Over the last two weeks or so I’ve been up early. Really early. By 5 or 5:30am I’m awake, long before I have to be. In New Jersey we’ve finally been getting much warmer weather, and the sun has been bright in the sky. I’m sure I’ve been getting up because we are now in the most expansive Yang time of the year. Today, June 21, starts the next seasonal node, the Summer Solstice (Xia Zhi 夏至). Summer Solstice is a very important seasonal node in that it marks the apex of Yang in the natural world as well as the rebirth of Yin. It is the longest day of 2017; starting tomorrow the days will get shorter and shorter culminating eventually with the longest night on the Winter Solstice. In terms of the time of day, Summer Solstice corresponds to high noon, and is the time of the Heart channel. In Yijing (I Ching) symbolism, this time period is represented by hexagram 44, which is made up of Qian-Heaven trigram (3 solid yang lines) over Xun-Wind trigram (1 broken yin line under 2 solid yang lines). Thus, the complete hexagram is 5 solid yang lines over one broken yin line at the bottom – yin is being birthed once again. One of the translations for the name of Hexagram 44 is “The Queen,” also showing that this time of year begins the transition towards returning inward to the hidden, the yin, the Blood, and the Dark Mother that is referred to in the first chapter of the Dao De Jing.
When we break down Summer Solstice into the smaller 5 day periods of time, it includes the time periods know as Deer Shed Antlers (Lu Jiao Jie 鹿角解), Cicadas Begin Singing (Tiao Shi Ming 蜩始鳴), and Pinellia Grows (Ban Xia Sheng 半夏生). In the United States deer actually shed antlers earlier in the year. However, in New Jersey, this is cicada time. Three years around this time we were in the middle of a 17-year cicada invasion, and in some parts of the state they were literally as loud as trains! No wonder cicada shells (chan tui 蟬蛻) are good for conditions such as loss of voice. Notice also that this time is when Ban Xia is growing, the king of drying damp and getting rid of phlegm turbidity (a Yang herb to treat a Yin pathology). Likewise, in China this is the time of year to harvest Aconite (fu zi 附子) to enhance its Yang nature.
In some parts of China people perform simple ritual activities designed to protect against the Yin that is about to start growing. This Yin can be seen as an increase in various disease carrying insects (such as mosquitos) that bring epidemic disease. To ward off Yin in the form of insects and disease, Chinese traditionally hang aromatic (i.e., Yang) herbs around the house, such as Acorus (Shi Chang Pu) or Mugwort (Ai Ye). Other aromatic herbs such as Angelica (Bai Zhi) and Atractolodes (Bai Zhu) are made into medicines and incense.
Practically speaking, although this is a time of transition to Yin, this is still a hot and damp season. The first thing that is recommended during this time of year is to clear summerheat and drain dampness. For example, during this time it is common to see various skin problems due to external contraction of summerheat damp. It is also common to see other symptoms of summerheat strike such as malaise, fatigue, low-grade fever or heat effusion, low-grade headache, nausea, etc… There are several ways we can help ourselves as well as our patients when they present with summerheat damp symptoms. First, is to regulate diet, which we will discuss more below. We can also counsel basic lifestyle recommendations, such as dressing appropriately to the weather (such as wearing light clothes made of natural materials that breathe well), staying in shade in the midday when temperatures are highest, and drinking plenty of light and clear fluids. This is especially important for our older patients, since as we age we lose the normal ability to adapt to more extremes in temperature. Furthermore, seniors are more likely to be on prescription medications or may have chronic medical problems that inhibit perspiration or make extremes of temperature less tolerable. Some medications also increase sensitivity to sun raising risk of sunburns (examples include tetracyclines, quinolones such as Cipro, Celebrex, and some chemotherapeutic agents).
In terms of therapy, Dr. Zhong Yong Xiang of Taiwan suggests bleeding the jing well points on all the fingers for more severe cases of summerheat strike. This bloodletting method is described in my book Pricking the Vessels. We can also consider performing gua sha on the back to help move stagnant summerheat damp in the exterior muscle layer.
The next recommended “to do” during Summer Solstice is Shui Hao Zi Wu Jiao 睡好子午交. This means sleep well during both the Zi and Wu hours. Certainly, sleeping well is something we should be doing all year long. Zi and Wu refer to the time periods of midday and midnight, with Zi being the 11pm – 1am hour, and Wu being the 11am – 1pm hour (to be adjusted for standard time in locations that observe daylight savings time). In general it is important to get into bed before the Zi hour. Remember, the Zi hour is the time of transition from Yin to Yang, representative of the Winter Solstice. After this time period our bodies are already in a state of Yang expansion, the movement contrary to good sleep. Getting to bed and sleeping through this hour ensures that we really rest, that we really go into the state of storage that replenishes our vital substances.
The Wu hour is also a time of transition, and like the Summer Solstice, represents the change from Yang to Yin. The traditional recommendation is to take a short nap during this time to harmonize the body with this movement of Yang to Yin. That said, the recommendation is just a short nap of maybe only 30 minutes time (this is just the beginning of Yin after all). After that, don’t linger. Get up and back to normal activity.
Diet for Summer Solstice
As already mentioned, Summer Solstice is the time of transition from Yang to Yin in the natural world. That said, Summer Solstice is still a time of damp and heat in many places. Therefore, the basic strategy of clearing heat and draining dampness can help guide us in our diet strategy. It is important to keep in mind that during summer over-sweating and prolonged exposure to heat can deplete the Qi and fluids of the body. So, once we are clear of heat and damp, if there is vacuity we can focus on supplementation. However, since this is a hot time of year, cool supplementation is best.
In summary we can generalize this is the time to eat foods that clear heat (especially summerheat), drain dampness, nourish the Qi and boost fluids. Examples include cucumber, winter melon, luffa, tomato, honeydew melon, star fruit, peach, plumb, and mung beans. This is also a good time to eat bitter melon (ku gua 苦瓜). When I lived in Okinawa as a graduate student, bitter melon was a basic staple of food since Okinawa is a very hot and damp climate. Here is a recipe for a very traditional Okinawan dish called Goya Champuru (‘goya’ is the Okinawan word for bitter melon and ‘champuru’ means something mixed together). This dish gently clears heat and drains damp, but also boosts Qi and yin-blood.
Goya Champuru ゴーヤーチャンプルー (Serves 4)
- 2 bitter melon (about 400 g)
- 1 block of firm tofu (300 g)
- 2 eggs
- cooking oil
- soy sauce
- Cut bitter melons in halves lengthwise. Remove the seeds and fibers with a spoon. Slice thinly and sprinkle with salt to soften them. When soft, rinse with water, then squeeze out the extra water.
- Wrap tofu in a cloth or paper towel, place a light weight (a plate will do fine) on top, and leave for at least 2 hours to press out excess water.
- Heat 2 tablespoons of cooking oil in a wok, crumble the tofu into fairly large pieces, fry well while adding salt to taste, then remove and set aside on a plate.
- Add 1 tablespoon of cooking oil to the wok, then stir fry the bitter melon slices. The longer you fry it and the thinner it is sliced, the less bitter it will be.
- Return the tofu to the wok and stir fry with the melon. Beat eggs and add to wok. Mix everything together well until eggs cook, and salt to taste.
- At the last moment, pour a small amount of soy sauce around the edge of the frying pan for extra taste. Mix all ingredients quickly and remove from heat immediately.
Another simple traditional dish for this time of year is Millet and Red Date Congee. For this recipe take about ½ cup of millet and 5 dried Chinese red dates (紅棗) and place in a pot of 6-8 cups of water (use 6 cups for a more creamy congee, or use 8 for more watery). Bring to a boil and then reduce flame to simmer for 45 minutes or longer, until the millet has broken down and the resulting congee is creamy. Remove from heat and add a small amount of brown sugar to taste.
Millet is said to moisten the Yin and nourish the blood, and the red dates are also blood and Qi nourishing. Too much sweating depletes the body fluids and can eventually damage the Qi and blood. Even though this is a warm dish, it can replenish the body after outdoor activity in hot weather that induces significant sweating.
I hope everyone is having a great summer and staying healthy!