SummerTime of the Heart and Spleen Elements According to Traditional Chinese Medicine
Melanie Haggert Dr Acupuncture RAc RMT BFA
SummerTime of the Heart and Spleen Elements According to Traditional Chinese Medicine
For the population that lives above the 49th parallel summer is a favourite time of year. Our daylight hours are much longer. It feels so good to have the sun on our skin. The air is warm, leaves are fully grown, the grass is green and crops are planted and growing. It’s time to relax and create some fun after all the hard work of spring planting. It’s a time to have joy with the ease of summer living. There are activities like travel, tending gardens, hiking, camping, swimming and reading a book in the shade. One of my favourite things about summer is we get to eat all the food that we have tended with love and care from the gardens and orchards. Can you tell I love summer!
Quick introduction, my name is Melanie and I’m a Traditional Chinese Medicine(TCM) practitioner. I practice TCM, Acupuncture, herbal medicine, cupping, massage and listening. I truly love what I do. My treatment room is my sanctuary. It is my sacred place. I fell in love with TCM over 16 years ago when I had some health issues of my own. Receiving acupuncture transformed my life. I wanted to learn all I could about TCM. I enrolled in school, finished my practicum in Beijing and now want to share what I have learned and keep learning everyday in my practice.
In TCM the summer seasons are very similar to ours and yet do not have exact dates like in our calendar. In the Gregorian calendar summer is from June 20 to September 22, but in TCM Summer and Late Summer usually starts similar to ours give or take a few days on either side of the Summer and Fall solstices. It’s also the time of the greatest Yang energy. The Sages/Taoists watched nature to see where the season changed into summer based on the suns location, the warmth of the soil for growing plants and important “frostless” nights. Late Summer is a continuation of summer past the end of September to just before the hard frost of fall.
The 5 elements of TCM say summer is the Element of Fire, and late summer is the Element of Earth. If these organs are not balanced and working optimally when their season comes around, I find there are more issues getting them into balance when the season is here. The organ associated with the Element of Fire, is the Heart. Late summer is the Element of Earth, is the Spleen/Pancreas.
The Heart in TCM houses the Shen, (which means Spirit) not like a religious soul but the essence/energy of mental and physical health that holds the Heart-Mind connection. The heart is responsible for the actions of the body. Its job is pumping nourishing blood to the biggest arteries and smallest capillaries. I feel the heart houses the “common sense” of the emotional world when it’s in balance. The sound of the Heart is laughter, the flavour is bitter, the colour is red and the temperature is hot. When the Heart-Mind is out of balance you can get one or many of these symptoms: insomnia, anxiety, mania, chest palpitations, outbursts of laughter in non appropriate times or absence of laughter, being overly talkative, short term memory loss, poor circulation, speech problems like stuttering, confused speech, aversion to heat, head sweats, depression and anxiety.
I have found over the years of practice that Heart issues can arise from other organ imbalances affecting the heart. My experience in the treatment room I’ve learned that sudden loss, tragic events, and literally heart breaking moments substantially affect the Heart. When treating trauma, I do recommend other modalities like counselling, Naturopathic Medicine, Western Medicine, or whatever you prefer as we are multifaceted beings while finding alternative answers can help create emotional balance again.
The emotion attached to the Heart is Joy. Joy can manifest with different interests and actions. Doing things we enjoy for example; listening to music, cooking, gardening, eating, drinking, sharing great company, creating art, etc….are things that can bring personal joy. Keep in mind, too much of a good thing can also bring imbalance effecting the heart, in turn causing the list above.
We live in such an age of overstimulation, which includes our busy lifestyle, disconnection to nature, social media, how and when we watch or get the news. I feel that we are in such a state of Sympathetic(flight, fight or freeze) overload that we stop breathing properly and are only breathing shallow short breaths from the top of our chest. You know what I mean, it’s like a panting breath. Unfortunately it has become the norm.
That way of breathing puts us into Sympathetic mode 24-7. The Heart starts to beat faster, pumping blood to the organs that we need for survival while reserving energy from other organ systems like digestion, over time will cause issues. The Sympathetic mode is great when we are fighting for our lives but we are breathing and living like this constantly and it’s taxing on all our organs especially our Heart-mind! To help my patients regain balance, I work with them to control their breath. I give my patients homework. Set the alarm on your phone every few hours to stop take 10-20 breaths of 5 counts each. This will get your body nourished, slow the heart and nourish your mind!
The Element of Fire’s temperature is Hot. In the summertime, as the outside temperature rises, and depending on where you live, this can defiantly affect the Heart. As the outside temperature rises it can also rise from the heart to the head causing us to overheat or get sunstroke.
The taste of the Fire Element is Bitter. Let’s eat some bitter foods that help balance the Heart and aid in digestion while clearing stagnate heat. Now is the time to eat raw fresh foods from the gardens and orchards. Our Western diet doesn't include a lot of bitter flavours, but these are so Heart healthy. Some foods you can add to take down the excess heat in the heart can be: grains, whole wheat, brown rice, and even oats can calm the heart. Mushrooms like Reishi and Poria can calm the mind and in turn calm the Heart. Silicone foods like oat-straw tea, barley gruel, cucumber, celery and lettuce, which are readily available in the summer are good for improving calcium metabolism and assist nerve and heart tissue. Fruits like mulberries, Schisandra berries and lemon can calm the Shen and the heart. Seeds like chia and jujube seeds have some sedative qualities. Spices like dill and basil can be used in food to add flavour and calm that Heart. Chamomile, catnip, skullcap and valerian can make for relaxing teas as well.
Eating what is locally available in the summer is so beneficial for our overall Heart health. Mix it up with fresh salads of simple garden veggies. You can also cook vegetables quickly with steam, or sautéing them. The secret is to flash cook them to hold their vibrant colour, but do not overcook. Enjoy the simple flavours of the fresh garden treasures. Your heart will thank you, so will your tummy!
Late Summer is the Earth Element, time of the Spleen/Pancreas. The colour is yellow, the emotion is anxiety/over thinking and the flavour is sweet. It’s also the time where the seasons turn from Yang to more Yin. I find that with our western diet and lifestyle this is a common organ I treat in my clinic along with the Liver (article in the last issue).
The function of the Spleen/Pancreas and Stomach in TCM is many things. It is responsible for the transformation and transportation of food nutrients, in turn creating wellness. Because of essences extracted from digestion this will assist in making a stronger immune system, while offering more vitality, warmth, development of tissues and stronger mental functions. A balanced Spleen/Pancreas person has strong working habits, common sense and overall good health. Having a strong digestive system is the start of a healthy body, including good mental acuity. The latter, with an imbalanced Spleen/Pancreas can feel some or all of the following symptoms: chronic fatigue, listless, sinking feeling, poor digestion, bloating, constipation or watery loose stools with undigested food, unclear thinking, fuzzy or cotton brain, constant worry, over thinking, overweight without over eating or thin without being able to gain weight, exhaustion upon waking in the morning, bruising easily, a poor immune system, and craving sweets.
The Emotion of the Spleen is worry and over thinking. If we are at time where there is overthinking from school or work, we are caught up in that busy brain loop that can be very taxing on the Spleen causing an imbalance to happen. Again, taking time to breathe can help calm that busy mind.
I like to focus on acupuncture treatments first, then dietary changes can help with strengthening the Spleen/Pancreas. Foods to avoid are highly refined and processed foods like sugar, dairy, cold and iced foods. Ice cream, yogurt and sugary cold drinks can be especially harmful. Excess of those can harm the Spleen and cause a multitude of digestive issues. I know, “How can raw, cold food or iced cold drinks be harmful?” is a question I get all the time by patients who love their ice cold items especially in the summer when its hot out. If your Spleen is balanced then you will have little or none of the issues from the above list, so you can have some ice cold/raw items. If you have many of those symptoms on the list then it’s best to avoid raw, cold, iced food or beverages, late night eating and overeating, until we get your Spleen balanced and back to optimal health. The mechanism behind what I’m saying is this; our bodies have an average temp of 37c the body does well eating warm, cooked food and drinks. Cold temperatures constrict movement. Once we add that raw, cold or frozen food or drink it takes a lot of energy to warm up the items in our already weak Spleen/Stomach that move the digestive process forward. The more cold/raw food we eat the more it taxes our overall digestive system causing it to become sluggish and damp. If you are getting these symptoms adding warm food and drinks, can help better your digestion. After long term cold damage, the digestive tract is hindered and your immune system and vitality can become depleted. The Spleen/Pancreas likes to be warm and dry like the late summer season.
The food we need to add to support the Spleen/Pancreas are somewhat warming and neutral but easy to digest with lots of nutrients, are as follows. Complex carbohydrates that are somewhat sweet and or pungent like well cooked brown rice, various squash, peas, sweet potato, yams, pumpkin, black beans, carrots, parsnip and chick peas. More pungent foods are: onions, leeks, black pepper, ginger, cinnamon, fennel garlic and nutmeg. If you are craving sweet, add small amounts of cooked fruits like apples, pears, peaches, rice syrup, barley malt, molasses some cherries and dates. The only dairy that should be consumed with the imbalanced Spleen/Pancreas is butter or Ghee(clarified butter).
The colour of the Earth Element is yellow. Think of the ripening crops of late summer and all that beauty. Harvest starts to takes place in the late summer. Gathering all of our food we have been tending to with love and energy, it’s getting us ready for the long cooler seasons of fall and winter.
These seasons of Summer and Later Summer are my favourite times of the year. It has an ease about it that you don’t get in the winter. Feeling the grass on your feet or putting your feet in a stream, laying under a tree with a slight breeze feels so wonderful and nourishing. Take time out of our busy lives to breathe and feel the wonders of the season. I recommend finding a Registered acupuncturist for more in-depth diagnosis and get a treatment plan set up. There is usually more than one organ system imbalance going on and acupuncture TCM can help with balancing all of our organs and overall wellness. Here are some good recipes for summer and late summer to assist with balancing your Heart and Spleen. Enjoy!
The following recipes are from Healing with Whole Foods, by Paul Pitchford
Knife and Fork Vegetables
1 large onion, quartered
2 sweet potatoes, thickly sliced
1 bay leaf
3/4 tsp cumin
Sea salt to taste
1 teaspoon kelp powder
1 head cabbage, cut into 8 wedges
3 small crookneck squash, cut in half lengthwise
2 zucchinis, thinly sliced
1-2 cups broth, bone or veggie
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
In a large pot cook onion, potatoes, sweet potatoes, bay leaf, cumin, salt, and kelp simmering in a little broth until tender.
Add cabbage, squash and zucchini. Simmer 7-9 minutes until colours are vivid.
Remove vegetables and place on a large platter
Add vinegar to the broth, heat through and pour over vegetables
Serve with lemon wedges
Enjoy with friends!
Green Summer Soup
6 cups water or bone broth or veggie broth
4 medium potatoes, chopped
1/4 medium onion or leek, chopped
2-3 cups kale or summer greens, chopped
5-7 Basil leaves fresh
2 cloves garlic
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp olive oil
Bring liquid to boil
Add potatoes, onion and salt, cover
Reduce heat, simmer till tender
Add kale, basil and garlic, simmer till kale is tender and bright green
Puree all ingredients together
Add olive oil before serving
Enjoy with friends!
Oatmeal Almond Custard
3-4 cups cooked oatmeal
1-2 apples, grated or seasonal summer fruit, pears, peaches
1 tsp cinnamon
Sea salt to taste
1/4 cup barley malt or 1/3 tsp of stevia powder if you like it sweet
1/2 cup of toasted oat flakes
1/4 cup of ground almonds
Preheat oven to 350F
Brush pan with oil
Sprinkle bottom wand sides with oat flakes
Combine oatmeal, cooked fruit, cinnamon, sweetener and salt
Fill pie pan and sprinkle almonds on top
Bake 30 minutes
Cool and cut into slices
Enjoy with friends!
References for article:
Healing with Whole Foods, by Paul Pitchford
Between Heaven and Earth a Guide to Chinese Medicine, Harriet Beinfield and Efrem Korngold
The Web That Has No Weaver, Ted Kapchuk
The Five Spirits, Alchemical Acupuncture for Psychological and Spiritual Healing, Lorie Eve Dechar