For me, the days of summer seem to fly by very quickly (winter days don’t seem to suffer from this same phenomenon). As I looked out my back door this morning, I saw our cucumbers and bitter melons fruiting. All the lettuces are now done, and while plants are still green and full, they have reached their maximum growth. In stark contrast, just several weeks ago they seemed to be getting bigger and bigger even by the hour! This is characteristic of the Yin-Yang balance of the season. We are past summer solstice, the zenith of Yang and expansion in the natural world. In the Chinese calendar Autumn is little more than 2 weeks away, not because of temperature, but rather because of day length. The Chinese medical classics describe the movement of Summer as ‘zhang’ 長 – growth, increase, enhancement. The movement of Autumn is ‘shou’ 收 – collect, harvest, put away, take in. Now growth has slowed and the harvest is not long away, and indeed we are in the transition away from ‘zhang’ moving towards ‘shou.’
Today, July 23, starts the last node of Summer in the Chinese calendar – Great Heat (Da Shu 大暑). The first word of the name “Great,” gives us the idea that this is the hottest time of the year. In some parts of the world it can also be one of the dampest times of year. As we’ve discussed before, each of the 24 seasonal nodes (jie qi 節氣) can be further broken down into 3 five-day periods of time, known as the 72 Material Manifestations (wu hou 物候). The 3 periods within Great Heat are Decaying Grass Transforms into Fireflies (fucao hua wei ying 腐草化為螢), The Earth Lies Wet Beneath Sweltering Heat (tu run ru shu 土潤溽暑), and Heavy Rains Fall Intermittently (da yu shi ying 大雨時行). In these rather poetic names we see the images of plant life coming to an end of growth (in particular, delicate plants such as grasses, or, in my garden, lettuces), and we also see references to the combination of both dampness and heat in nature. This year here in Northern New Jersey we have hit Great Heat pretty much right on time. While today we have a brief reprieve from soaring temperatures, this past weekend we had dangerously high numbers – the heat index peaked at around 110 degree Fahrenheit!
The health maintenance guidelines for Great Heat are to focus on clearing heat, boosting qi, and treating winter diseases ahead of time (冬病夏治). Clearing heat seems to be intuitive – too much heat in the body needs to be removed to keep us in balance. But why should we also boost the qi? The Yin Yang Ying Xiang Da Lun (Su Wen Chapter 5) says, “the qi of strong fire weakens” (壯火之氣衰), “strong fire feeds on qi” (壯火食氣), and “a strong fire disperses qi” (壯火散氣). The reason we need to boost qi this time of year is because too much heat in the environment drains and weakens the qi internally. Likewise, excessive sweating damages both the qi and the fluids. One potential general maintenance herbal formula this time of year is Sheng Mai San, the combination of Ren Shen, Mai Men Dong and Wu Wei Zi. When giving this formula during Great Heat, my suggestion to use either plain Chinese white ginseng, or American ginseng, as Korean red ginseng will be too hot. Sheng Mai San in small doses builds qi, clears heat, and nourishes the fluids with herbs that are not so cloying that they would worsen internal dampness.
For treating Winter diseases ahead of time, we are in the San Fu period now, the hottest time of year according to the Chinese calendar. This time of year there is the tradition of applying mustard plasters to acupuncture points on the back, a practice known as San Fu moxibustion. While called a type of moxibustion, the heat source for this treatment is not burning mugwort, but the heat derived from the mustard (and other herbs) plasters that are placed on the skin (click here to read more about San Fu moxa).
In addition to San Fu moxa , this time of year we can start applying regular moxibustion as well The Bian Que Heart Classic (扁鵲心書) suggests that every year at the transition between summer and fall we should apply moxa to Guan Yuan REN-4. As part of the recommendation the text suggests the application of 300 cones every 3 years for people over the age of 30, every 2 years for people over the age of 50, and yearly once age 60 is reached. While 300 seems like a lot of cones, we don’t have to do them all in one sitting. Break up application of moxa into smaller amounts of cones and proceed daily for several weeks; in other words we are looking for a total of 300 over time, not 300 all at once. Other points to consider for moxibustion include Zu San Li ST-36, Shen Que REN-8 and Qi Hai REN-6.
The caution for Great Heat is to be on guard against damp-heat and its ability to damage the Spleen-Stomach and hamper appetite and digestion. One way to do this is through diet, which we discuss below. Another traditional recommendation to accomplish this during the current seasonal node is herbal foot bathing. One effective Great Heat footbath recipe includes Pu Gong Ying 30g, Su Mu 30g, Gou Teng 25g, Fu Ling 25g, Bai Fan 15g, Fang Feng 15g, Han Fang Ji 15g. Boil these herbs in about ½ gallon of water for 20-30 minutes. Then, cool until able to be used as a warm soak, and soak feet for about 30-40 minutes. These herbs are also effective for treating athlete’s foot, a common problem of this time of year, and a very obvious manifestation of excess damp-heat. For this condition use the same soak frequently, at least twice daily, with 3 days (of twice daily) being one course of treatment.
For practitioners of Tung’s (Dong’s) acupuncture, we can apply these same principles in general maintenance or preventive treatments. In point prescriptions consider adding points that have a general qi supplementing function such as Ling Gu 22.05 and Si Hua Shang 77.08. We also can choose points that generally clear heat such as Zhong Kui or the Wu Ling and Shuang Feng points along the back. In my bloodletting book I also detail another Taiwanese method of treating excessive summerheat by bleeding. Click here for more information on the book. For patients who tend towards being deficient, after bloodletting in the clinic, administer one dose of Liu Wei Di Huang Wan in tablet form (this was Master Tung’s practice in his own practice).
Diet for Great Heat
Along with the guidelines described above, during Great Heat we should simultaneously clear heat and drain damp, while boosting the qi and protecting the Spleen and Stomach. Avoid overly spicy foods and foods which are overly heating. This is the time of year to eat in-season vegetables, especially those that clear heat and nourish fluids such as cucumber, raw tomato, and bitter melon. Gentle heat clearing herbs can be added to the diet such as mint and Huo Xiang (agastache), and this is the seasonal node when Huo Xiang congee is traditionally consumed. In China people drink winter melon juice during Great Heat. I honestly don’t find this too appealing so I suggest in the west we substitute winter melon juice with watermelon juice!
One fun recipe for Great Heat is stir fried lotus root…
Stir Fried Lotus Root
1 lotus root (about ½ lb)
1” piece of ginger, chopped
1 cup roughly chopped scallion
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
cooking oil (sesame)
soy sauce or tamari
Peel lotus root and cut into slices about ¼ inch thick, submerge in water with a small amount of white vinegar to prevent discoloration
Heat some cooking oil in a large frying pan, add ginger and garlic and cook until fragrant
Drain lotus root and place the slices in pan in a single layer; cook until they start to change color and become slightly translucent and then turn over and cook a few minutes longer
Add in sesame seeds, a splash of soy sauce or tamari, and the scallions and fry a short while longer until the scallions start to wilt
Remove from heat and enjoy
This recipe stops thirst, expels heat, and clears heat to engender fluids. Furthermore, it also supplements the center and nourishes the shen-spirit.
I hope everyone is staying cool and dry!