By Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya
As the summers get hotter, we can learn some things from the ancient intelligence of our ancestors about nature. They knew how to sustain and support the environment while using its resources to remain cool in summer and warm in winter. Watching the patterns of animals and of wind, rain, air, and sun, they engineered creative solutions for comfortable and cool environments during the heat of summer.
Ayurvedic medical science included a profound understanding of the drying effect of the heat and radiation of the sun, which drained both the water and oil moisture of the body. It focused on its remedies that cooled the body by allowing deeply buried sources of heat out of the body and prevented water loss on micro levels by ensuring the oil pockets were well hydrated. What makes the body uncomfortable in summer is the inability to shed excess heat, primarily through sweat and the breath. This shedding is dependent on the heat being able to travel through the layers of cell membranes and the curtains of thin insulating layers of brown fat. Hydrated and healthy oil-filled cell membranes allow heat to pass. Brown fat that is moist conducts heat and allows it in and out. Brown fat that is dry is brittle. Observe a bottle of oil with dried drippings, or animal fat that has been heated on a grill and has dehydrated. They are not supple.
While modern science discovers the physiology of our body and its oils, a profound understanding was available in Ayurveda 10,000 years ago, in which importance was given to keeping the oils coming into the body clean and repairing the body by infusing oils that would dilute, disrupt and dislodge old oils, or trapped reservoirs of oils that were not digestible by the body. Keeping digestive fires alive in the tissues, called dhatu-agni, meant that attention was given to the transformation of fats and oils, both from the blood to and from muscle, from muscle to and from fat, from fat to and from bone, and from bone to and from bone marrow. Known as the dhatu cascade of rakta-mamsa-meda-asthi-majja, this constant transformation was toned by regular movement and exercise, strong and long breaths, and by activities, hobbies, and work that ensured that the circulation of the body was regular.
When people could not release excess heat in the body and started burning up — known as daha, Ayurvedic wisemen knew that cooling herbs, an easy-to-digest diet, and water cooked in spices would restore the body’s ability to light the fires in sequence inside that led to the heat out of the body. In cases of heatstroke, cool cooked water with coriander and fennel and rock sugar was given to the patient in a cooling silver vessel, while spraying the skin with rosewater, applying cucumber paste to the body, and placing silver under the feet to draw out the heat. Fruits that cooled the body were eaten, which also took out the heat through accelerated urination.
In the summer, the sweat constantly dissipates the heat trapped in the body. However, by dissipating the heat, it also disrupts the central reservoir of heat that is the digestive oven in our gut. Our digestive power in the summer is thus at its lowest. Think of the door of the oven open so that the heat is not concentrated. Without this heat and strong digestive power, things cannot cook in the oven properly. We see that we cannot eat the same heavy meals we ate in November and digest them easily. Ayurveda understood this and reminded us that the consequence of low digestive fire is that food residues can build up, and food poisoning can occur more easily. Therefore, foods with natural anti-microbials, such as neem, turmeric, and spices that increased digestive power such as cumin, curry leaves, and ajwain were included in the diet.
Today we think spices are just for flavor, but in fact, they are part of the summer health formula.
Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya