Summertime Herbs

summer herbs (2)

Summer is the most sunny, energetic, and yang time of the year.  And as we mentioned in previous posts, the season of summer is associated with the fire element, which is linked to the bitter flavor.  That cooling and detoxifying bitter taste clears the heat in the summertime. Kirsten talked about foods and beverages that you can consume in the summer to balance that rising fire, like an escarole salad or cacao nibs sprinkled on diced peaches.  Below are some bitter herbs that you can also use both medicinally and in your kitchen. And since heat can cause irritation, agitation and insomnia, we can also take calming herbs like valerian root or passion flower and minerals like calcium and magnesium that will help settle and anchor the spirit.  

The bitter taste is pharmacologically active and stimulates digestion and our taste receptors.  We even have bitter taste receptors in our sinuses and nasal passages that can protect us from bacteria and viruses!

Bitter subdues the rebellious Qi that is moving in the wrong direction, like nausea or belching.  The bitter taste can also be strong and cold, which can injure the spleen system that helps our digestion absorb nutrients properly.  Once again, it is finding the balance of regulating the energy without overdoing it. Always remember to chew well! This helps the spleen system begin the breakdown and absorption of all the nourishment we need for each of our cells.  Also, don’t take in too much liquid during your meal, especially cool liquid or ice water, which can slow down digestion and dilute digestive enzymes. If you are going to have an iced beverage, melt it in your mouth, almost like chewing your drink, before swallowing it.

Bitter counteracts heat.  Heat can invade from the exterior, causing both chills and fever as your body tries to defend you.  Exterior heat can also come with headaches. Wind tends to bring heat in through the sinuses or back of the neck.  Heat can be internal, only causing fever, since the heat has already reached past the skin level. Once it is internal, you might see symptoms like dark urine, dry mouth, and either constipation or diarrhea.  Below are quite a few common bitter, heat-clearing herbs used in Chinese Medicine. If you have specific symptoms that aren’t resolving or you have any questions, please ask your acupuncturist for a custom formula.  Western herbs are often used alone, Chinese Herbs are mainly used in formulas that can be tailored to you. There are Chinese herbs that go to certain areas of the body, like the head or the skin. Heat can also combine with other factors, like dampness, wind, or toxins and there are specific herbs for each of those situations.  

Common Chinese Herbs that can be easily used in the summertime to cool down the system are mint, chrysanthemum flowers, various parts of the lotus plant, mung beans, and watermelon fruit.  Barley tea is easy to find at Asian markets and makes a tasty sun tea. Note: If you are gluten sensitive or intolerant, skip the barley tea.

Getting back to the lotus plant, the leaves can be used fresh with honeysuckle flowers to ease nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, as well as nosebleeds caused by the reckless movement of heat in the summer.  A beautiful aspect of Chinese Medicine is how like treats like, as in how the very center of the lotus seed, the heart of the lotus seed, treats the heart in humans, specifically clearing heart heat that may be causing confusion, delirium, insomnia, and irritability.

Little green mung beans are called Lu Dou in pinyin and these help decrease thirst, irritability, and fever.  You can grind the dried beans into a powder and make a tea from that powder for skin sores. You could also take that ground powder and blend it with Da Huang, mint, and honey for eruptions on the skin.  Da Huang means “big yellow” in pinyin and it is rhubarb root. Da Huang can also help with constipation and hemorrhoids. There are some great formulas that contain Da Huang that help clear out the bowels when heat invades.  

Dandelion leaves can not only be cooked up with olive oil and lemon juice or added to cabbage in the process of making your own sauerkraut, but you could also steam your face with it if your have red eyes.  The leaves, dried or fresh, can also be used internally for breast health. A compress can be made from the leaves and placed directly on the breast. Dandelion is related to chicory and both roots can also be roasted and used as a coffee substitute.  Dandelion root has numerous digestive and liver function benefits.

Zhi Zi is gardenia fruit and looks like tiny, dried heart chambers.  It is especially good at clearing heat out through the urine, like when there is a bladder infection.  Zhi Zi also helps with insomnia and fever.

Long Dan Cao is Chinese gentian root and clears heat when it has blended with dampness, as with strong smelling vaginal discharge or swelling in the genital area. It can also be used for headache that comes with red eyes.

In addition to Da Huang, the “big yellow” rhubarb root, we also use the 3 Huangs or 3 yellows quite a lot.  All 3 contain berberine, an alkaloid which is a potent antibiotic, astringent and anti-fungal. Huang Qin is scutellaria or skullcap root and helps with dysentery, diarrhea, and nosebleeds.  Huang Lian is the Huang that goes to the Heart the most. It is the coptis rhizome and also helps dysentery and diarrhea, but also irritability due to fever, disorientation, and delirium. Huang Lian can be combined with licorice and mung beans for the overheated nausea and vomiting symptoms of summerheat.  Huang Bai is phellodendron bark and similar to Long Dan Cao, Chinese gentian root, it can treat vaginal discharge, as well as red swollen knees and jaundice.

The herbs above can be really bitter and not too tasty to our palates.  A more delicious way to enjoy the bitter flavor is to buy some swedish bitters or other digestive bitters at a local culinary or herb shop, like the Oaktown Spice Shop.  Then mix a dropperful or splash of bitters into some coffee, bubbly water, and a bit of ice. Such a nice refreshing afternoon pick-me-up!

I also love making Hibiscus Tea or Jamaica Agua Fresca in the summer.  You can buy either tea bags with Hibiscus or the dried Jamaica flowers at a Mexican market.  With the tea bags, you could simply make a sun tea by adding a few bags in a glass pitcher and let in steep in the sun.  If you buy the flowers, throw in a few handfuls of dried Jamaica flowers in a big pot of filtered water, bring the water to boil on the stove, then turn it down to low for about 10 mins to simmer along with cinnamon sticks, cloves, and orange peel for a bit more flavor.  Although cinnamon is slightly warming, it can be comforting in the way it improves heart circulation and is also good for diabetes. Clove and orange peel improve digestion. After 10 minutes have passed, take it off the heat and you will have a very strong tea that you might want to dilute with cold water and a touch of honey.  I usually skip ice since it impedes digestion. I tend to drink it at room temperature.  Prepare it how you like and enjoy!



I want to finish by sharing a list of bitter herbs and foods we can all use to lower our risk of Type-2 diabetes and balance our blood sugar.  Due to the poor Standard American Diet (SAD) and overuse of the sweet flavor, we might be or know someone affected by blood sugar imbalances.  Diabetes is called a wasting and thirsting condition in Chinese Medicine and can be characterized by the symptoms of thirst, hunger, and excessive urination caused by a lack of yin, where “internal heat consumes fluids, thus bringing on wasting and thirsting.”  Try incorporating these to help:

  • Milk Thistle, a great liver detoxifier
  • Barberry Root Bark, used for so many GI disorders, it also contains berberine like the 3 Huangs
  • Bitter Melon, I have had it deliciously prepared with tuna and mayo
  • Chicory, a roasted root in New Orleans style coffee
  • 3 Huangs as mentioned above
  • Small amounts of dark chocolate can lower your liver enzymes in a good way
  • Some coffee, black tea, or red wine
  • American Ginseng from Wisconsin is cooling and energy-boosting
  • Fermented dairy, like kefir or plain yogurt
  • Green leafy veggies, like endive, dandelion leaves, arugula, and kale
  • Chose organic, non-GMO corn.  GMO corn can raise the blood sugar 10% more than non-GMO corn, preliminary studies have shown that GMO foods can impact the immune system and speed up aging

Also, check out these resources for more info 🙂

Eating on the Wild Side by Jo Robinson

Real Food All Year by Nishanga Bliss

Nishanga also has 2 blogs with lots of recipes and great seasonal info:

Amy Stewart has some great books: The Drunken Botanist

DIY Bitters Book


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