late summer: the time of earth

The change of seasons holds special attention in Chinese medicine as a time signifying an energetic shift within an individual and their natural environment. Each person’s body registers this change on both a physical and an energetic level. Specific considerations and recommendations are necessary to ensure optimal balance and health during this transition. The Law of the Five Elements dictates the existence of a fifth season known as late summer, related to the element of earth.

late summer

The organ systems associated with the earth element are the yin meridian of the spleen and yang meridian of the stomach. Known as the “source of life”, the bio-energetic function of the Spleen is transformation and transportation of food, production of Blood, and transformation of fluids in the body. And the function of the stomach is extraction of energy from foods and fluids, known as the “minister of the mill”. Once the stomach breaks down and digests food, the spleen transforms it into usable nutrition and Qi and transports this food essence to the entire body.

When the spleen and stomach’s ability to govern digestion is hampered, indigestion, poor assimilation, bloating, and phlegm may result. If the spleen’s ability to produce Blood is problematic, this becomes the underlying cause for anemia, fatigue, or excessive bruising. Failure of spleen’s ability to transform fluids leads to water retention, joint problems, phlegm, and bloating. With this knowledge, it becomes obvious why the spleen is said to be the source of life, as digestion is not only about food, but also nourishment of the body with Blood and proper flow of fluids throughout the body. And because the spleen and stomach is the earth element – these functions are especially crucial during the season of late summer.

Each of the five seasons function to support transition from one to the next. The heat, stillness and tranquility characteristic of late summer turns into the cooler temperature, ripening and fullness of the fall season. Furthermore, late summer serves as a bridge between the environmental cycles of spring/summer and those of fall/winter. More specifically, it bridges the yang male quality of expansion, playfulness, and the yin female quality of storage, inwardness, mysteriousness, and coolness. Even with living so much of the late summer in an air conditioned environment our bodies are still naturally in tune with the timeless rhythm of this season.

Vulnerability to catching colds and flus is heightened during the change of seasons, as well as potential for resurgence of a chronic condition. A person who’s flow of Qi and energy is out of harmony with the seasonal frequency is more likely to have this happen - potentially leading to inner turmoil, Qi deficiency and even debility and illness. All these factors point to the necessity for extra help to maximize healing and provide a much needed Qi boost to digestive energy and immune function. Calming the mind together with enhancing positive emotions (sympathy and nurturing) associated with the earth element help subdue the negative earth emotions (overthinking and worry) – both to ensure proper function of the spleen and stomach.

Chinese medicine treatments balance and strengthen Qi to align one’s energy
with the change of season to both prevent physical illness and emotional distress.

Prevention is a key guiding principle in Chinese medicine to maintain health of the earth vital organs. It is much easier to rid the body of a superficial imbalance in the beginning, rather than after it has become entrenched and imbedded deep into the body. This means doing something proactive to support the seasonal shift of late summer like acupuncture or Chinese herbs to maintain integration of mind and body through energetic balance – and thus prevent disease. These treatments boost immunity, clear the mind, calm the spirit, and tune-up the body’s innate energetic potential. Chinese medicine treatments are recommended for energetic adjustment at the change of seasons to enhance the body’s response to the variation in frequency. They are a wise investment in health to ensure seasonal energetic flow and balance.

Chinese medicine also teaches specific dietary recommendations during late summer as a way to master the quality, intensity, and quantity of food and drink to maximize earth Qi, thus digestive function. The earth element is impaired by excessively sweet and cold food and drink, therefore diet is essential for optimal digestion. This is especially important for someone with a cold, damp spleen diagnosis – who would otherwise feel worse during late summer anyway, especially after eating.

Eating sweet foods during late summer also balance out the bitter foods eaten during the summer. Plus, sweet foods prepare the body for the ensuing pungent flavors of autumn. In practical terms, this means that “full sweets” need to be eaten at this time of year to nourish spleen energy – not “empty sweet” foods such as ice cream, cake and cookies. Otherwise, one runs the risk of ending up with excessive spleen damp. If this happens it is further complicated as late summer is the most environmentally damp time of the year.  

The late summer is the safest time to eat more cold raw foods due to the increase in higher temperatures. However, it is still important to continue to eat warming, dry foods to enhance spleen energetics, especially if spleen dampness is a predominant pattern for a person. And essential to avoid overeating to both avoid injury to the stomach and maintain vital energy after eating a meal.

Nutritional support during nature’s transition from summer to late summer begins with eating light. Refrain from over consumption, yet maintain a healthy appetite– whereby the body naturally desires less food, yet produces more energy. Ingest mildly sweet with lots of moisture like watermelon, melon or cantaloupe. Keep food choices simple, without too much combining of different foods all at once. Choose fruits that are sweet, but not too much so, such as peaches, cherries, apples, apricots, and plums. Good vegetables to eat include beets, cucumber, and zucchini as they are not too sweet.

Choose foods associated with orange and yellow because this is the color associated with the earth element. These include fruits and vegetables, such as oranges, carrots, summer squash, lemons, and apricots.  Other good food choices include corn, millet, cabbage, chick peas, soybeans, mung beans, potatoes, white mushrooms, green beans, yams, tofu, sweet potatoes, rice, amaranth, peas, snow peas, and chestnuts. As late summer turns cooler begin to incorporate more warming foods to support spleen energetics such as ginger, squash, pumpkin, fennel, and mustard greens.

Don’t overdo icy cold drinks and make sure to avoid cold, sweet foods in excessive amounts. Cook with moderate temperatures and time, such as sautéing with added water for steaming effect – and, avoid too much barbecuing. This can cause an excess fire of the stomach which influences the mental state and lead to confusion, anxiety and hyperactivity during the late summer months.

According to Chinese medicine, healing of the mind, body and spirit can be achieved through proper nutrition chosen according to the change of seasons. To gain and maintain balanced health during late summer, following these simple recommendations can be quite instrumental. Each season requires a different approach to prevent the emergence of unwanted symptoms. When the heat of late summer is used to nourish rather than harm the spleen and stomach organs – then vibrant health is the result.