Yang of Summer

In this now classic text, HEALING WITH WHOLE FOODS - Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition, Chinese Medicine practitioner and food as medicine guru, Paul Pitchford,  reminds us that Summer is a YANG season.  He notes that the ancient Chinese encouraged us to connect with the energy of summer by expressing the yang principles of expansion, growth, lightness, outward activity and brightness.  In the 5-Element tradition of Chinese Medicine, Summer is represented by the element of FIRE and relates to the heart.

Fire for the Heart

Think flames, bonfires on the beach, summer sunshine– these forms of fire energy all encourage us to relax and expand our hearts and bodies in movement and play, spend more time outdoors, stretch out on the sand, dance at parties under the moon. And under the summer sun, plants and flowers expand, too.  They grow and grow, producing a dazzling array of fruits and vegetables designed to keep our hearts and the rest of us healthy in the heat.

Fire Season’s Colors Heal

Indeed, the bounty of summer brings us a stunning array of brightly colored fruits and vegetables designed to cool and energize us during the year’s most fiery season.  Summertime foods not only help our bodies (and minds) endure the heat, they also provide us with the slew of antioxidants, fiber and water content we need to keep our arteries soothed and clear, blood flowing purely, and hearts pumping happily (as well as skin, eyes and more), operating at full capacity.

Cooling the Heat with Food

The ancient Chinese recognized that foods, regardless of whether raw or cooked, embody their own quality of energy and temperature effect on the body.  All raw fruits and vegetables are very cooling, and cooked foods warming.  While generally most of us do better in summer eating more raw foods — salads of all kinds made from raw and cooked vegetables and fruits, Gazpacho and cucumber soups, iced teas, fresh whole fruits from berries to melons to peaches — it’s important to include a balance of cooked summer foods to your diet, especially if you have “weak” digestion.  For example, quinoa, green bean or beet salad are all easy on the digestion and therefore generate less heat, offering a light and cooling energy to the body.

Bitter is Better

The ancient Chinese  determined that the “taste” associated with Summer is bitter. Bitterness helps disperse dampness (which in Chinese Medicine refers to the internal conditions that give rise to any type of chronic illness, from indigestion or reflux to diabetes to cancer) and clears heaviness which could otherwise drag us down in the heat of summer– especially in DC which is essentially built over a swamp!  The physical dampness in our environment affects our digestion, too, and our overall energy.   In Europe, summer salads include bitter greens (and reds, like Radicchio) and oil-cured olives.  Most other cultures include many more bitter flavors in their cuisines than what we find in the US.

America’s Favorite Bitter Treats Support Heart Health

Guess what America’s  two most commonly consumed bitter foods are.  Coffee and chocolate.  Most of us  cover up the bitterness with dairy and sugar, both of which undo the clearing, heart healing energy-enlivening qualities of cocoa and coffee beans.  (Both sugar and excess dairy, by the way, create internal dampness according to Chinese Medicine.)  Of course, the benefits of dark chocolate for heart health have been touted in the media, as have the benefits of Resveratrol,  a powerful antioxidant found in red grapes, a delicious summer fruit, and in red wine, of course.  Dark chocolate has been found to be higher in flavonoids than milk chocolate, and it seems people who consume more flavonols show more nitric oxide activity which plays a key role in in healthy blood pressure and heart health (according to researcher Dr. Norman K. Hollenberg, physician and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School).
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Bottom Line for Summertime Wellness

At the end of the day, or summer, the best thing you can do for your heart’s health and the rest of you, too, is to eat plenty of the season’s vegetables and fruits that grow in your region, along with legumes (chick peas, lentils and beans) in salad form or lightly grilled fish for easy-to-digest protein.  Digesting richer foods is hard work for the body and generates a lot of heat so in hot weather, eating lightly really makes a difference.  Take advantage of Summer’s natural sweetness in the form of ripe fruits and keep rich, sugary desserts to a minimum.  This will keep your energy lighter and clearer.  Drink plenty of clear fluids — water, mineral water, herbal and other teas (green is the most cooling but they’re all good iced or hot) to stay well hydrated.  Spend time with people you love who love you.  Dance, play, and find your joy.
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Your heart will thank you– and the rest of you will, too.