Summer can be a very energetic time of year, a time when many of us head to the outdoors for increased activities during the longer, warmer days. But as heat wave records make headlines across the country, it’s critical to protect yourself by staying cool
. While extra movement, time in nature and fresh air can do wonders for your health, it’s also vital to pay close attention to your body’s vulnerabilities as 2012 continues to heat up.
Summer and Fire In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), summer relates to the fire element—and on a physical level, TCM emphasizes the health of your heart and circulatory system during this season. As daylight increases, your energy and activity will naturally expand, reaching farther away from your core and calling on strong circulation to keep up with the increased demands. And as temperatures rise, healthy circulation and its anti-inflammatory effects become even more important.
Poor circulation creates a condition of stagnation throughout the bloodstream. This can be aggravated during the summer due to heat and dehydration, which makes our blood thick and sticky, and without enough fluids to keep circulation flowing smoothly. On a chronic level this is referred to in Western medicine as hyperviscous coagulation, or hyperviscosity. Stagnant blood in turn generates more heat, furthering a vicious cycle of chronic inflammation throughout the body. And as we know, chronic inflammation is the hallmark of a wide variety of illnesses, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and cancer.
Hyperviscosity of the blood is sometimes due to genetic tendency. Approximately 25 percent of the population exhibits one or more inherited “defects” which can be measured through cardiovascular blood screening. People with these genetic markers, such as elevated Lp(a) (Lipoprotein-a); PAI-1(Plasminogen Activation Inhibitor 1); or homocysteine, are more prone to high cholesterol, high blood pressure and heart disease as well as aggressive cancer and other chronic illnesses. But hyperviscosity can also be caused by unhealthy lifestyle, dietary habits, and infections or traumas. Together, hyperviscosity and chronic inflammation set the stage for a number of deadly diseases. But regardless of whether you are genetically predisposed to these issues, or whether your lifestyle is to blame, or both, there are a number of ways to prevent the damage, stay healthy and protect against disease.
Heat Waves and Heart Attacks During summer, the combination of hot weather, chronic inflammation, and lack of circulation can turn deadly, increasing the risks of heart attack, stroke, and other serious cardiovascular events. Additional summer health risks, such as heat stroke/heat exhaustion, burns, and dehydration, are all related to excess inflammation, causing our engines to “overheat.”
So the most important step you can take to protect your health during summer is to keep chronic inflammation in check. This degenerative process of continuous “overheating” degrades your body through wear, tear, and oxidative stress, serving as a primary function of the aging process—and of degenerative, life-threatening diseases.
Keeping Your Cool What can you do this season to make sure your heart stays strong and your body cool and hydrated? Here are some steps you can take to protect your health in the heat.
Take advantage of the increase in fresh produce available this time of year. Emphasize leafy greens, and rehydrating fruits and vegetables with high water and mineral content. These not only help replenish fluids, but they are very high in phytonutrients and antioxidants, things we need to combat inflammation and resulting oxidative stress. Oxidative stress in this case is mainly caused by waste from our cells’ mitochondria—the engines that power our cells—working too quickly in the heat. This excess cellular waste accumulates faster in conditions of poor circulation and inflammation. So if you eat a fresh produce diet that is high in antioxidants, phytonutrients, and ingredients that support the detox process, you help to get rid of the byproducts of mitochondrial “heat.” In this way, an abundance of fresh vegetables and fruits help break the cycle of inflammation, hyperviscosity and heat damage.
Drink LOTS of fresh, filtered water (approximately 64 ounces a day). This will keep fluid levels at a maximum to help circulation stay strong, reduce inflammation and help clear mitochondrial waste products and other toxins.
Replenish electrolytes with a healthy electrolyte and mineral supplement. Potassium is an important electrolyte, as well as magnesium, calcium and trace minerals. Electrolytes support communication between cells and are critical to basic biological functions, but we lose them through sweat and dehydration. High-quality coconut water is a good natural choice.
Take cooling, anti-inflammatory supplements. When we have a lot of heat, we need to cool our systems, and for this we can use different anti-inflammatory supplements. There are three basic categories of supplements that can help reduce inflammation. Botanicals and nutrients directly reduce inflammatory reactions in the body. Other botanicals and nutrients also offer antioxidant support to prevent oxidative heat damage. Botanicals and nutrients that help circulation are also important because through increased circulation, chronic inflammation and “blood stickiness” is reduced. An excellent example is curcumin derived from turmeric root: It is an anti-inflammatory, it’s an antioxidant and it promotes circulation.
Slow down. On the level of physics, if you have more heat, everything moves faster—even our thoughts can move faster. So the natural balance is to slow down, by taking more time for sleep, relaxation and rest. Stress-relieving activities like meditation, art, listening to music and vacations in nature help to calm the system so that heat, inflammation and the resulting congestion is reduced. For this reason, it’s very important to take time off in the summer—something that seems to be lacking in the American culture. People often take only a two or three-day vacation, but it really takes six to seven days for the body to start unwinding from the daily grind.
Get adequate sleep. Regular sleep helps keep our body’s normal functions running smoothly, including repair mechanisms which are essential in hot weather.
Engage in gentle, regular exercise. Walking is especially beneficial (without overheating in the midday sun). Gentle exercise promotes healthy circulation and helps us to relax. Regular, rhythmic exercise is particularly valuable in helping to keep you calm yet energized, while boosting circulation and reducing inflammation. That’s the value of practices like yoga, Tai Chi or Qi Gong, which have a calming, rhythmic breathing element to them.
Slowing down and making sure that you allow your body to cool down, regulate internal temperatures, and regenerate fluids are necessary preventative measures for a long and healthy life. These simple steps are even more important for your health and vitality during periods of prolonged heat.
Botanicals and Nutrients Cardiovascular and circulatory health is a big focus in my clinical practice—and for my patients. Circulation-boosting botanicals and enzymes include: • Hawthorn berry • Ginger • Turmeric • Chinese salvia • L-carnitine • Omega-3 oils • Enzymes like nattokinase, lumbrokinase, and others.
Repairing Chronic Heat Damage We know from basic physics that heat is a manifestation of an increase in kinetic movement—and when you live a high-paced lifestyle with no time to relax, “cool,” rehydrate, and lubricate your body, your “engine” is going to heat up. Sometimes, this damage from chronic excess heat can be more serious, requiring replenishment not just in the form of extra fluids and electrolytes, but also “fluid-generating” herbs and botanicals that can help hydrate and maintain moisture in tissues and organs.
This type of heat damage can be addressed by a group of botanicals called “body fluid regenerators” (or yin regeneration herbs, as they are classified in TCM) that work on different parts of the body:
• Tian men dong (asparagus tuber) and mai men dong (Ophipogon tuber) work to promote blood and fluids in the heart, the lungs, and the stomach • Shu hu (dendrobium stem) helps maintain moisture in the lungs, the stomach, and the eyes • Zhi mu (Anemarrhena root) is another herb that’s very important for the stomach when you have severe dryness • Sheng di huang (Rehmmania) is also very important for nourishing the blood, which moisturizes all the organs.
So sometimes, you have to balance between clearing the heat and nourishing the body fluids.
A whole-foods diet rich in fruits, vegetables, unprocessed whole grains, and essential fatty acids (found in nuts and fish) is also a crucial part of a strong, healthy circulatory system. The antioxidants, fiber, and omega-3s this type of diet provides serve to minimize the effects of free radicals, promote healthy arteries, and soothe excessive heat.
Summer can be an exciting and rewarding time of year, offering more time in nature, opportunities for new adventure, an abundance of healthy fresh produce, summer celebrations, and more. If we take the right steps to promote our health in the midst of this season’s warmth and activity, we can reap the benefits of increased vitality and energy, rather than wilting away under the scorching heat.