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Dr. Aimée Derbes, LAC

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How to balance your summer problems

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At my offices in Brooklyn (serving Gowanus, Park Slope, and Greenpoint) and Manhattan (Union Square), I see patients who are dealing with chronic pain (back pain, neck and shoulder pain, knee pain, hip pain, and ankle pain), headaches + migraines, digestive issues (IBS, colitis), infertility, stress, insomnia, PMS, women's health, and autoimmune conditions (Lyme, Hashimoto's, thyroid conditions, and many more).

How to balance your summer problems

Aimée Derbes

(^^pictured : sprouted mung beans, good for cooling down too much heat!)

I am lucky enough get to see a lot of different unique people and what ails them in my healing arts practice. There's been a distinct theme over the past couple of weeks : summer problems. So I've been thinking about all the things that tend to fall out of balance in the summer, and how you can help yourself by using seasonal foods, drinks, and lifestyle choices. But when I sent a draft of this post over to a friend this morning, she asked a question that I hear *all the time* : "Are you sure food is really enough? Don't people need more, like herbs or medications?"

My answer, always, is food is medicine. Really. I'm not just saying that to oversimplify or be cute. We do actually become what we eat : what's in, or not in, our diets, plus when and how we eat, affects our health in very tangible ways. Changes to diet can lead to (or, more fun, reverse!) all kinds of issues. Here are a few examples that most people are familiar with (and, no value judgement here, if you follow one of these diets. I'm not talking good or bad, just what happens ) :

  • Vegetarian diets are associated with iron, zinc, omega-3, and B12 deficiencies
  • Adding more fiber can improve heart health and reduce cholesterol
  • Very low carb (like some Paleo or ketogenic) diets can cause insomnia, due to macronutrient deficiencies

Eating a varied diet of our local, seasonal foods (or the seasonal foods of our ancestors, which works for some people living in different parts of the world than their ancestors did) makes sense when you think about the history of humans in their environments. I know that those of us in the U.S. were not raised to think this way, because, unless you were brought up on a farm or by otherwise enlightened people, we've been very well trained to expect supermarkets to offer things like ripe bananas, in January. We also tend to believe that modern allopathic medicine can do everything : if there is a problem, we solve it with pills!

Even a lot of holistic healthcare practitioners use pills (in the form of vitamins and supplements) to solve problems that might be helped or solved, for much less money, by changes to diet. In fact, they (we) might have been taught in school to avoid talking diet with patients/clients, because "people are so resistant to changing their food habits, so don't even try." At least, that was the party line at the acupuncture school I attended, and I'm sure I'm not alone in receiving that message.

Supplements can certainly have a place in filling in gaps in the diet, especially diets that are restricted for spiritual or religious purposes, and especially due to the recent nutrient depletion in our soil. But before we look to prescription medications or supplements, we can just eat different foods to change the nutrients and energetics we're taking in. It really can be that easy.

Way, way before I became a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine, I went through years and years of experimentation on myself, trying to figure out how to eat to feel energized and healthy. I learned that this is an ever-evolving work in progress type of thing, as my needs change along with me through the months, seasons, and years. I even attended Bauman College and studied holistic nutrition, curious about how to individualize food and diet choices to heal myself and maybe one day help others. What I learned there was later reinforced in Chinese medicine school : start with lifestyle and food, then move on to herbs and supplements, then move on to medications. But food is always the foundation. You can't be in vibrant health without taking in your version of appropriate vibrant foods, whatever that might mean for you.

Now that you're (I'm hoping) on board with this whole "food matters" thing, let's talk about what the Fire element looks like when it's out of balance.


The energy of Fire

In the winter, which is the season of the Water element, we were storing up all our seeds, holding onto a lot of dormant potential. In spring, season of the Wood element, the warmer weather and sunlight activated the seeds, leading to growth, expansion, and expression. Now we are squarely in summer, the Fire season, the most yang of the yang : the energies of this season are wildly expansive, growing upward and outward, changing rapidly. 

In our personal experience, this looks like extroversion, display, total lack of subtlety, easy free-flowing talk, lightheartedness, laughter and joy, wearing of the heart on the sleeve. Ease of connection with other people, and with something greater than ourselves, such as the wide expansive universe -- with AWE.

In our bodies, though, we can get all kinds of summer problems, usually from too much heat throwing off our systems and causing our health conditions to flare up. Note the language there. It’s no accident that the terminology we’ve chosen -- flaring up -- comes from the actions of a fire. We can also suffer from not enough Fire. I'm including below foods that address whatever may be out of balance in your own personal Fire, and, please remember, food can be enough!


So much Fire

Too much heat and fire destroys. This burning / scorching, withering, drying out can show up in the body in the following forms :

  • Insomnia / dream-disturbed sleep / vivid dreams
  • Heart palpitations / pounding pulse
  • Anxiety / nervousness / restlessness / hyperactivity
  • Acid reflux / heartburn
  • Dehydration and its good friends excess sweating and constipation
  • Inflammation, like rashes, hives, or any hot itchy red stuff
  • UTIs
  • Inappropriate laughter

To support yourself, use bitter foods to descend and drain the excess fire down and out : things like dandelion greens, watercress, turnips, asparagus, celery, lettuce, papaya. You can cool the Fire with foods and beverages that have a gentle cooling nature, which is not the same thing as simply using cold foods, so go easy on the salads, smoothies, and ice cream. See the list towards the end of this post for more Fire-balancing food ideas.


Not enough Fire

On the other hand, we may not have enough Fire in our systems, even in the height of summer. This can show up like : 

  • Fatigue / lethargy / lack of vitality / lack of joy
  • Insomnia / maybe some intense dreams
  • Irregular pulse
  • Tired and wired feeling : anxiety and restlessness but with fatigue and difficulty sleeping
  • Easily tired in heat / wanting to hide out / introversion

To support yourself, eat cooked spinach, kale, broccoli, apricots, peaches, and cherries. Eat warming spices (cinnamon, cloves, cumin, fennel), basil, quinoa. And if the low Fire descriptions sounds like you, it's especially important to go easy on the salads, smoothies, and green juices, friends -- they are cold and will further dampen your Fire.


Food / drink for everyone's Fire problems

The foods that are in season in summer are -- surprise! -- balancing for the Fire element. In addition to the foods below, use a little bit of hot and spicy flavors to disperse heat, and make sure you're meditating and getting grounded, to root the Fire energy that wants to rise and flare up in the body. Breathwork can also balance out the Fire element, by providing a means to vent excess emotional heat, or by kickstarting some internal Fire. If you're interested in a low-cost way to try breathwork, my next groups are on July 25 in Gowanus, and August 17 in Manhattan (details coming soon). And, acupuncture, of course!

Also important : nope to the usual culprits. Heavy foods, a bunch of coffee, a bunch of alcohol, refined sugar and flour, ice cream, fried foods, you know the drill. This stuff makes you feel tired and heavy in general, but especially in the heat. Try not to fight me on this; your body will thank you.

Drink

  • Watermelon juice
  • Coconut water and milk
  • Lemon and lime juices
  • Aloe juice
  • Chrysanthemum flower, mint, and chamomile teas
  • Green tea

Eat

  • Mung Beans (pictured above!)
  • Cucumber
  • Celery
  • Radishes
  • Strawberries
  • Apples
  • Spicy peppers in moderation

Learn more about eating according to seasonal five element theory:
Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford
Wood Becomes Water by Gail Reichstein
Staying Healthy with the Seasons by Elson Haas