from the summer sun. Eating should be lighter and in smaller portions and working to keep yin fluids plentiful to counteract the intense heat of the season.

The Fall Season

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Fall is the season associated with the lungs, the colour white and the emotion of grief. As the summer season winds down and the weather begins to cool, our behaviours go from the outward expressions of summer to the more inward and reflective activities of fall which will inevitably prepare us for winter. We eat foods that grow in abundance in this season (which varies greatly depending on where on the planet you are), but in North America, we see many foods with beautiful fall colours - squashes, gourds, sweet potatoes, carrots and pumpkins... foods that grow in the ground and have more yang properties nourishing our inner heat as we prepare our bodies and spirits for the coming cold. Fall is a time to clear out the old, making space for the new. The energy of the lungs is "letting go" so that is the focus. Cleaning, reorganizing and donating are good practices in fall and make space for all we will cultivate over the winter. Emotionally, making sure that we have let go of any emotional hurts that have lingered is strengthening to the lungs both physically and psychologically. Many white foods are beneficial to the lungs and are good to add to the diet in the fall season. Organizing life and becoming more introspective before winter is what fall is all about, checking in to make sure we are emotionally healthy and not hanging on to things that no longer serve us.

The Winter Season

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Winter is the season associated with the kidneys, the colour black and emotion of fear. Winter is the height of yin energies and even though it seems like a time of death, decay and inactivity, it is a season that is very active, just deep, deep beneath the surface in preparation for the regenerative activities of spring. It is a season of consolidation, gathering all energies and pulling them inward. Winter is the time of year to go to bed early and sleep later, profiting from the healing, restorative energies sleep offer us. In winter we eat less fresh foods as they are no longer available and eat more preserved foods we have prepared during the summer and fall. Eating warming foods, especially hearty soups and stews will help build our yang and counteract the cold. Our energies should turn inward in winter, while we focus on our fundamental energies, in Chinese Medicine, the kidneys are the source of our fundamental energy. Spending quiet time reading, writing or meditating are strengthening to our bodies and spirits. Keeping warm, especially our lower backs where our kidneys reside is especially important as they are the source of all our qi. Many black foods are strengthening to the kidneys and should be added to the diet in the winter months.

The Spring Season

Photo by Heather Barnes on Unsplash

Spring is associated with the liver, the colour green and the emotion of anger. Spring represents the upward and outward energies of newly growing plants, flowers and trees. The energy in spring is expansive, so it is a good time to shake off the sleepiness of the winter months and slowly start moving our bodies with gentle stretching going for long walks outdoors, taking in the revitalizing green of new plants through our eyes, which are the sense organ associated with the liver. Spring is the best time to detox from everything we have accumulated over the winter. We can detox physically, as well as emotionally. Acknowledging and processing any feelings of anger, resentment or frustration will keep our liver energy moving freely. Many green foods benefit the liver and cooking methods should be lighter and shorter duration to the slow cooking of winter, and as things begin to thaw, we are able to introduce more fresh foods into our diet. Awakening and cleansing our bodies and spirits are what we need in spring as well as gentle exercises like tai chi and qi gong which, especially when done outside in nature nourish body, mind and spirit.

If we can become aware of our surroundings and make slight adjustments to our behaviours and diet depending on the season we will see a huge benefit physically, emotionally and spiritually.



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Eating Out the Chinese Way - The History of Chinese Medicine Nutrition

By John Voigt

One should be mindful of what one consumes to ensure proper growth, reproduction, and development of bones, tendons, ligaments and channels and collaterals [i.e., meridians] This will help generate the smooth flow of qi [life energy] and blood, enabling one to live to a ripe old age. 

From The Yellow Emperor’s Classic on Medicine.

The Yellow Emperor’s Classic On Medicine (Huang Di Nei Jing), circa second century BCE, is the most important ancient text on Chinese medicine. In it are the concepts of a balanced and complete diet, and probably the world's first dietary guidelines.

The Thermal Nature of Foods - Warming, Cooling & Neutral

Basic concerns are about Han (“cold”) and Re (“hot”) foods. Han foods such as kelp, wheat, vegetables, and pork possibly may cause diarrhea. Re foods such as ginger, pepper, mutton, and unripened guava possibly may cause heartburn or constipation. Wen (“neutral”) foods such as rice, beans, fish, and beef can help to repair the body’s tissues.  Bu (strengthening) foods such as ginseng, deer velvet, and dates may be healing.

Food Relationships in Chinese Medicine - A Holistic Approach

But this is not about one food by itself being good or bad, it’s about the relationships of food.  Chinese dietetics—as most past and present Chinese thought—is based on holistic concepts, not singularity concerns. For example, with the above foods, vegetables (a Han or so-called “cold” food) is usually cooked with some Re (a so-called “hot”) food such as ginger or pepper. That neutralizes or balances out the “cold” [yin] and “hot” [yang] aspects of each food, and helps create something good for you and delicious as well.

Along the same idea of a food gaining its meaning by its relationships to other foods, in classic Chinese cuisine we most often find the “neutral” food (the rice or noodles) along with the main meal (meat or fish), accompanied by various other dishes usually vegetables. For example, The yang of rare beef is balanced by yin of tofu or cool slices of fruit.

The Healing Nature of Foods

The foods need to be prepared in the proper way, vegetables not overcooked, but not raw either; small portions of meat or fish not fried. In The Yellow Emperor’s Classic we find, “Heavy and greasy food causes a change that may result in serious illness.”

Also from that book, from Chapter 81, section 22 we find: Five cereals (such as rice, sesame seeds, soya beans, wheat, millet) provide our basic nourishment. Five fruits (such as dates, plum, chestnut, apricot, peach) add what the cereals lack. Five animals (such as beef, dog meat, pork, mutton, chicken) give certain advantages that animals possess. Five vegetables (such as marrow, chive, bean sprouts, shallot, onion)  provide a wide range of needed substances. If the food tastes and smells good, then eat it to replenish the body’s needs.

These guidelines are approximately two thousand years old, yet amazingly from that time to today most Chinese people followed them whenever they were able to do so. This article will close on how the tradition is being automatically preserved today without the restaurant or their customers knowing what is happening.

Now to make all this simple for the health (and food loving) reader. After all, the many millions of Chinese who go to their favorite restaurants aren’t bring along any of the ancient treatises on dietetics. Nevertheless, the traditional way of ordering and serving food seems to be right on the mark on what the ancient seers taught about food and good health. All over the world you will see this standard pattern in middle and smaller sized Chinese restaurants—(the more larger ones are becoming more geared to tourists and the new Chinese upper classes who eat like their western counterparts).  Not surprisingly such non-traditional diets have been accompanied with an increase in western styled diseases.

Eating - The Chinese Way

Here’s how the “natives” eat, and how you can do the same.

Begin with those tiny bowls of free sweet and sour pickles, or pickled cabbage, or cooked peanuts, etc. that many restaurants just bring you without you asking for them. Something like an appetizer, but not quite; they prime the digestion. Then order several different vegetable dishes. And some rice. Then some fish (usually with the bones included—be careful don't swallow any); or some meat. And finish it all off with a soup. That will help your digestion. Traditionally the final close is making a big burp to show your appreciation to the cooks and servers, and remove any bad qi—but you might because of western propriety leave out that final gesture—(or is it better described as a bodily function noise?).

That’s it. Now go enjoy such a standard traditional and healthy meal.  Best done in a large group of friends and family with chopsticks.

Postscript: For more about the proper kinds of food for health from both an eastern and western point of view, see my “Color Dietetics – With a Poster to Hang on the Wall. https://www.chinesemedicineliving.com/blog/color-dietetics-poster-hang-wall/

Sources and Further Information

Ho Zhi-chien. “Principles of Diet Therapy in Ancient Chinese Medicine: ‘Huang Di Nei Jing.”  http://apjcn.nhri.org.tw/server/apjcn/2/2/91.pdf

Sun Simiao on Dietetics in the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine Journal (Autumn 2013, vol. 10, no. 2). https://static1.squarespace.com/static/537fb379e4b0fe1778d0f178/t/5399d890e4b0bcfc5d028d47/1402591376077/Sunsimiao+on+dietetics.pdf

“Chinese food therapy.” Wikipedia.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_food_therapy

Some Other Interesting Info (Nerd Facts)...

Sun Simiao (581-682) who was known as “The King of Medicine” - (one of is greatest credentials is that he lived to be 101 years old) - taught that the prevention of disease should come before any medical treatment. However, if treatment was required, he believed that dietary concerns should never be neglected. He wrote, “Proper food is able to expel evil and secure the zang and fu organs [the viscera] to please the spirit and clear the will, by supplying blood and qi. If you are able to use food to stabilize chronic disease, release emotions, and chase away disease, you can call yourself an outstanding artisan. This is the special method of lengthening the years and “eating for old age,” and the utmost art of nurturing life. Sun Simiao,  known as the “King of Medicine,” (581-682). https://static1.squarespace.com/static/537fb379e4b0fe1778d0f178/t/5399d890e4b0bcfc5d028d47/1402591376077/Sunsimiao+on+dietetics.pdf

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Image Credits

The featured image photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Vegetable photo by David Vázquez on Unsplash

Bok Choy photo by Jodie Morgan on Unsplash

Soup photo by Elli O. on Unsplash


Food as Medicine

Dietary therapy provides a powerful tool for correcting disharmonies and is used in conjunction with acupuncture, herbal therapy and Qi Gong to restore balance to the Essential Substances, Organ Systems and channels.

Article from http://www.shen-nong.com/eng/lifestyles/food_property_food_tcm.html

What are the energies, flavors and other properties of food?

In Western diet, foods are evaluated for proteins, calories, carbohydrates, vitamins, and other nutritional contents. However in Chinese diet (and that includes herbs), one looks for not only vitamins and minerals but also the energetic properties of food like energy, flavor and movement. Other less importance aspects include meridian tropism and common and organic actions. These refer to specific internalorgans or the meridians on which the foods can act. For example, celery acts on the stomach and lungs, carrot on the lungs and spleen.
According to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), foods are just as herbs that can be selected and prepared appropriately to tonify, cleanse and regulate the body.

1. The five energies of foods
Chinese tea is considered to have "cool" energy even though it is a hot drink.

The energies of foods refer to their capacity to generate sensations - either hot or cold - in the human body. The five kinds of energy are cold, hot, warm, cool and neutral, and this refers not to the state of the food but its effect on our bodies. For example, tea has a cool energy, it means that when we drink hot tea, it generates cool energy and it is therefore considered a cool beverage. Shortly after you have drunk hot tea, the heat begins to fade quickly and it begins to generate cool energy internally, allowing your body to cool off.

Here are some food samples with different energies.

Energy generated Food samples
Yin Cold Bamboo shoot, chrysanthemum, bitter gourd, lotus root, water chestnut, root of kudzu vine, wild rice stem, angled luffa, sugar cane, tomato, watermelon, banana, pomelo, grapefruit, persimmon, mulberry, star fruit, preserved jellyfish, seaweed, kelp, cuttlefish, crabs, sea clams, snails, pig's bone marrow, sprouts, water spinach, watercress, lettuces, arrowhead, salt and soya sauce.
Yin Cool Millet, barley, wheat, buckwheat, coix seed, eggplant, cucumber, wax gourd, loofah, Chinese radish, lettuce root, celery, peppermint, broccoli, cauliflower, leaf mustard, spinach, Peking cabbage, Chinese cabbage, amaranth, Indian lettuce, lily bulb, pea, mung bean, pears, muskmelon, apple, pineapple, coconut, strawberry, orange, tangerine, loquat fruit, mango, papaya, water caltrop, tea leaf, bean curb, mushrooms, lily flower, duck egg, egg white, pig skin, rabbit meat, conch, frogs, sesame oil, cream, yogurt and cheese.
Balanced yin and yang Neutral Round-grained rice, corn, taro, sweet potato, potato, turnips, carrot, cabbage, radish leaf, beetroot, fuzzy melon, soybeans, adzuki beans, peanut, cashew nut, pistachio nut, lotus seed, black sesame, sunflower seed, plums, fig, grapes, lemon, olives, white fungus, black fungus, shiitake mushroom, sea shrimps, loach, pork, duck, goose, oyster, beef, quail, sea eels, egg yolk, quail egg, royal jelly honey, milk, soybean milk, rock sugar and sugar.
Yang Warm Coriander, Chinese chives, onion, leeks, green onion, asparagus, sweet peppers, sword bean, spearmint, Garland chrysanthemum, pomegranate, apricot, peach, cherry, litchi, longan fruit, raspberry, chestnut, pumpkin, glutinous rice, dates, walnut, pine nut, mussels, fresh water eels, sea cucumber, carps, abalone, hairtail, lobster, fresh water shrimps, chicken, mutton, sparrow, venison, pig's liver, ham, goat milk, goose egg, sparrow egg, maltose, brown sugar, cumin, clove, fennel, garlic, ginger (fresh), dill seed, nutmeg, rosemary, star anise, Sichuan peppercorn, sweet basil, sword bean, tobacco, coffee, vinegar, wine, vegetable oil, rose bud, osmanthus flowers and jasmine.
Yang Hot Black pepper, cinnamon, ginger(dried), chili pepper, and mustard seed.
Ginger is pungent in flavor, warm in energy and tends to move upward and outward.

It is important to know about the energies of food because different energies act upon the human body in different ways and affect our state of health. If a person suffers from cold rheumatism and the pain is particularly severe on cold winter day, eating foods with a warm or hot energy shall relieve the pain considerably. Or if a person suffers from skin eruptions that worsen when exposed to heat, it is beneficial to eat foods with a cold or cool energy to relieve the symptoms.

To seek a balance in diet, we can define food as predominantly yin or yang. If you eat predominantly yin foods, your body will be capable of producing more yin energy - darker, slower-moving and colder. In contrast, eating predominantly yang foods will produce more yang energy - faster, hotter and much more energetic. It's helpful to remember certain rules to determine the type of energy a food produces:

If it grows in the air and sunshine, it is probably yang;
If it grows in the earth and darkness, it is probably yin;
If it is soft, wet and cool, it is more yin;
if it is hard, dry and spicy, it is more yang.
2. The five flavors of foods
Bean curd is sweet in flavor, cool in energy and tends to move downward and inward.

The Chinese think flavor is very important because it helps to send nutrition via the meridians to the correspondingorgans. If we eat a balanced meal with many tastes, we feel satisfied and don't binge. The five flavors of food include pungent (acrid), sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.

Different flavors have their respective important effects upon the internal organs:
Flavors Organs affected Effects Food samples
Pungent Lung
Large intestine
Promote distributions and circulations, and stimulate appetite. Fresh ginger, onion, leeks, green onion, Sichuan peppercorn, garlic, celery, coriander, Chinese chives, fennel, spearmint, Chinese radish, radish leaf, chili pepper, sweet peppers, turnips, taro, leaf mustard, Shanghai cabbage, cinnamon, tangerine peel, kumquat, mustard seed and wine.
Sweet Stomach 
Spleen
Slow down acute reactions and neutralize the toxic effects of other foods, and also lubricate and nourish the body. Honey, dates, shiitake mushroom, taro, sweet potato, potato, pumpkin, carrot, glutinous rice, peas, soybean, rice, wheat, corn, sugar cane, peanut, milk, apple, pears, cherry, chestnut, grapes, lotus seed, longan aril, carps and abalone.
Sour Liver
Gall bladder
The astringent character helps to arrest abnormal discharge of fluids and other substances from the body, such as diarrhea, emission and heavy sweating. Lemon, tomatoes, pineapple, apple, strawberry, papaya, pears, loquat fruit, oranges, tangerines, peaches, hawthorn fruit, olives, pomegranate, plums, pomelo, mango, grapes, vinegar and royal jelly.
Bitter Heart
Small intestine
Clear heat, dry dampness, stimulate appetite, and promote lowering effects like urination and bowel movements. Bitter gourd, Indian lettuce, wine, vinegar, lotus leaf, tea leaf, turnips, apricot seed, lily bulb, gingko, plum kernel, peach kernel, seaweed, pig's liver, bergamot, arrowhead, asparagus, wild cucumber and coffee.
Salty Kidney
Bladder
Dissipate accumulations, soften hardness, nourish blood, and lubricate intestines to induce bowel movements. Amaranths, millet, barley, laver, preserved jellyfish, seaweed, kelp, sea clams, sea shrimps, oyster, crabs, sea cucumber, field snail, pork, pig's bone marrow, pig's blood, pig's organs, razor clam, dried mussel, ham, pigeon's egg, abalone, duck meat and cuttlefish.
Coix seed is bland and sweet in flavors, cool in energy and tends to move downward and inward.

Some foods may possess two different flavors or a bland flavor which means it has little or not taste. For example, cucumbers have both sweet and bland flavors. Foods with a bland flavor usually promote urination and may be used as diuretic, coix seed and wax gourd are outstanding examples of this kind. In addition, foods with a strong scent are categorized as "aromatic", such as basil, fennel, coriander, peppermint and citrus fruits. These foods can be eaten to enliven the spleen, stimulate appetite, promote qi(vital energy) circulation, resolve dampness and turbidity, refresh the mind, open up the orifices, and detoxify.

 

3. The movements of foods
Food acts on the body through specialized movements. Depending on the properties of food, food moves in different regions within the body and can driveqi (vital energy) in the same direction as well. TCM claims that disease is caused when any of the external or exogenous evils exert too much influence on our body, foods that have specialized movements can be used to counter these evils. For example, when a person suffers from mild flu (which caused by exogenous wind invasion), foods with a floating action such as green onion and fresh ginger can expel the evils out of the body.
TCM has classified the movements of foods into four aspects.
TCM food movements Actions Effects Food samples Associated properties of food
Lifting To move from lower region towards upper region The upward movements arrest diarrhea, and hold internal organs in their proper places (to prevent them prolapse or sinking) Wine Warm or hot in energy, pungent or sweet in flavor.
Floating To move from inside towards outside The outward movements induce perspiration and dissipate body heat Ginger
Lowering To move from upper region towards lower region The downward movements relieve vomiting, hiccupping, coughing and panting Salt Cool or cold in energy, sour or bitter or salty in flavor.
Sinking To move from outside towards inside The inward movements slow down bowel movements and relieve abdominal distention Vinegar
Lifting Lowering Floating Sinking
The four movements of food: upward, downward, outward and inward.
In general, foods like leaves and flowers and those with light and loose qualities possess a tendency to move upwards or outwards; while roots and seeds and fruits that are heavy and hard in qualities possess a tendency to move downwards or inwards. However there are many other exceptions and some foods can move in two directions e.g. lettuce possess both downward and inward movements.
Honey is sweet in flavor and neutral in energy, it can moisten the inner body, promote bowel movements, tonify the middle burner, slow down acute reactions, detoxify and lower blood pressure.

Two other terms are also used to describe the movements of foods: glossy (sliding) and astringent. Glossy foods such as honey, banana, white fungus and milk facilitate movement by acting as a lubricant. This is why these are good for constipation and internal dryness. On the other hand, astringent foods such as guava, plum, euryale seed and lotus seed slow down movement, which is good for diarrhea and seminal emission. The movements of foods can be changed through certain methods of cooking.


References

English References:
1. Chinese System of Food Cures Prevention & Remedies by Henry C. Lu.Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. 1986.
2. The Tao of Food, Richard Craze and Ronifjay, 1999 Godsfield Press.
3. Chinese Food: a Holistic Therapy by Tom Neuhaus, www.hopedance.org
4. Medicinal Food in China by Junshi Chen, M.D. http://newcenturynutrition.com
5. Cooling the Summer with Food: An Introduction to Medicinal Foods by Yanfang Wang, M.D., Ph.D. http://newcenturynutrition.com
 

 

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