It’s summer at long last, which some of us in the Pacific Northwest thought would never come during our long, slow spring, with weeks and weeks of record-breaking cool temperatures, rain, and heavy overcast. According to meteorologist Cliff Mass, the spring of 2011 saw “the coldest March through May at SeaTac since dependable records are available (1956).” July 4th weekend seemed to kick it off, finally!
So … as the season goes on, when temperatures start climbing above 75 or 80, let’s remember how much we longed for heat and sun, for the fire of summer …
In Chinese medicine Summer is considered to be the Fire Phase of the Five Phases, associated with the Heart and Small Intestine systems in the body.
The Heart system controls the blood vessels, is associated with the tongue, stores the spirit, and is considered the emperor of the the body, mind, and spirit, enabling laughter, joy, conscious awareness, meaningful connections to both the inner and outer worlds, and happiness through appropriate levels of intimacy with others. The Small Intestine system serves the Heart by discriminating between the necessary and unnecessary, the true and the false.
When there is too-strong Heart Fire, a person is unable to quiet the mind or emotions and often has ungrounded ideas, expressions, or actions that do not bring fulfillment. When someone’s Heart Fire is too weak, there can be unsatisfying connections with others or with work or activities.
An imbalance in the Heart/Small Intestine systems can manifest in the following symptoms:
- heart palpitations, heart pain
- chest oppression, arrhythmia, shortness of breath
- forgetfulness, absent-mindedness
- anxiety, nervousness
- inappropriate laughter
- difficulty speaking, stammering
- night sweats, spontaneous sweating
- dry throat, thirst, dark or bloody urine
Summer is a yang season of outward activity, longer days, brightness, expansion, social relatedness, growth, and creativity. The classic texts recommend rising early in the morning, welcoming the life-giving nourishment of the sun, and embodying joy, the principle emotion associated with Heart spirit. We find joy by gaining acceptance of life as it is without inner resistance, by letting go of fear, restlessness, desire, pride, jealousy, self-pity, doubt, and anger, and by not lamenting our mistakes.
THE HEART AND OUR EMOTIONS
We know in Western medicine that emotions affect the actual functioning of the heart, causing a change in pulse rate, flushing of the face, nervousness, light-headedness, and other symptoms.
The Asian view of the heart system includes not only the organ itself but also the heart as a mental-emotional center. The Chinese word for heart is xin, which is often translated as “heart-mind.” Thus in Chinese medicine the heart not only regulates blood circulation but also governs sleep, memory, spirit, consciousness, and the mind in general.
When the Heart/Small Intestine systems are in balance, there is clarity, good humor, a vision for solutions, humility, a sense of wonder and curiosity about others and the world, and a natural ability to feel and express joy.
When the Heart Shen (Spirit) is not in harmony, there can be a scattered and confused mind, depression, memory loss, insomnia, mental illness, hyperactivity, extremes of laughter (excess or none), excessive daydreaming, irrational behavior, and/or lethargy.
THE SMALL INTESTINE AND OUR EMOTIONS
In Western terms, the small intestine is where most of our digestion occurs, primarily through enzymes secreted by the pancreas. The small intestine is about 19 feet long! Lots going on there! Proteins, lipids (fats), and carbohydrates are the three major classes of nutrients that are sorted and processed by the small intestine.
The inner wall of the small intestine has microscopic finger-like projections called villi (Latin for “shaggy hair”). The inside of a healthy small intestine looks like a shag rug. All that surface area serves to absorb and transport substances via the blood vessels to different organs in the body, or to send waste matter to the large intestine to be eliminated. When the lining has been damaged, as in celiac disease, the shag rug looks more like a smooth linoleum floor—the villi get blunted and then flattened.
In metaphoric/emotional terms, the Small Intestine system helps us “digest the indigestible” or “stomach” something. When we’re faced with difficult situations, we have to “take it in,” absorb the meaning, process the feelings, sort out what applies and what can be let go of. What we don’t assimilate or eliminate remains stuck within and can cause us to have sluggish or frozen energy.
We are all being bombarded with words, images, and information that can feel like too much to process. We are sharing through social networks like Facebook and Twitter but often not getting back nourishment for the Heart spirit. As Paul Pitchford puts it in Healing With Whole Foods, “Energy from excessive thought and worry races through the head while the heart is impoverished.”
Pitchford recommends foods for calming and focusing the mind and supporting the Heart system. He advises a simple diet with occasional light fasting as a way to create deep, peaceful thinking, plus avoiding food habits that scatter the mind or overheat the body. “Too many ingredients in meals, very spicy or rich foods, refined sugar, alcohol, coffee, late-night eating, and large evening meals can cause insomnia as well as a profusion of mental chatter during the day.”
The following are some of Pitchford’s food recommendations for reducing anxiety, alleviating insomnia, and improving mental focus by quieting the spirit and helping it stay centered in the heart:
- Brown rice and oats gently but profoundly calm the mind.
- Nearly all mushrooms have cerebral effects. Reishi mushrooms are an immune tonic and directly nurture the heart, soothe the spirit, and calm the mind. The immune system is connected to the nervous system at the hypothalamus and pituitary gland.
- Cucumber, celery, and lettuce contain silicon, which improves calcium metabolism and strengthens nerve and heart tissue.
- Mulberries and lemons calm the mind.
- Dill and basil can be used in both food and teas for their calming effect.
- Chamomile, catnip, skullcap, and/or valerian are all helpful for anxiety or insomnia; taking rose hips with these herbs supplies Vitamin C for soothing the nerves.
- Turkey, bananas, and milk all contain L-tryptophan, which is also taken widely as a supplement to calm the mind, promote sound sleep, and relieve depression.
- Green foods are rich in magnesium, which allows calcium to function properly in the tissues of the heart and nerves; magnesium also restrains the “anxiety peptide,” a complex of amino acids in the brain that appears to contribute to anxiety. Green in general is considered to be a healing, grounding, harmonious color.
- Jujube seeds (Ziziphus jujuba) are in a Chinese herbal formula, Suan Zao Ren Wan, widely used for calming the spirit and alleviating insomnia. Jujube seeds are considered to directly nourish the heart. I carry this formula in my practice.