Summer-Heat: Chinese Medicine and Seasonal Exposure

Exposure to the elements can be a significant contributing factor in illness and imbalance but isn't one we often think about in modern times. Most of us are outdoors just minutes per day as we move between our car and various buildings with controlled environments. Air conditioning, central heating, and devices that control humidity help us modify our interior spaces, significantly neutralizing extremes in temperature and moisture. While inside we are also protected from major weather events like blizzards and hurricanes. During earlier times in human history, however, we spent much more time outdoors, and protecting ourselves from exposure was a daily concern. It is during this time that Chinese medicine was developed, so there is more of an understanding in this field about how environmental factors can contribute to illness and disease.

Summer Sun

Summer-heat is a seasonal condition that is caused by exposure to excessive heat and humidity. In western medicine, this condition is called heat exhaustion or, if more severe, heat stroke. We are particularly susceptible to this and other types of exposure in modern times for three main reasons. One is that we spend so much time in controlled environments that we are actually less acclimated to the outdoors. Our bodies just aren't as practiced at neutralizing the effects of the elements, whatever they are. Another reason is that we don't prepare for the elements. For our ancestors, exposure was a real concern and they were faced with it on a much more regular basis. We, on the other hand, have become spoiled by easy access to artificial environments and can easily escape. Thinking about exposure is usually outside the scope of our day-to-day consciousness so we are less likely to do the things we need to do to protect ourselves. The third reason is that we have lost a lot of the general collective knowledge and awareness of what the early symptoms of exposure are so we are less likely to see the warning signs. Unless you were in the scouts or are trained in first aid, odds are you just don't know.

The first stage of summer-heat is called heat exhaustion. In this stage, our bodies begin to overheat and dry out. Symptoms include copious sweating, clammy/pale skin, dry mouth, thirst, dark urine, dizziness, fatigue, weakness, muscle cramps, nausea and/or vomiting, and a rapid but weak pulse. If a person with these symptoms does not rest, rehydrate, and remove themselves from the sun and heat, the condition may progress to the second stage, heat stroke. In this second stage, our bodies begin to loose the ability to regulate our internal temperature and it starts to rise to dangerous levels. Symptoms include lack of sweating, hot/red/dry skin, fever, throbbing headache, dizziness, nausea and/or vomiting, loss of consciousness, and a rapid and forceful pulse. This is a serious, life-threatening situation where you must seek immediate medical attention.

The best treatment for summer-heat is prevention: dress lightly when it is hot out, don't exercise in the late afternoon when the temperature peaks, avoid extremes of heat and sun, stay hydrated, and avoid consuming alcohol as it is both heating and dehydrating. If you or someone you know starts to have early symptoms of summer-heat, lie them down in a cool and dark place and give them plenty of fluids. Fluids that contain electrolytes, like coconut water or sports drinks, are best at replacing both the water and salts that are lost to sweating. If heatstroke develops and medical intervention is necessary, the most common treatment would be re-hydration with fluids and electrolytes through an IV drip.

Traditional southern remedies like iced honeysuckle flower tea re-hydrate us and cool us from the inside out. In Chinese medicine, honeysuckle flower is considered to be so effective an herb for eliminating heat from the body that it is prescribed not just for summer-heat, but also for fevers, sore throats, inflamed sores, intestinal abscesses, and infectious dysentery. Watermelon is another important Chinese herb for summer-heat. The sugars in this fruit boost energy and the juiciness replenishes fluids. Watermelon is also loaded with electrolytes, especially the pulp that is closest to the rind, and promotes urination. This combination stimulates the urinary system to eliminate heat from the interior of the body out via the kidneys and bladder. Stay cool!

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