In the modern western calendar we divide the seasons into four, but in the ancient calendar there was a fifth season known as late summer, or indian summer. It’s a transitional period wherein the heat of summer is not quite that hot anymore, the trees and plants are still relatively thriving, and it’s not cool enough to be considered the onset of fall just yet. At the same time, there are changes in nature that can affect health and wellness that are distinct from those of the intense heat of the proper summer season.
Late summer tends to coincide with the abundance of the harvest, spanning all the way to the Autumn Equinox on September 21st in most seasonal growing areas. It’s because of this relationship to food that this time of year is associated with the flavour of sweet, and the TCM organ of spleen. The TCM spleen is a different concept than the modern western spleen. It represents the functions of digestion: our ability to transform the food we eat into forms that our body can use, and the body’s ability to transport substances to their proper places in the body. When transformation is hindered, a person will not adequately break down and absorb their food, leading to diarrhea and undigested food passing through the body. If transportation is hindered, there may be problems with fluid metabolism such as edema, or a sense of low energy due to nutrients not being distributed properly to all areas of the body.
This season’s natural environmental influence is dampness. If we look at the Summer Solstice on June 21st as the peak time of yang qi or fire energy, then the very next day represents the reintroduction of yin into the environment. With each day that passes after the Solstice the day grows a tiny bit shorter until finally the darkness dominates at the Winter Solstice. With the development of yin comes more moisture in the environment, more humidity and haze, and more turbidity. Early mornings are met with more and more dew and even during the peak heat of the day the air can feel stuffy. It is also known as the season of “rotting and ripening”. With dampness comes the influences of nature which break down what is not harvested, and these come in the form of fungus, bacteria and other useful organisms in the biosphere, but which can become hindrances in a person suffering from a damp related illness.
Our spleens enjoy warm foods that are not too salty, sweet, greasy, or mucous forming. It’s important to realize that dampness is not an enemy, it is a necessary part of our health. In very dry conditions, damp foods are favorable; however, in a season like late summer where dampness dominates, we have to be careful how much additional moisture-building foods we introduce into our diets. If there is too much clinging moisture in the gastrointestinal tract, it will cause the formation of excessive mucous, which in turn inhibits proper absorption of food. Dampness also has the additional symptoms of causing sluggishness, a sense of heaviness in the body, and can manifest as fluid-like weight gain, poor appetite, diarrhea, chronic fungal and bacterial infections, achy joints and arthritis, and many other conditions.
Because the spleen enjoys warmth, you can help it out by making sure food is always cooked during this season. Something raw that is steamed for 5 minutes is still considered more warm in nature. Warm in property is also useful. Adding warming spices like ginger, pepper, garlic, cinnamon, and most of the savoury cooking herbs will aid digestive ability. During the late summer season, it is a time when root vegetables tend to dominant. Beets, carrots, potatoes, yams and other ground dwelling starchy vegetables are the kind of “sweet” the spleen can enjoy, when taken in moderation. It’s also important to eat clean foods, which are those without too much refined sweet, salt, or artificial additives. Spleen likes “clean and clear”. If you stick to this dietary plan during the season of damp, you can prevent a host of bodily problems.
There are medicinal herbs and acupuncture techniques which also invigorate and tonify the spleen, encouraging the body to use more of its resources to focus on digestion and clearing dampness. For people who live in the Pacific northwest, dampness has a constant presence and the people of this region will relate to its challenges more than neighboring regions. For this reason, practitioners in any holistic health field should be well versed in the signs of symptoms of dampness and how to treat it.