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The Dog Days of Summer

by David Osborn, MH, L.Ac
Thursday, June 23, 2011

Well, well, my readers, the Summer Solstice was just yesterday, and in Redlands, California, where I live, the heat was quite oppressive, and almost unbearable!  At least in the Northern Hemisphere, we have summer from around June 21st to September 21st.  During Summer, the Sun transits through the tropical zodiac signs of Cancer, Leo and Virgo.  The first two of these signs, Cancer and Leo, are ruled by the two luminaries – the Moon and the Sun, respectively, and when the Summer season is at its peak, so is the power and blazing heat of the Sun, which is in its domicile sign of Leo in Summer’s middle month.

Ancient Egyptian priests and astrologers noted that at the advent of Summer, Sirius, also known as the Dog Star, rose in the East with the rising Sun.  From this observation comes the expression, “The Dog Days of Summer”.  In the dog days of Summer, you sweat like a dog, pant like a dog, and may even die like a dog if you don’t take measures to protect yourself from sunstroke and heat exhaustion.

In Greek Medicine, the inherent temperament of Summer is Hot, Dry and Choleric.  The heat of Summer, soaring upwards from the moderate warmth of Spring, has gotten so extreme that it has evaporated all the residual moisture of the previous season, leaving the climate Hot and Dry.

And if you yourself don’t take sensible measures to prevent it, you too could dry up inside, and succumb to heat exhaustion and dehydration.  Fluids sweated out in the hot weather must be replenished, and you must keep yourself well hydrated.  This is especially true if you are not only out in hot weather in the summertime, but also like to stay active and exercise.  So, drink at least eight full glasses of water daily in the summertime.

Always take along a lot of water when you go hiking, or are in the outdoors during the Summer, and drink and hydrate yourself often.  That’s because dehydration can creep up on you without your knowing it – until you start to experience the first symptoms of weakness, giddiness and light headedness.  Even if you have usually handled the Summer heat quite well, extreme conditions could still creep up on you unawares.

Summer is inherently Hot, Dry and Choleric in temperament, making it identical in its basic qualities to that of the Choleric humor, also called the Bilious humor, which is Yellow Bile.  And so, the inherent qualities of Summer have a tendency to aggravate the Choleric humor, or Yellow Bile.  Physically, we may feel weakness, malaise, or may be feverish; we may sweat profusely; or we may feel a bit nauseous and giddy.  Psychologically, with Choleric aggravation, we may get angry or irritable, get red, sore eyes or headaches, and be on a short fuse as our tempers flare.

The Choleric temperament and its predominant humor, Yellow Bile, have long been associated with boldness, contentiousness and audacity.  We speak of “the pure, unmitigated gall” to do so and so.  Historically speaking, many nations, such as the United States and France, had their revolutions in the Dog Days of Summer.  The people got bold and feisty, couldn’t take it anymore, and decided to do something about it.

Those of a Choleric temperament usually have the hardest time in Summer, and weaken a lot in the intense Summer heat, sweating profusely and getting all hot and feverish.  They may experience headaches, sore eyes, liver problems, and fevers, as well as toxemic and inflammatory conditions.  These are mostly the manifestations of aggravated Yellow Bile.

Conversely, those of the contrary Phlegmatic temperament, which is Cold and Wet in its basic qualities, generally has the easiest time dealing with Summer – provided that they are basically healthy, and not too overweight, as those of a Phlegmatic temperament often struggle with excessive weight gain.  If excessive weight gain or obesity should be a problem, then Summer becomes a difficult season even for Phlegmatics, since the external body armor of fat or adipose tissue acts much like a heavy overcoat, holding body heat in, and not allowing it to vent or escape properly.  So, besides wanting to cut a superb figure when you slip into that sleek bathing suit or skimpy bikini, here is another reason why you want to lose weight in preparation for Summer.

Another important physiological response of the organism to the extreme heat of Summer is for the body to shunt blood and its circulation outwards towards the periphery in order to dissipate a lot of the internal heat that has built up in the body’s interior.  The capillaries open and flush, and you start to sweat profusely.  The shunting of blood towards the external capillaries alone will dissipate quite a bit of heat, but perspiration adds the cooling effect of the complementary Water element to quell the Fire of excessive body heat.  Just drink enough water and fluids to replenish that which is lost by sweating.

Sweating is good, sweating helps us release toxins that have accumulated in our bodies, which can come either from exogenous dietary or environmental sources, or from internal or endogenous causes, such as metabolic residues that have accumulated due to imbalances in digestion and metabolism.  In summer, deeply held accumulations of toxins also tend to arise towards the skin and surface of the organism, hopefully to be released with the escaping sweat.  But if too many toxins accumulate in the sweat as it is being released, the sweat can become toxic, with the main manifestations being either sweat that stinks or sweat that itches, irritates or burns excessively.  This latter manifestation can be a comon cause or aggravating factor in heat rash.

If these types of skin conditions should be a problem in Summer, it helps to cleanse your blood with herbs that are alteratives, or blood cleansers, combined with herbs that are cooling, sedating diaphoretics. In Indian Ayurvedic medicine, Neem leaves (Azadirachta indica) are a frequently recommended blood cleanser in hot natured skin rashes and eruptions.  In Western herbal medicine, Echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia) and Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) are a commonly recommended dynamic duo of blood cleansers that can help.  In Greek and Unani herbal medicine, the miracle herb for skin eruptions and rashes is Fumitory (Fumaria officinalis).

If you would like to make an herbal formula composed of alteratives and cooling diaphoretics that is good for handling Summer skin rashes and eruptions, the following would be good:
Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
Goldenseal herb (Hydrastis canadensis)
Echinacea herb
(Echinacea angustifulia, E. purpurea)
Red Clover flowers
( Trifolium praetense)
Burdock root
(Arctium lappa)
Elder berries
(Sambucus nigra)
Figwort herb (Scrophularia nodosa)
Fumitory herb
(Fumaria officinalis)
Fennel seed
(Foeniculum vulgare)
Mix the above herbs together in equal parts and grind to a powder in an electric coffee grinder.  Make this powder into an infusion or tea by steeping one rounded teaspoon of the powder in one cup of boiling water.  Let steep and cool down to room temperature.  Drink as needed for skin rashes, irritation and eruptions, or as a preventive medicine against this condition in summer.  You may sweeten this with a little lemon and honey if so desired, but stay away from sugar.  You can make as many cups as you want to have on hand; you can even store it in the refrigeator, but don’t drink it when it is too cold.

If you are sweating profusely when you’re out in hot Summer weather, this is all normal, provided that your strength and vitality are up, and you don’t feel too weak, giddy or lightheaded.  Sweating is good, since it releases toxins.  But if the sweating should get too thin or furtive, or should disappear altogether in hot Summer weather, this is a cause for concern.  Generally, it shows that the body does not have enough fluid reserves to sweat properly, and indicates a need to consume more fluids to rehydrate the organism.

Another thing that a lot of people notice in the hot Dog Days of Summer is that their appetite often diminishes, and they don’t want to eat that much.  The reason for this is that, with all that blood circulation shunted outwards towards the external capillaries, quite a bit of blood is taken away from the body’s interior, which includes the digestive organs.  Also, if you are a bit dehydrated, and your fluid levels are low, the body may not have enough fluids to put into the digestive secretions of the GI tract, which require quite a bit of fluids.  And so, even though it’s generally not a good idea to drink too many fluids when you eat, drinking fluids while eating may actually be a good idea in Summer, especially if fluid levels are low, and may actually help your digestion rather than hurt it.

Because appetite levels often drop in Summer due to the above mentioned climactic and physiological conditions, in a lot of cultures around the globe, people have developed the tendency to eat light, easily digestible foods in Summer.  There’s nothing wrong with this, just as long as you’re consuming plenty of fluids, and are eating enough to keep your energy levels up.  Actually, many people tend to overeat anyways, and the Summer activities and “fun in the Sun”, combined with a lighter diet, may actually be a good thing, and do wonders for your health.

“But still”, you may be asking, “How do I really beat the Summer heat?”  Of course, you can be a party pooper and hang out indoors, inside your comfortably air conditioned room all summer long, watching soap operas on TV.  But the natural answer, as provided by Greek Medicine and the world’s other great traditional healing systems, is to eat foods and drinks that are of an exceptionally cooling nature.  By this, I DON’T mean eating ice cold foods and drinks straight from your refrigerator or icebox; that is UN-natural cold that is too extreme, and therefore damaging to your health.  Even in Summer, normal body temperature is 37 degrees Celsius, or 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, which is quite warm.  But eating and drinking foods that are of a naturally cooling, sedating and detoxifying nature will help your body FEEL a lot cooler and more comfortable, even in the blazing Summer heat.

Fruits are naturally cooling and detoxifying, and of these, Citrus fruits like Oranges, Lemons and Limes are a perennial favorite in things like Lemonade or freshly squeezed Orange juice.  In fact, Oranges and their juice can be used medicinally to bring down fevers.  But this is best, and the effects are most cooling and sedating to the organism, when the Orange juice is cut 50/50 with water.

Melons are another perennial Summer favorite, and all your major Melons are really quite cooling in nature.  Cantaloupes and Honeydews are all quite cooling, as is Watermelon. Watermelon is a good diuretic, and is good for cleansing the urinary system.

The old Greeks and Romans used the fresh, green shoots of the Elder Flower (Sambucus nigra) as a cooling, sedating summer drink, prepared with honey to sweeten it in much the same manner as one would prepare Lemonade. To this day, such is a popular country custom in Romania, in the heart of the Balkans in Eastern Europe.  The Elder flowers bloom in mid June, and when they do, they must be picked and used quickly, as they fade and wither fast.

When one thinks of a cooling herb, the first one that usually pops into one’s mind is Peppermint (Mentha piperita), as well as its close botanical cousin, Spearmint (Mentha spicata). These form the basis for the ever popular drink, the Mint Julep, which is a perennial favorite of the Old South, in the USA.  But how many of these stately southern ladies and gentlemen know that their Mint Julep, and the Julep itself, was the invention of Arab physicians as a cooling, sedating drink to cool off the blazing heat of Summer?

Grapes are another cooling fruit of the Aster family, as is Lettuce, which is one of the most cooling of vegetables.  So, that’s why you like to eat a lot of salads in Summer – to cool your body off!  The great product and bounty of the Grape Vine is its Wine, which can be made into a number of tasty, refreshing, cooling drinks.  Just try making Red Wine into Sangria, by soaking it with fruits – some Citrus fruits like Oranges, Lemons and Limes, some Melons, or perhpas, if you want to be very herbally creative, some tender young Elder flower shoots!  And you can take that Wine or Sangria and mix it with some sparkling Mineral Water to make a Wine Cooler!

Yes, there are a number of different fun, creative ways to stay cool in Summer and beat the heat.  Just do so sensibly, to protect and preserve your health.

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