Summer-heat is a condition that is caused by exposure to the excessive heat and humidity of summer. In western medicine this condition is called heat-exhaustion or, if more severe, heat-stroke. Exposure to the elements is a common contributing factor in illness and imbalance, but isn’t one we often think about because we tend to spend so much time indoors. Many of us are outside just minutes per day in little spurts 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, and protecting us from wind and precipitation. During earlier times in human history, however, we spent a significant part of our day outdoors, and protecting ourselves from exposure was a daily concern. It is under these conditions that Chinese medicine was developed, so there is an emphasis in this field on how environmental factors can contribute to illness and disease.
Summer-heat is probably one of the most common ways we are affected by exposure in modern times. One reason 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. This is sort of like how over-protecting ourselves from germs can make us more susceptible to microbial infections. Another reason is that we don’t prepare. For our ancestors, exposure was a real concern and they were faced with life-threatening situations on a much more frequent basis. We, on the other hand, have become spoiled by easy access to artificial environments. 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 from the elements. I also think that we have lost the general collective knowledge and awareness of what the early symptoms of exposure are. Unless you are were in the scouts or are trained in first aid, odds are you have no clue.
Summer-heat affects our bodies by causing them to overheat and dry out. The first signs of overheating are sweating and clammy, pale skin as our bodies attempt to release excess heat to help regulate our internal temperature. The heat makes our mouths dry and increases our thirst, causing us to crave the cooling fluids that we need. As our bodies dehydrate our blood volume actually decreases, leading to low blood pressure. Low blood pressure plus low blood volume means headaches and dizziness because we literally lack enough blood to nourish the uppermost reaches of our bodies. The effort to eliminate extreme amounts of heat through copious sweating saps our energy, causing fatigue and physical weakness. If a person with these symptoms does not rest, drink fluids, and remove themselves from the sun and heat, the condition may progress to the next level, leading to poor appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and dark urine. Though rare, this condition can progress even further and become so extreme that it is life-threatening.
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, and and stay hydrated. If you or someone you know starts to have early symptoms of summer-heat, get them out of the sun and heat to a cool and dark place and give them plenty of fluids. If things progress to the next level, they may need medical attention. In western medicine the most common treatment would be re-hydration with fluids and electrolytes through an IV drip. In Chinese medicine acupuncture and herbs are used to reduce internal heat, promote moisture in the body, and give relief from symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
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 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 an excellent remedy as well. The sugars in this fruit boost energy and the juiciness replenishes fluids. Watermelon is also loaded with electrolytes 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!