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Grounded in over 5000 years of tradition, East Asian medicine practices highlight and focus on the importance of self-care and self-compassion. Those two elements are highly praised in this practice because they’re part of a holistic view of health that involves living in harmony with nature, the seasons, and the rhythms of life. But in our busy, technology-infused lives, how do we reconnect with our environment and ourselves? By using nature as our inspiration, we can realign with the flow of what’s already happening in the world around us.
East Asian medicine principles were established from careful observations of nature. Consider the natural elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Among these elements, certain relationships always hold true: Water nourishes the plants and trees that produce wood, and that wood fuels fire. Each element has unique characteristics, but also enhances or diminishes other elements. For example, wood feeds fire, but water eradicates fire. In East Asian medicine, these descriptions map how the body works internally, with each organ system coinciding with a natural element.
Summer is about heat, fire, and light. The energy of summer isn’t about cozying in and reading a book by a fire — that behavior is contrary to what’s going on in the natural world. When we align with the energy that’s already present, we get more results with less effort. This natural alignment is called flow. As an acupuncturist and national board-certified herbalist, I help patients find simple self-care solutions that work with their lives. When these simple shifts include flow, great things can happen. Importantly, these self-care practices don’t have to be a full-time job.
To celebrate this season’s unique qualities, I’ve put together my favorite recommendations for effectively nurturing summer health and wellness. Early summer is associated with fire, while late summer is associated with earth. These two forces can inspire us to align our self-care with the flow of the season.
The Fire Element
Functionally, fire is associated with absorbing nutrients, inflammation, heat issues, anxiety, insomnia, irritable bowel, and bloating. Fire energetics are affined with the heart and small intestine in Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as fire represents joy, passion, and love. It inspires us to evaluate our emotional bonds with others, and ask, “What do I want from my relationships and heart-centered connections?” The heart and small intestine help us figuratively digest emotional experiences. Structurally, the heart circulates energy through the body; it works as the great connector, networking blood vessels to all organ systems and extremities. The small intestine acts as the workhorse, extracting food nutrients into usable energy. In TCM, the small intestine “separates the clear from the turbid,” a physical and energetic act of discernment. The small intestine helps you decide what serves or no longer serves your needs.
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Problems arise when the fire element falls out of balance. When it runs rampant, inflammation occurs. Common signs of inflammation include insomnia or sleep disturbances, irritability, pain, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, joint pain, headaches, and anxiety.
Promoting a Balanced Fire
An unbalanced fire element can lead to many negatives, but a healthy fire element can carry you to warm, positive results. You can enhance these positive aspects with a short list of exercises that radiate a happy, warm fire in your heart.
- Practice gratitude. Each day, list five different things you’re grateful for in your life. This closely connects you with joy, the supreme positive component of the fire element.
- Connect with your passions. Ask yourself, “What do I want?” Do this with respect and honor toward your heart’s deepest desire. Write these passions down and read them aloud each day. Seek out opportunities to shift these desires into reality.
- Nurture intimacy. Set aside time to connect with loved ones. To amplify this, practice lying next to a loved one and staring into each other’s eyes with love for 30 seconds. You may burst out laughing, which is simply the sound of a happy heart!
- Laugh. Find an activity that gets laughter flowing, whether it’s watching funny movies, telling jokes, or simply acting silly with friends. Laughter is the ultimate stress reliever.
Solutions for Fire Imbalances
You can bring fire into balance with a few simple self-care tips. I give these recommendations to my patients with fire element imbalances, including inflammation, in its many forms.
- Drink water. Drink at least 64 ounces of water a day to keep your body hydrated and full of cooling resources. Remember, water puts out fire!
- Avoid overheating. Don’t exercise in the heat of the day or garden in the full sun. If you do overheat, eat watermelon. It helps cool the body after too much sun and heat exposure.
- Mediate. Meditation keeps the nervous system cool, calm, and collected in the heat. Opportunities for joy, connection, and experiencing love arise when our nervous systems are calm and regulated. Practice 10 minutes of deep-breathing meditation a day, either with a guided app or by counting your slow in-breaths and out-breaths 25 times.
- Avoid dairy and gluten. This can feel like a tall order, so start by cutting out one dairy or gluten item in your diet. Once you’ve gotten used to living without that ingredient, work to eliminate another. If the item you eliminate is your inflammation trigger, you should notice significant improvement within the first 2 to 3 weeks of changing your diet.
- Sleep. While you sleep, your body repairs tissues and makes sure all systems are functioning efficiently. Without that rest and repair time, problems pile up. These recommendations should help lull you into a good night’s rest.
If you have trouble sleeping, find yourself a board-certified acupuncturist trained in herbology; they have a wealth of tools to balance your body for a good night’s sleep. You can also try the following tips for a restful sleep.
- Avoid eating two hours before bed, particularly spicy foods.
- Activate blue light filters on your electronic devices, and put them away an hour before bed.
- Meditate before you go to sleep.
- Drink a cup of chamomile tea with 1 tablespoon of goji berries (steeped for 10 minutes). This super-powered combination calms the heart for a peaceful sleep.
To find a board-certified acupuncturist in your area, visit NCCAOM.
The Earth Element
As summer starts winding down into the dog days of August, the energy shifts from fire to earth. In TCM, this period is its own distinct season, governed by the earth element. The energy of this season is about bounty — nurturing, nourishment, centering, and trusting. In summer, the elements come together to provide the freshest, brightest food; minerals, soil, seeds, water, and heat from the sun have all combined to create food. This is the time to focus on nourishing and connecting with yourself and others.
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The earth element presides over the spleen and stomach. When the earth element falls out of balance, digestive problems arise. This shows itself as reflux, bloating, lack or surge in appetite, sluggish digestion, and digestive discomfort. Many people experience digestive issues when they’re worried or stressed; this is because worry is the negative emotion associated with the spleen. With the digestive system at the center of our bodies, it has the power to throw all other bodily systems out of balance when unwell.
Food Tips for a Balanced Earth Element
One of the most basic ways we nourish ourselves is with food, so following a healthy diet keeps our digestive systems at peace. These suggestions help keep your diet and digestive system balanced through late summer.
- Eat warm, cooked foods. Avoid cold, raw foods. The digestive system is better at breaking down cooked foods because it takes less energy to digest them. Think of a cooking pot over a fire: The pot is your stomach and the fire is your digestive energy. Cold, raw foods require a lot of fire to be broken down into usable energy. For efficient digestion, eat foods that require less digestive energy expenditure.
- Eat balanced portions. While our bodies prefer easily digestible foods, eating too much of these foods overwhelms the system. Like any well-run structure, the digestive system needs balance to function at its best, so eat accordingly. Your average meal might consist of 2 to 2½ cups of cooked vegetables, ½ cup of quality carbohydrates (whole grains or root vegetables), and 4 to 6 ounces of protein, either plant- or animal-based.
- Drink ginger tea. If you eat cold or raw foods, drink a glass of ginger tea or eat a piece of candied ginger afterward as a digestive aid. Ginger is the ultimate digestive herb in East Asian medicine.
- Choose appropriate foods with the season. Foods associated with the spleen and stomach — and earth element — are grains and root vegetables. Enjoy quinoa, rice, wheat, barley, corn, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, squash, potatoes, and yams during late summer. The colors of the earth element are yellow and orange, and these foods fall into that color family. Not everyone can include grains in their diet, so various squash, potatoes, beans, and other nongrain carbohydrates can fulfill the earth element.
- Be kind to your body. Pleasure is an important factor in eating — too many rules and restrictions can wreak havoc on the digestive system. Remember that nurturing and nourishing include treating our digestive systems with loving kindness. To do this, pay close attention to your body and attend to what makes it thrive, what helps it feel good, and notice what makes you feel grounded.
Finding Balance in Physical Activity
The earth element also recharges with gentle, easy movements. The spleen governs the muscle system according to TCM. Give your muscles some extra love and attention in to order connect heart and head, body and mind, and move your way into a deeper sense of rootedness.
- Walk. A leisurely walk gets your system flowing with this simple goal of getting around the block. Walking also helps you de-stress and forget about your daily worries.
- Stretch. Lay down on the ground and gently move your body; it’ll tell you where it needs to stretch. Bend forward, side to side, and flex and point your feet and hands. Get on your hands and knees and slowly move your spine. Take deep breaths and feel your body. Connect with the structure of your body systems by mapping your bones in your mind, sensing the throb of your pulse and circulation, or expanding the rhythm of your breathing.
- Garden. Gardening physically connects you to the earth. Get your hands in dirt — smell it, touch it, and appreciate its unique properties for helping everything grow into fruition.
- Lay down. Simply lay down and let the earth support you. Put a blanket down outside, or lay down on your floor inside. Imagine the rich soil of the earth supporting your body.
Loving kindness toward oneself is healthcare at the deepest level. By connecting with the energy of the season, we can align our self-care practices with nature and access a deeper healing from our efforts. Remember, effective self-care isn’t a chore. By taking the extra steps to care for yourself, you set the tone for care in your life and relationships.
Julie Bear Don’t Walk is a licensed acupuncturist and national board-certified herbalist. After experiencing life-changing results of her own, she decided to spend her life helping people feel better in their bodies and their lives. You can learn more about Julie and her clinic at Julie Bear Don’t Walk.