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August 12, 2019

Digestive Health in the Summer

Written by: Matthew Wagner, L.Ac., M.S.O.M.

Have you ever wondered why your digestion seems a little off in the summer?  Or why you might feel a little sluggish and bloated when it’s hot and humid?  What is it about summer that causes this?  


There’s a line of thought in East Asian medicine that goes, “if you keep your belly warm in the summer you prevent illness in the winter.  Said another way, bloating in the summer leads to phlegm in the fall.”  

By keeping the belly warm, we mean eating spicy and warming foods.  Spices keep your digestion healthy in the humid summer so that you can be strong enough to handle the colder weather in the fall and winter.  If you don’t keep the belly warm in the summer, you’re much more likely to get sick when the weather gets colder.


In the summer, people tend to want to eat raw and cold foods, sometimes under the impression that they’d like to feel cooler, or that raw foods are in some way lighter and easier to digest. This couldn’t be further from the truth.  

If we look at the diets of people who live near the hot and humid equator and deal with this kind of weather most of the year, we see that they’re all very spicy.  The closer to the equator, the spicer they become.  There’s a very good reason for that.  

It may seem paradoxical, but in fact eating spicy food in the summer is one of the best things you can do for your health.  

You’ll hear the argument that people used spices in warmer climates to prevent food spoilage before the era of refrigeration.  While that may be true to some extent, that’s really looking at it from the outside in.  In other words, it’s applying our own cultural values and understanding to the practice, and not trying to understand it on its own terms.  

Another line of thought is that in eating spicy foods, people sweat and cool off.  This is a little closer to what’s going on, but it’s still not the complete picture.  

The thinking, especially in east asian countries, is that you need to keep the belly warm to offset the cold digestion that happens when exposed to heat and humidity.  

To understand this rational, we need to think a little metaphorically.  Blood flow in the body is different in the summer than it is in the winter.  In the summer, your capillaries are more open and there is more blood flow at the surface of the body.  This is why a small paper cut in the summer will bleed, but in winter, it might not.  This is also why you feel colder in the winter when it’s 72 degrees in the house, then you would on a 72 degree day in the summer.  It also relates to why our skin is oiler in the summer.  

In East Asian thinking, in the summer the body’s resources are following the blood out to the extremities and surface of the body.  This leaves the core of the body weaker and susceptible to digestive complaints.  We could call this weakness cold.


You can think of it like a house.  In the summer, the temperature outside is greater than the basement.  This colder basement then becomes damp.  The same thing is happening in your body.  In the summer, you’re nice and toasty warm on the outside, but your insides, especially below the navel can get a little cold.  When they do, they start hold onto fluids.

This is the reason why it’s so easy to get bloated in the summer.  It’s also why people often don’t have much appetite or thirst when it’s hot and humid.  You’re already having a hard time dealing with environmental humidity, so that last thing you want is more fluids.  All of this fluid build up easily leads to diarrhea and nausea.  


So, what is the worst thing you can do at this time? It’s actually the one thing we all want to do: eat lots of raw foods, ice cream, and cold drinks.  Metaphorically speaking, that’s like turning the air conditioner on. Of course your body’s basement is going to get even colder and more damp. So, you’ll feel even more bloated and sluggish. The solution to this is to turn up the heat and dry out that wet basement.  We do this with warming foods and spices.  

When you think about it, it’s all common sense.  

Hot & Sour Soup Recipe

Now, I’d like to share with you a very simple and quick hot and sour soup recipe, guaranteed to kickstart your digestion, boost your metabolism, and revive your energy.

Ingredients

4 to 5 cups of water
Galangal or Ginger (Fresh or Dried)
4 or 5 Shiitake Mushrooms
4 to 5 Dried Thai Chilis
1/4 Cup of Fish Sauce
1/4 Cup of Rice Vinegar
1 Onion - Chopped
1 Medium Red Pepper - Chopped
A Bunch of Flat Leaf Scallions (Chinese Chives) - Chopped
Garlic (Fresh or Powder)


Directions

Add galangal (or ginger), Thai chilis, shiitake, garlic, fish sauce and rice vinegar to water and simmer for 15 min. Remove galangal (not necessary for ginger). Remove shiitake and slice out the stems. Discard stems and add shiitake back to water with onion and pepper. Simmer another 5 min. While simmering, whisk 2 - 3 eggs. Slowly add to soup while stirring continually. If you want ramen noodles (or soba or somen) add them now. If adding fresh noodles, cook for another 3 - 4 minutes. Turn the heat off and add chopped scallions and a liberal dash of white pepper.

Dish into a bowl and enjoy. If you want a little more heat, add some hot chili sauce. It’s easy!