As I sit here in the middle of another heat wave in the Northeast, my mind wanders to thinking about ways to keep cool in this hot summer weather. Besides sitting in the air conditioning or jumping in the ocean, Chinese medicine offers us some ways to cool off from the inside out.
Before I get into the specifics, I’d like to review a quick lesson on Chinese herbal medicine and the classification of medicinal herbs. First, Traditional Chinese Medicine has a very systematic method for classifying and categorizing medicinal substances based on their effects on the body. This system is based on literally thousands of years of research and clinical experience. As a general point, we can think of food and medicinal herbs as lying on the same continuum of medicinal substances and Traditional Chinese Medicine uses the same methods of categorization and classification for medicinal herbs as it does for foods. So our food is medicine in a sense, medicine that is generally mild-acting but medicine that we consume daily over the course of our entire lives. Here is a nice post on the classification of foods in Chinese medicine.
One of the main categories of the medicinal classification system is what Chinese Medicine would call the thermal nature of medicinals. Basically this relates to the medicinal’s effect on the “temperature” of the body. This may or may not translate to the actual body temperature read on a thermometer. The thermal effects of a medicinal may also relate to a person’s subjective experience of how hot or cold they feel.
So, in order to counteract the extreme heat of summer in the Northeast, it is helpful for us to increase the overall proportion of cooling foods in our diet. This recommendation of course does not take into account any individual differences between people who may need other, specific dietary advice based on their health status (talk to your acupuncturist!). Unfortunately, this recommendation also doesn’t mean that we should eat pints of ice cream daily in order to cool off!
One way to get more cooling foods in our diets is through making refreshing herbal teas. Two of the tastiest and healthiest cooling herbs that we can use to make teas are chrysanthemum (known in Chinese as ju hua) and mint (known as bo he).
Dried chrysanthemum flowers for tea can be a little hard to find but if you have access to an Oriental food market, you will definitely find some there (I’d be happy to sell you some too, just email the office). Chrysanthemum tea is commonly served at Chinese Dim Sum restaurants to aid digestion of the heavy foods. It also has a special affinity for the eyes and it can help soothe red, irritated eyes. You can brew chrysanthemum using a sun tea method or you can use boiling water to make the tea. For one cup I typically use a decent-sized pinch of flower buds. Experiment with different amounts based on your taste preferences. If you steep chrysanthemum in boiling water for more than 3-4 minutes, it can start to get bitter (this will be less of an issue with sun tea).
Mint is readily available in most super markets and it is also super easy to grow if you are so inclined. Take a cutting from a friend or take a stalk from some mint that you buy, strip the leaves off of the lower few inches and stick it in water for a few weeks. After you see some roots growing you can plant it in soil, either in the ground or in a pot. Mint is a perennial plant that does well in containers and grows like a weed (it can actually take over your garden if you plant it in the ground).
When it is hot and sunny out, I like to make sun tea with mint. Take a handful of fresh leaves, rough chop them and stick them in a clear pitcher with water. Place the container in a sunny spot for 2-6 hours (more time equals stronger tea). After it has brewed, place in the fridge to cool it off then enjoy. Add a little honey if you want some sweetness. I like to combine the mint and chrysanthemum and brew it in the sun. It is a super tasty treat! If you don’t have the patience or forethought for sun tea, you can brew the tea using boiling water. You can also use dried mint leaves instead of fresh (decrease the amount of mint substantially if using dried leaves).
Many fruits are cooling to the body as well. Watermelon is one of the coolest (and most refreshing!) options. As we get into late summer and fresh pears are available, they are another great option for cooling down and staying well hydrated.
Of course you should always remember to drink lots of extra water when it’s super hot outside. And don’t forget to protect your skin too. Stay Cool!!
Beach, mint and watermelon photos from FreeDigitalPhotos.net