In the west we recognize 4 seasons, but in Chinese Medical thought, there is an extra, fifth season and it is the most important one. Each of the seasons has a special association in Chinese Medicine. Every time we transition to a new season, a whole new energetic is brought to the forefront. Chinese Medical theory has developed a very sophisticated set of associations with these seasons, going all the way back to the ancient text, “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic” written in the third century BC. This text associates flavors, organs, and emotions to each season and advocates ways to stay in balance with those seasons. Maintaining health through the year by staying aligned with the seasons has become a sophisticated part of Chinese Medical theory and practice. So, what easy steps can you take today to be true to the seasons, including our current, fifth season, known as late summer?
The Farmer's Market is a great place to get foods that are appropriate to the energetics of a given season. The foods that are made available by nature in your locale at a given time, also happen to be the right foods for that time.
This fifth season takes place in what we typically would call late summer. In Paul Pitchford’s classic textbook, “Healing with Whole Foods”, he describes the fifth season this way:
“Late summer, a short and relatively unrecognized “season,” is approximately the last month of summer and the middle of the Chinese year. It is the point of transition from yang to yin, between the expansive growth phases of spring and summer and the inward, cooler, more mysterious fall and winter seasons. A pleasant, tranquil, and flourishing season, it is as if time stops here and activity becomes effortless, dreamlike. Unity, harmony, and the middle way are summoned between the extremes.” (1.)
In order to align yourself with the season of late summer, you should try to enjoy and savor the sweetness of the warm, abundant late summer and enjoy the foods that are so plentiful during this time of year. A good metaphor for this period is captured by a ball thrown up into the air. This point in the year is akin to the point a ball reaches at the zenith of it’s path. After rising up (passing through the warming and growing period of summer) the ball stops for a split second at the apex. If you were inclined to anthropomorphize our ball, you could image it taking a much deserved breath to stop and appreciate the view and note how far it had risen. This is exactly the energy you want to try to embody in this time of year. Take a moment and savor the abundance of the season and truly experience the sweet warmth of it in a leisurely way.
This season is also known for such foods as ripe, sweet stone fruits, early squash, and plentiful fresh veggies. There is a wholesome sort of sweetness present that is captured perfectly by fresh peas picked off the vine and popped out for heir pods into your mouth. It’s isn’t at all like the overpowering sweetness from candy or pastries, rather it seems to capture the warm sun in every bite. That is the sort of food that becomes most nourishing at this time. The foods recommended by Paul Pitchford for this time of year include: “mildly sweet foods, yellow or golden foods, round foods, and/or foods known to harmonize the center: millet, corn, cabbage, garbanzo beans, soybeans, squash, potatoes, string beans, yams, tofu, sweet potatoes, sweet rice, rice, amaranth, peas, chestnuts, filbert, apricots, and cantaloupe.”
Biomedical Evidence also Supports these Concepts
You may notice that these foods are good sources of carbohydrates, and that is no surprise as the “mildly sweet” flavor is largely a result of complex carbohydrates (as opposed to the overly sweet flavor of refined carbohydrates). As such they are ideal for a time of year when you could expect a high level of physical activity. This is the case in late summer. This is the time of year when the weather and environment allows, and the future mandates the most activity in order to prepare for the coming seasons of relative scarcity. The increased activity makes this sort of high energy food appropriate and even necessary. This is in sharp contrast to the foods recommended for the winter (a time characterized by inward movement and a relative decrease in activity), which include (again from Paul Pitchford’s “Healing with Whole Foods”) heart soups, dried foods, small dark beans, seaweeds, and steamed winter greens. The energy needs of the body are appropriate to the foods suggested in each season, and indeed the foods typically available locally tend to be the same foods that are ideally suited to the body at that time.
One of the seasonal associations noted thousands of years ago, is for specific flavors. The summer associates with bitter, the late summer with sweet, fall with spicy, winter with salty and spring with sour. The seasons also associate with organs, again summer with the heart, late summer with the spleen, fall with the lungs, winter the kidneys and spring with the liver. Each flavor is thought to affect that specific organ, and in fact the early practice of herbal medicine was built on this concept. Biomedical research has made some new discoveries that lend additional credence to this concept. Recently, a research group working out of the Queensland School of Biomedicine discovered that taste receptors are present on the heart! (2.) And these taste receptors are for the bitter flavor, exactly the flavor that Chinese Medicine assigned to the heart organ. Not only that, but when researchers exposed these receptors to a bitter substance the contractile force of the heart was inhibited. It is remarkable that the ancient practitioners of Chinese Medicine could have determined this relationship thousands of years ago.
Americans are particularly opposed to the bitter flavor, and it spurs us to a very unbalanced diet. Our aversion for bitterness is not a universal dislike across cultures. In many cultures around the world, the bitter flavor is sought out as much as our more familiar savory and sweet flavors. Many cultures consume small amounts of bitter alcoholic drinks as “digestives,” supporting healthy digestive function after a big meal. Angostura bitters are even used by many alternative medicine practitioners to stimulate digestive function. Some bitter foods are also being recognized as particularly healthy, dark chocolate and dark leafy greens to name a few, hopefully they will help to open our palates to this whole new world of satisfying flavors. Chinese Medical theory would suggest that our avoidance of one flavor in exchange for an over-indulgence of the others is partly to blame for the epidemics of chronic disease occurring in America (cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity). Indeed, a biomedical exploration of the attributes of these flavors and the impact of the foods that carry them would certainly support this claim. Seeking out a wider variety of flavors and eating more fresh, local and seasonal foods will all help to provide more nutrition as well as the particular nutrients that optimize your health at any given time of year.
A few easy ways to get in tune with the seasons:
1. Incorporate more healthy bitter flavors in your diet in the summer (greens, grapefruit, and dark chocolate are some easy ones), more spicy in the fall (like radishes, parsnips, ginger, and daikon), more salty in the winter (seaweed is a great option), and more sour in the spring (this is a great time to use more fermented foods, and some high quality vinegar on those fresh young salad greens!).
2. Eat what’s locally available as much as possible; going to the farmer's market for your produce is a great way to make sure you are eating seasonally.
3. If you’d like more information or to personalize this sort of a dietary approach for your unique health concerns, seek out a nutritional appointment with a practitioner of Chinese Medicine.
I'm Kieran, clinician and founder at The Parani Clinic. I'm an acupuncturist, herbalist, and functional medicine practitioner for the past 10 years. I have a deep curiosity in health, biology, culture, medicine, history, and a healthy obsession with the pursuit of the perfect state of health.