Beat the Heat: How summer heat can cause imbalances, and what to do about it

summer heat, chinese medicine, acupuncture, cooling foods, health issues, heatstroke

We have had some serious heat waves already this summer! Most people feel lousy in extremely hot, humid temperatures, and as we know from worst case scenarios, it can be life threatening. Chinese medicine theory has long considered environmental factors a potential threat to human health-specifically, wind, cold, dampness/humidity, dryness, and summer heat. Exposure to any of these so called “external pathogens” is well-documented as a cause of disease in the ancient texts. The elements can penetrate the human body and disrupt the balance within, leading to complex consequences.


In the case of summer heat, prolonged exposure can not only produce sunburnt skin, but symptoms of heatstroke: excessive sweating, thirst/dry mouth, fever, fatigue/lassitude, delirium, changes in blood pressure, swelling, headache, fainting, blurry vision, flushed face, full rapid pulse, dehydration and so forth. Chinese medicine identifies summer heat as a yang-natured, “pernicious influence” that provokes the pores of the skin to “stay open,” which is why people sweat profusely and become dehydrated. Summer heat tends to move upward, which brings about ailments in the upper body, like dizziness and headache. Ultimately, summer heat exposure exhausts qi, drains body fluid, and causes significant deficiency. When it combines with dampness, another pernicious influence (as with hot summer rain or high humidity), the resulting symptoms might look slightly different: nausea and poor appetite, digestive distress, heaviness in the head, stuffiness in the chest.


Acupuncture and Chinese herbs provide relief from some of these heat-induced symptoms. Herbs that have cooling properties may be helpful when brewed as teas. Acupuncture points aimed at releasing heat and addressing the resulting syndromes are very useful this time of year. Many of these points are located on the extremities. Pre-existing illnesses may be aggravated in this climate, for example in patients with diabetes, menopause, or IBS. Treatments are especially beneficial for these folks.

What can we do to protect ourselves from these extreme summer temperatures so that we may carry on with our lives? Here are some practical recommendations:


Food and Drink

  • Drink plenty of water, and fluids in general (coconut water is particularly hydrating); avoid dehydrating beverages with caffeine or alcohol. Sugary drinks can also be counterproductive. Peppermint tea is very cooling, even when consumed hot. (In fact, hot beverages can induce a little sweating which may, in turn, help cool you down.)
  • Eat foods that contain a lot of water, and foods that have cooling properties: banana, watermelon, melons, berries, citrus, pears, apples, cucumbers, leafy greens, mint, tomato, radish, broccoli, seaweed, bean curd, yogurt, kefir, clams. (*Consider steaming your vegetables, as eating a largely raw diet may be difficult for your digestion.)
  • If you feel bloated, try eating smaller meals throughout the day and avoid heavy foods in general.


When Outdoors

  • If you must exercise outdoors, do it in the morning or evening when temperatures are cooler.
  • Generally, check the weather and air quality if you plan on being outside for long periods (some people have an increase in symptoms like asthma with high ozone  levels).
  • Plan your outdoor activities, errands, etc., with the forecast in mind; in other words, don’t opt to carry a ton of heavy groceries during a heat wave in the     afternoon, the hottest time of day.
  • Use sunscreen and wear appropriate apparel- a hat and loose clothing with breathable fabric like linen or cotton helps.
  • Choose the shady side of the street if you have a long walk.
  • Limit time out in the sun! The ill effects can happen quickly.
  • Use cold compresses on your neck or wrists if you feel overheated; always carry water with you. Portable fans (the old-fashioned ones or electronic handhelds) work miracles on hot subway platforms.


At Home

  • Of course, air conditioning and fans placed strategically to circulate the air are essential in NYC. Another way to keep your apartment cool is by drawing shades or curtains during the hottest times of the day.
  • If you have an app or smart plug, you can turn your air conditioner on before you arrive home so that the temperature is more comfortable (if you’ve been out for the day).    


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