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Eating for the Season: TCM and Summer

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Updated July 2023

View this season through the lens of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and discover how to adapt your diet and lifestyle to enjoy each season in optimal health. TCM considers your health within the broad context of all the factors that affect your life, including the changing seasons.

As Spring transitions into Summer, we see the spark that was created during Spring grow into a complete fire

Summer is a yang season. It is a vibrant time of expansion, growth, and creativity. The energy is bright and expansive, leading us towards outdoor activities. The ideas that started germinating during the Spring begin to bloom fully and beautifully. 

Traditional Chinese Medicine and Summer

In TCM, the fire of Summer is related to the Heart and Small Intestine organ systems. The Heart’s function of happiness, laughter, and joy can be easily seen during the summer. The ancient Chinese lived and worked in harmony with the rhythms of nature, concepts that carry through in TCM’s modern-day approach to maintaining health.

According to TCM and the theory of Five Elements, every season relates to one of the Five Elements, along with other qualities or characteristics that are important to health in that season.  For Summer, these correspondences are:

  • Season — Summer
  • Element — Fire
  • Yin Organ system — Heart
  • Yang Organ system — Small Intestine
  • Developments — Growth
  • Color — Red
  • Sounds —Laughing
  • Emotions — Joy
  • Taste — Bitter
  • Tissue — Blood vessels
  • Sense organ — Tongue
  • Climate — Heat

Importance of the Heart and Small Intestine organ systems in Summer

The Heart in Chinese Medicine is called the Shen or the mind/spirit. It is what is referred to as a yin organ system and is considered to be the “emperor.” It has an external relation to the yang organ system of the Small Intestine. The Small Intestine separates waste and distributes nutrients throughout the body.

The Heart opens into the tongue, controls the blood vessels and is reflected in the face. For example, you “speak your mind,” and people can “read your emotions on your face.”

The abundance of flavorful, ripe, and nourishing fruits and vegetables during Summer cause an explosion of flavor on your tongue, bringing you joy and happiness. Being able to enjoy the warm embrace of the sun, outdoor activities, and seeing friends and family calms the shen in ways not always possible during the Winter.

Blood tonifying foods like dark leafy greens and lean meat are important to ensure a blood-rich safe haven for the mind to rest, as well as enough blood to carry that energy of consciousness throughout the body. Red foods like cherries, strawberries, goji berries and tomatoes support the Fire Element and are rich in antioxidants credited with cardiovascular benefits. Also, be kind when considering the important sorting job of the Small Intestine. We can alleviate stress on this organ by not overloading it with nutrient-deficient, over-processed food. Keep it fresh!

Timing is Everything

11:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m. is Heart time according to the Taoist 24-hour cycle of energies in our bodies. Lunch time, the time when the energy is strongest in the Heart meridian, is also a time when our digestive fire is strong, so enjoy a mid-day meal! 1:00 p.m.-3:00 p.m. is Small Intestine time, the time to sort and absorb food, rest, and allow your body to process the nutrients. 

Presentation of food

Be mindful of aesthetics when serving yourself or others food in all seasons, but especially in Summer, as beauty pleases the Heart. What feeling does your food stimulate before you even eat it? Consider garnishing your dishes with a little extra love like a sprinkle of sesame seeds or a fresh edible flower. 

Activities for a healthier Summer

Summer is the time of year children are out of school, college students are flooding the poolside bars, and the sun worshipers are scattered across the beach. Spending time outdoors being active during the long daylight hours is pretty much what Summer is all about. 

However, whether you are young or old, there is the chance of heat stroke if you do not maintain proper hydration.

Many of the foods listed below will help to enhance body hydration. But you must also keep drinking your water!

Fire corresponds to the Heart and Summer is hot, which means that the hot weather could cause disease if you overheat. It is recommended that you eat predominantly cooling, damp-providing (yin) foods to disperse heat and build up body fluids. The bitter taste is associated with the Heart and fire. Bitter cool foods should be consumed.

There is a theory that by eating spicy foods (red and green hot peppers, cayenne red pepper, fresh ginger, horseradish, and black pepper) you are able to increase warmth, but ultimately bring the body heat out to the surface to be dispersed through sweat. Spicy foods are commonly seen in parts of Asia, India, Mexico, and many other countries where the weather year-round is primarily hot. 

Garlic is a spicy food that you don’t want to forget if you find yourself on vacation in a tropical destination. Yep, garlic! Or at the very least, garlic pills. Garlic is antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal. It is also useful for traveler’s diarrhea if you accidentally consume some questionable food or water. It works the best as a preventative, or at initial onset. So although you may smell a little funny, at the first sign of symptoms, ingest a larger amount of garlic, and you may be able to fight off the impending doom of a ruined vacation. 

WARNING: There is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Spicy foods, by causing increased sweating during the summer, can cause the body to deplete its natural yang (warmth), resulting in the inability to stay warm in the colder seasons. For some people who are naturally hot, spicy foods are never a good thing. You are only adding more fuel to the fire.

General advice for Summer eating

  • Eat what is in season! Make use of those farmers markets!
  • Naturally hot people should choose more cooling foods.
  • Meats, eggs, nuts, seeds and grains can cause sluggishness during the summer.
  • Eat less and lightly on hot days; try to eat multiple small meals. Remember your body is burning more calories because you are being more active. Split up your meals so you can enjoy the longer hours of sunlight!

Foods to Help You Stay Cool in Summer

Fruits
Vegetables
Legumes & Grains
Other Products
Spices
Apple
Lettuce
Soy milk
Kelp (& seaweeds)
Peppermint
Banana
Radish
Soy sprouts
Spirulina; wild blue green
Dandelion greens & root
Pear
Cucumber
Tofu
Oyster-shell calcium
Honeysuckle flowers
Persimmon
Celery
Tempeh
Wheat & barley grass
Nettles
Cantaloupe
Button mushroom
Mung beans and sprouts
Kudzu
Red clover blossoms
Watermelon (especially the rind)
Asparagus
Alfalfa sprouts
Yogurt
Lemon balm
Tomato
Swiss chard
Millet
Crab
White peppercorn
All citrus
Eggplant
Barley
Clam
Cilantro
All berries
Spinach
Wheat
Black/green tea
Marjoram
Lemon
Summer Squash
Amaranth
Mineral water
 
Kiwi
Cabbage (green, purple, or Napa)
 
Mussels
 
Pineapple
Bok Choy
 
Rabbit
 
 
Broccoli
   
 
Cauliflower
   
 
Sweet corn
   
 
Zucchini
   

The Chinese have recommended green tea during summer for centuries because it can disperse summer heat, and can expel toxins, cool the heart fire, calm the mind.

The white of the watermelon helps to hold on to fluids while the red produces fluids.

Tomatoes produce fluids.

Mung bean tea helps with “heat stroke” or summer heat.  Keeps the body cool on hot humid days.  It also helps cool people that tend to be naturally hot.

Foods to Avoid in Summer

Chinese medicine recommends avoiding hot foods, like coffee, and spicy foods in summer. Ice cold beverages and ice-cream are also to be avoided, because they block the stomach’s digestive energy.  However, my personal opinion of this is that I would prefer a patient to eat ice cold foods and ice cream during the summer rather than consuming them during the winter. In the view of Chinese medicine, children have a physiologically weaker digestive system until they are 8 years old, and are especially sensitive to cold foods and beverages. Just something to keep in mind during summer.

Recipes and additional information

About the author

Teri Calandra

Teri Calandra Dipl.Acu, MSTOM, L.Ac., LMT, RMT

Teri began her studies in energy medicine as part of her own personal development journey, and continues to to learn and integrate that knowledge into her practice. Teri is the founding practitioner of Calandra Center for Health & Wellness in Schaumburg, Illinois. She is licensed by the State of Illinois in acupuncture (L.Ac.), and board certified through the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).

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