Each season has its own unique energy and prepares us to glide gracefully into the next in the grand dance of nature. In winter, it's like a slow, romantic waltz as nature goes into a state of rest and rejuvenation and the water element is at its most active. Spring picks up the tempo, much like a sexy salsa as the wood element brings structure, expansion and growth in preparation for the crescendo of summer, when the colors and scents of nature are in full bloom like a summer carnival.
If we take a look at the cycle of nature and the elements, we see that each new season is prepared for and nourished by what has gone before it—water (winter) is needed to support the growth of wood (spring), which is fuel for the fire of summer.
Fire, summer's element, brings warmth, light and movement. It is often used as a metaphor for passion, which much like fire, can be a slow smoldering or a wild flame. Fire is a creative force and also has the power to destroy—living in California for several years, I was certainly witness to this power.
The warmth of summer brings us outdoors into nature to enjoy the heat and engage in outdoor activities. These outdoor activities and exercise help to stimulate a healthy appetite, but when we're more active, we burn off the extra fuel more efficiently (even more so with the help of the internal heat created by the fire element). So, summer is a time when our metabolism is activated and we're nourished by lighter, more cooling foods to keep us in balance with our climate and environment. It's also a time when you want to use quick cooking methods like sautéing, steaming and blanching and enjoy more salads and raw foods—unlike the stews and hearty foods that nourish us during the colder seasons.
The color associated with fire is red. When in balance, the emotion of fire is joy, and when out of balance, one experiences volatile emotions or inappropriate laughter.
The taste that nourishes the fire element is bitter, and the fire element is at its most active between the hours of 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. for the heart and between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. for the small intestine. Therefore, if you tend to get more tired or emotional during these times or feel more energized, it can be an indication of the state of health of these organs.
When the fire element is strong and in balance, a person will be charismatic and sociable and enjoy conversing and interacting with others. She will excel at commanding others to action. When fire energy is weak or out of balance, a person may suffer from anxiety, stress and sleep disturbances and may be too excitable or easily stimulated to excess. She can also be cold-natured and emotionally disconnected. Some common illnesses related to fire imbalance include heart palpitations, chest pain or pressure, irregular heartbeat, hypertension and sores or ulcers in the mouth, particularly on the tip of the tongue.
As soon as the heart takes its last beat, it's the end of life in this physical body. It is the master organ, responsible for the circulation of oxygen-rich blood and nutrients to nourish and sustain life in all the cells and organs in the body. In traditional Chinese medicine, which looks beyond the physical structure and function of an organ, the heart is seen as the home for the spirit and the seat of consciousness, responsible for mental vitality and clear thinking. It is responsible for the strength and flow of Qi (vital energy) in the body and governs the blood vessels. In Oriental diagnosis, the tongue is said to reflect the condition of the various organs in the body, with the tip of the tongue corresponding to the heart. Redness or sores on the tip of the tongue can indicate a disturbance in the fire element.
The Small Intestine
The small intestine, a vital part of the digestive system, has the function of absorbing the nutrients in our food into the bloodstream after it leaves the stomach. The nutrients are delivered throughout the body in the blood that flows through the small intestine, and the waste is delivered to the large intestine, where it continues through the digestive channel. In Chinese medicine, like the heart, the small intestine is said to influence mental clarity and our ability to make clear decisions. It is also connected with our ability to absorb and integrate concepts and ideas.
Summer in the Northern hemisphere officially begins with the summer solstice on June 21, but you can start to feel hints of summer in the air from mid-May onward. The following foods nourish and support the health of the fire element at this time, focusing on the heart and small intestine.
Summer fruits such as wild berries, blackberries, strawberries, elderberries and mulberries are all nourishing for these organs. Depending on where you live, other fruits such as papaya, mango, pineapple, apricot, cherries, melons and apples are all beneficial as well.
All bitter foods and herbs support the health of the heart and small intestine. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I'm going to reiterate: Eat your greens! The following vegetables are particularly beneficial: dandelion greens, kale, collard greens, watercress, mustard greens, arugula, radicchio, frisée, mizuna, asparagus, eggplant, artichokes, corn, cauliflower, peas, green beans, sprouted mung beans and lentils. Sea vegetables, particularly nori and sea palm fronds, also contain minerals vital for the health of the heart and small intestine.
Whole grains contain fiber and vitamins essential for heart health. The B vitamins, particularly, help alleviate stress, which is damaging to the heart.
Beans are high in fiber and other nutrients vital to heart health. Their fiber also encourages the movement of food through the small intestine, so nutrients are made more readily available. Because of their magnesium content, they encourage relaxation, promoting the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients from the heart throughout the body.
Since red is the color associated with the fire element, include in your diet red foods such as tomatoes, beetroot and red peppers. Tomatoes contain lycopene, which has been shown to reduce heart disease risk.
Due to their high levels of essential fatty acids, flax and chia seeds also promote heart health.
Herbs and spices such as ginger, garlic, cinnamon, cayenne, ginseng, sorrel, hawthorn, paprika, nettle and rosemary all support heart health as well.
Chocolate, in the form of raw cacao, can be beneficial for the heart. Apart from its bitter flavor, it has been shown to stimulate the release of endorphins in the brain, giving a feeling of happiness and well-being—always a tonic for the heart!
Studies have shown that nuts—particularly almonds, pecans and walnuts—can reduce the risk of heart disease. Nuts are good sources of healthy fats that can lower bad cholesterol and are also high in antioxidants, essential for cardiovascular health.
Despite being a saturated fat, the fats in unrefined coconut have been shown by recent studies to actually be heart-healthy. Coconut oil is one of the only dietary sources of a medium-chain fatty acid that is said lower cholesterol and protect the heart. In macrobiotics, which promotes eating foods from your climatic zone and in season, the summer would be an ideal time to enjoy your coconut milk and coconut oil.
Including a good percentage of live raw foods in your diet can provide the enzymes needed for healthy digestion and assimilation of foods and have a positive impact on heart health.
It's equally important to avoid foods that are damaging to the heart and small intestine. For overall health, particularly health of the heart, avoid caffeine and other stimulants, excess alcohol, excess meat and foods containing saturated fats, fried foods, refined carbohydrates and sugars.
The best medicines to get your fire burning bright are love and friendship, the company of good friends, a sense of humor and a good laugh. And a big bowl of my Bean-Corn Soccer Ball Soup will warm the cockles of your heart.