According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, of which I know only some basics, there are 5 seasons, the fifth one being what we refer to as Indian Summers. Though in the European Herbal Tradition we don’t specifically name it a season, Indian Summers correspond to a clear “felt” transition period between Summer and Autumn which also resonates with chronobiology and physiology.
In TCM, this Fifth Season is characterised by the Earth element. I think it makes sense that Earth is the element linked to this transition period since it is a time for harvesting and community. Furthermore, the Earth element can be seen as a grounding, centring and balancing aspect, which is necessary when beginning to transition into the inward-looking and cocooning periods of late Autumn and Winter while still taking advantage of the beautiful lingering days and energy of summer.
It really is important to make the most of this short lovely season so here are some guidelines to help you do that and begin supporting your body for the deeper Autumn months to come:
- In terms of health, it is a good time to support and strengthen your digestive system, particularly the pancreas, and both the stomach’s mucosal tissues and digestive function, to prepare for the heavier foods of the colder months.
- Start boosting your immunity. Since we know that the digestive system, primarily through balanced gut flora, is so essential to immune function, the suggestions below will support this aspect. However, it is also important to fall back into a regular sleep and activity rhythm which sometimes the long summer days and holidays can disrupt. Every sunny day should be seen as an opportunity to spend at least some time outside to help keep vitamin D levels up for the winter seasons. Most importantly, now is a good time to find strategies to manage the coming stress of your normal “busy” life, while you still remember what relaxing feels like.
- Continue taking advantage of the bounty of fresh, raw and seasonal vegetables and fruit, but drink and eat less “cold” foods and slowly introduce warmer foods such as hearty vegetable soups with pulses, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and squashes. Choose healthy sweet options from seasonal fruit such as apples, figs, grapes, pears, which can be stewed instead of eaten raw, to support the pancreas in regulating blood sugar.
- Traditionally this has been a time to preserve, pickle and ferment the summer bounty for the winter months. I highly recommend learning to do this again if you don’t know how – it is really simple (there are instructions everywhere on the internet) and can be a fun family activity. There is nothing better than to open a preserve jar of fresh summer tomatoes with basil in the winter months.
- The Indian Summer is also a good time to get back into the habit of slow mindful eating, chewing foods thoroughly, having moderate portions and taking note of the colours, flavours, smells of the food. Eating calmly and slowly will support digestive function.
- Continue to include both relaxation periods and exercise, preferably outdoors. Breathing fresh air and taking gentle strolls after a meal aids the process of digestion, assimilation and distribution of nutrients.
- Indian Summer is an ideal time to continue with the socialisation of the Summer season. Throw dinner parties or picnics with friends, neighbours and family. It is a time for sharing and community and this aspect is important for a healthy nervous system too, and of growing importance given the times we live in.
- Take charge of your mornings while there is still plenty of light early on. Wake up to a glass of fresh (organic) lemon water and some gentle stretching movements, 5 or more minutes of meditation and a morning walk outside if possible. It is essential for your internal circadian clock to sense the daylight hours and walking outside at least once a day in daylight hours helps your body manage the wake-sleep cycles much better.
- If you took advantage of the Summer to get into a busy exercise routine, think about down-shifting it just a little by including more gentle activities like yoga, pilates, stretching and brisk walks outside into your routine.
- Take up dry brushing again a couple of times a week and use dry body oils to hydrate your skin to keep the summer glow glowing.
Love Your Bitters!
My favourite herbs to support the above suggestions are the wonderful but not-so-liked digestive herbs, many of which also have calming actions. They aren’t very well liked because many are bitter, but bitter herbs and foods are essential for the digestive system and also for immunity. There is some interesting research showing that bitter receptors in our bodies are not only associated with the nervous system and digestion but also with immunity. Bitters (whether foods or herbs) have been largely maligned in our sweet-loving society but they are essential for health and need to be introduced again in people’s diets. I suggest these be taken as teas after a meal.
- If you are not so keen on the bitter taste, start with the more gently flavoured digestives such as Lemon Verbena (a digestive and slightly calming herb particularly appreciated in France), which has a really nice lemony taste with very little bitterness. German Chamomile, less bitter than its relative Roman Chamomile is also a great choice – again both calming and supportive of the digestive system. Peppermint is also a classic favourite which promotes digestion, and helps relieve bloating and gas (amongst its other actions).
- If you are a more adventurous or don’t mind bitterness, try Artichoke leaf, Yarrow or Dandelion root (the latter of which needs to be decocted rather than infused). Artichoke leaf has an affinity to the liver, making liver function more efficient. Yarrow is a good choice to support both digestion and circulation (to avoid if you take blood thinners), and Dandelion root is a gentle general digestive and liver support herb.
May you make the most of the Fifth Season!