Here in the US Northeast we had a particularly wet and colder than usual June this year, and as a result it didn’t really feel like Summer. Now we’re a couple weeks out from the Summer Solstice (see our previous blog posts), and the weather has shifted significantly. The heat of Summer is definitely here. This is right on time, as Sunday July 7th started the next seasonal node of 2019 - Minor Heat (Xiao Shu 小暑).
The Minor Heat seasonal node marks an important change in the movement of Qi in the natural world. Summer Solstice (Xia Zhi 夏至) began the transition from Yang-expansion to Yin-contraction in the environment. Therefore, Minor Heat is the first seasonal node in the Yin time of the year. However, although we are transitioning into the Yin time of the year, it is still hot and getting hotter. Weather change happens slowly. Think of it like a train barreling ahead at high speed. Once the conductor decides to stop the train and put it in reverse, she first puts on the breaks. Even though the breaks are applied, it takes several hundred feet before the train actually stops. Only then will it very slowly start moving in reverse. The movement of the seasons is just like this. Once we have flipped the switch from Yang to Yin, the weather still continues to warm for some time before the very slow movement in the opposite direction begins.
The most important “to do” during this time is to nourish the Heart by maintaining an optimistic outlook. Why is this? June and July are the months associated with the Fire phase. Also, if we overlay the 12 time periods of the day with the 12 months of the year (i.e., the 12 two-hour periods of the day that each correspond to one of the primary channels), June is the time of the Heart channel and July the Small Intestine channel. Both are Fire phase. Since this is the Fire Phase time of year, it is the time of the Heart Zang. We nourish the Heart by keeping a calm mind and being optimistic. Pessimism or other negative emotional states can lead to patterns such as Liver stagnation, which in turn can transform into heat and harass the Heart. We can also nourish the Heart and regulate the Fire phases by doing some specific Qigong exercises. Over the last few weeks in our weekly Qigong classes on Thursday morning we have been doing exercises for the four Fire channels in the body. While these exercises are not yet posted, you can see other basic Qigong exercises on my Youtube channel by clicking here.
During this seasonal node, the first 5-day period is known as Wen Feng Zhi (溫風至), - Sultry Winds Arrive. This certainly describes what is happening in the weather right now, especially in the Northeastern United States! The weather has been hot, and very humid. Therefore, we need to be careful about environmental dampness damaging the body. As clinicians we should instruct patients who are prone to damp patterns on how to eat, dress, etc… In this light the main “to avoid” this time period is undue exposure to cold and excessive consumption of cold items (both cold temperature and cold thermal nature). While it may seem logical to be in cold places in cold weather, there is certainly a problem in the west with using air conditioners to cool rooms to temperatures lower than we’d feel comfortable with in winter! This time of year in our clinic we’ve seen quite a few patients with summer colds from frequently going between very hot and very cold environments. Furthermore, the overconsumption of cold (and especially cold and sweet) food and drink damages the Spleen leading to more damp accumulation. Instead, we should drink beverages that are cooling, as well as either bitter (to drain), or acrid (to move). This will cool the body without developing damp stagnation. Examples include green teas, or chrysanthemum and mint herbal teas. In China summer is the season to drink green teas such as the famous Dragon Well – Long Jing Cha 龍井茶.
Diet for Minor Heat
As we mentioned above, during Minor Heat there is significant dampness and heat in the environment. Therefore, we should consume foods that are cooling and either bitter or acrid. For example, this is the time of year to consume in-season fresh greens. In addition to chrysanthemum and mint we can also consume lotus leaf tea; lotus is a plant with a summerheat cooling nature that is also slightly bitter to drain heat and dampness. Advise patients to sip fluids throughout the day so they don’t dehydrate rather than drinking copious amounts of iced beverages all at once that may exacerbate damp conditions. If patients have damaged fluids, they can consume cooling and moist vegetables (such as cucumber) or fruits (such as watermelon).
One traditional recipe for this time of year is congee made from Yi Yi Ren (pearl barley) and adzuki beans. This basic combination is mild and neutral in temperature, and both the Yi Yi Ren and adzuki beans drain dampness. Yi Yi Ren strengthens the Spleen and adzuki beans clear heat as well.
Preparing for the Seasons to Come – A Medicated Liquor
One of the maxims in Chinese medicine is that it is usually best to treat disease before it arises, and part of that is being well prepared ahead of time. The second chapter of the Su Wen says, “Thus, the Sages did not treat disease that were already manifest, they treated disease that had yet to arise. They did not treat what was already in a state of disorder, they treated before disorder arose” (是故聖人不治已病，治未病，不治已亂，治未亂). It goes on to explain that doing this was akin to digging a well after one is thirsty, or forging weapons after war has already broken out. Both are too late to do as much good as possible.
In this spirit we can use this time of year to start preparing formulas to use in a few months, once the weather becomes cold again. A very traditional format of herbal formulas that is particularly suited to the colder weather is medicated wines (also called medicated liquors since they are made with distilled spirits, not actual wines). Ethyl alcohol is warm, acrid and sweet. This combination means that it can warm and course the Qi and Blood, as well as supplement at the same time. When herbal formulas are prepared in alcohol (i.e., ethanol) the functions of the ingredients are amplified in this therapeutic direction.
One very useful formula that we can start preparing now for use in colder weather is Song Ling Tai Ping Chun Jiu (松齡太平春酒), a formula I will translate simply into English as Great Harmony Eternal Spring Wine. Here are the ingredients…
Great Harmony Eternal Spring Wine 松齡太平春酒
Shu Di Huang 250g
Dang Gui 125g
Hong Hua 15g
Gou Qi Zi 125g
Fo Shou 15g
Gui Yan Rou (i.e., Long Yan Rou) 250g
Song Ren (pine nuts) 125g
Fu Shen 50g
Chen Pi 25g
Choose as best quality possible for each of the above medicinals. Place in a clean wide-mouthed jar with about 2.5 liters of vodka, or another distilled spirit of similar alcohol content. Allow the medicinals to soak for at least a month (although up to three months is preferable). Periodically the mixture be stirred with a clean spoon, or simply shaken a little to agitate the liquid. Once ready, take one or two shots per day as a dosage (spread out if two).
This formula was a favorite of the Emperor Qianlong (1711 – 1799; r. 1735 – 1796), one of China’s most important Emperors and one of the longest reigning monarchs in world history. The formula, crafted by Imperial physicians, was one of the Emperor’s longevity tonics. While we find a few variations on the formula today, in general the major ingredients and thus therapeutic thrust of the formula is the same. Overall the formula strengthens the Spleen, benefits the Qi, and nourishes and quickens the Blood. It is contraindicated for patients with significant internal heat patterns, and for those who normally cannot consume alcohol.
The very interesting name of the formula is deserving of a short discussion. The first word song (松) means a pine tree, and the second word ling (齡) means years of age. At first glance this is an odd combination of words – age of a pine tree. Put together it is a reference though to long life. The pine, as an evergreen, is a symbol of enduring life and youth, which is why pine nuts are seen as a longevity food. These two words are also reminiscent of the Chinese phrase song he yan ling (松鶴延齡) – “live as long as the pines and cranes.” Both of these are powerful symbols of longevity in Chinese culture. Finally, going back even to the works of Confucius, in the Analects there is a passage that says, “The Master said, "When the year becomes cold, then we know how the pine and the cypress are the last to lose their leaves” (子曰：歲寒，然後知松柏之後彫也). Thus, in old age (when the year becomes cold) it will be apparent who maintains youthful vigor. We know from history that Emperor Qianlong certainly did!
I hope everyone is staying cool and dry, and that we are all thinking of how we can start preparing for the colder months a little ways off in the future.