When you think of vacations in the sun, family gatherings, and great outdoor fun, you naturally think of summertime. Summer is the season when exuberant energies of the yang are at their highest, which is reflected in the increased activity and creativity of this period. The same can be said of the element for this season, which is Fire.
While the Five Elements can be viewed as a way of connecting people with aspects of the natural world, they also have much to say about our inner world. For example, the Five Elements can be viewed as a series of developmental stages. From this perspective, Fire is concerned with communication and contact, as well as the integration and expression of one’s creative vision. The time periods when the lessons of Fire are most prevalent are middle childhood and adolescence. Fire intervals also occurring at various times in adult life, but the timing of these periods are idiosyncratic to each individual adult.
Fire is the only element that is related to four organs: the Xin or Heart*, the Xiao Chang or Small Intestine, the Xin Bao or Pericardium, and the San Jiao or Triple Burner. This is partly due to the characterization within Chinese medicine that the Heart is the “Emperor of the body.” As such, it requires special support and protection. In Five Element theory, Fire is related to the emotion of joy, the bitter/sharp taste, the color red, the southern direction, the planet Mars, the path of compassion, and the activity of intuition. The complexion is said to reflect the state of the Heart, and the tongue is said to be its mirror.
Qualities of the Heart
In Chinese medicine the Xin, not the brain, is the seat of the consciousness or the Shen. While this is seen as a quaint, sentimental view in Western medicine, emerging medical knowledge appears to be supportive of the Chinese view. In his book, “The Heart’s Code”, psychoneuroimmunologist Dr. Paul Pearsall, who has worked for over twenty years with heart transplant patients, documents the personality changes that have occurred after a heart transplant. This casts an interesting perspective on this issue of heart disease, arguably the largest health problem of our culture. Does heart disease arise first in the heart, or does it arise first in the mind?
It is instructive to note that in order to “house” the Shen properly, the Heart requires adequate amounts of Blood and yin. The American lifestyle, with its incredible pace, sleep deprivation, and fast foods, is excessively yang and hot, which tends to “burn up” the yin and Blood. This deficiency of Blood and yin disturbs the Shen, leading to disorders such as insomnia, anxiety, and agitation.
Dietary suggestions to help build and support the yin of the Heart include avoiding heavily spiced or greasy foods, reducing refined sugar and alcohol, eliminating any stimulants such as coffee, and avoiding large evening meals. Foods that help quiet the Shen include oats, brown rice, mulberries, mushrooms, and schisandra berries. On an emotional level, increasing contact and intimacy both with oneself and others can have a profound impact on the Heart as well as the Shen.
For seasonal balance, summer eating requires one to eat and cook lightly, with dashes of spicy, pungent, or even fiery flavors. Be creative! Brightly colored summer fruits and vegetables assist in designing healthy as well as visually pleasing meals. Continue the practice, begun in the spring, of sautéing, steaming, or simmering foods using high heat for a short period of time. While it is counter-intuitive, Chinese medicine holds that drinking hot liquids, such as spiced teas or mung bean soup, can be beneficial in the summer because they bring body heat to the surface where it can both induce sweating and be released. This “heat-on-the-surface” reflects the summertime climate and thus harmonizes the body with the environment. Spices such as fresh ginger, horseradish, cayenne and black pepper are useful for this purpose.
Cold foods such as ice cream and iced drinks causes contraction in the body, constraining one’s ability to sweat and weakening the digestive organs. These are never recommended in the diet, no matter what the season. Instead, create a temperate environment, drink more water, and introduce cooling foods. These can include salads, sprouts, cucumbers, and tofu. Limes, apples, watermelons, and lemons are fruits that are excellent for cooling summer heat. Heavy foods, such as meats, eggs, and root vegetables, can led to sluggishness and should be avoided on the hottest days. It is said that bitter foods “enter” the Heart and have many positive effects, including cooling and cleansing the Heart. Foods with a bitter quality include celery, vinegar, fresh wheat germ, and rhubarb.
Summertime should be a time for having fun and blazing new trails. And with the insights of Chinese medicine, you’ll have a whole new way of playing with fire.
* Chinese organ names are capitalized to indicate their difference from the Western physical organs or substances.