More and more, the transition from winter to spring to summer represents a shift in beauty practices, a sea change driven by social media. Out are flushed cheeks and reddened noses (as epitomized by the “cold girl” or “I’m cold” makeup trend made popular by TikTok); in are freckles and sun-kissed complexions (remember the “sunburn blush” trend that took feeds by storm once upon a time?). That all may be a phenomenon of the present, but the same basic idea — that health and beauty requirements change with the seasons — has been advanced by traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) for millennia. Practitioner Sandra Chiu, an acupuncturist and herbalist based in New York City, says that eating the right things is key to making you look and feel your best as temperatures rise and days lengthen.
One of TCM’s core tenets is that nutrition can determine health. While this concept is far from radical nowadays — case in point: experts say that Mediterranean diet staples such as tomatoes, fatty fish, and seeds can protect against sun damage — TCM practitioners approach it a little differently than the average family physician. Dietary guidelines revolve in part around the seasons and their perceived attributes. Fall is associated with dryness and winter with cold, for example, Chiu says. Food is a tool for balancing these attributes to ensure neither an excess in one or a deficiency in another.
“That's … the core of all TCM,” Yvette Ly, CEO of the wellness brand Five Seasons TCM, says. “It's just, like, ‘Everything in moderation.’ Counterbalancing, doing things so that we are always calibrating towards an equilibrium and feeling really kind of whole and well.”
In the case of summer, both Ly and Chiu recommend foods that naturally counter heat — that is, foods that are cooling in nature. (Many kinds of fruit and vegetables fall into that category, but more on those later.) “Sometimes summer heat makes us feel on edge and more irritable, so these foods can help quiet that,” Chiu says, adding they can also treat issues such as eczema, acne, swelling, and edema. Other common summer health pitfalls include insomnia, palpitations, and speech problems, according to the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine (ACTCM). However, Chiu, who has almost 20 years of experience in her field, emphasizes that TCM takes a more personalized approach to health than Western medicine. No one tack will work for everybody — or every body.
“It’s important to note that in Chinese medicine, selecting foods, herbs, or even acupuncture treatment strategies depend(s) on the individual,” Chiu says. “In the West, we like to simplify things down to ‘the best’ for this or that. But there is no such thing as one-size-fits-all in TCM practice.”
In Ly’s words, “Depending on our constitutions, we will all respond to summer in a different way.”
With that disclaimer out of the way, Ly and Chiu individually single out watermelon as a prime cooling food. Both watermelon and its juice are endorsed by ACTCM faculty.
“Watermelon is almost as strong as high-powered herbs used in TCM to cool the body,” Chiu says, explaining it “helps clear summer heat (and) release excess dampness (summer swelling).”
“For these properties,” she notes, “make sure to eat the white part of the rind.”
Other cooling foods include tomatoes, celery, lettuce, and endive, according to Ly. Chiu also sings the praises of corn silk tea, a beverage she characterizes as “a mild diuretic that is made for summer.” Indeed, a 2012 literature review found that corn silk has historically been used as a medical treatment in countries such as China, Turkey, France, and the United States, and that corn silk tea is said to lower blood pressure, fight urinary tract infections, and otherwise improve health, though such claims have not been scientifically proven. To make the tea, peel the silk off an ear of corn, boil handfuls in water, and strain. The taste is described by the Cleveland Clinic as mild but sweet.
Corn silk tea “will help pull excess dampness from the swelling of summer humidity out of your body,” Chiu says. For that reason, she notes, it has an especially positive effect on people who feel “easily puffy” or “swollen.”
One important point Ly makes is that TCM treats early summer and late summer as distinct seasons (hence the name of her company, Five Seasons TCM). Eating recommendations differ slightly between the two as a result. While cooling foods remain a staple all summer long, those with a bitter or mildly sour taste — such as gourds and summer squash — are emphasized in early summer, and those with a sweet taste — such as Chinese yams, carrots, napa cabbage, snap peas, apples, figs, berries, honeydew melon, and stone fruit —are emphasized in late summer, Ly says. “Naturally sweet rather than sugar-sweet,” she clarifies. In fact, sugar-sweet foods, along with spicy and fried varieties, should actually be avoided if possible, according to Ly. Ice cream, iced coffee, French fries, funnel cakes, alcohol, and their ilk “are things we really want to limit or just watch our intake of, and counterbalance,” she adds.
The aptly named bitter melon is an early-summer staple, according to Ly. Potentially unfamiliar to Western consumers, bitter melon is a fruit cultivated widely in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean that Chiu describes as resembling a wrinkled zucchini or cucumber. Some research suggests that bitter melon or its extracts can prevent cancer, treat diabetes, and kill particular viruses, according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, but data is limited. Extremely popular in China, India, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam, bitter melon “is found in virtually every Chinese market,” and dandelion greens make for a decent substitute, Chiu says. She recommends sautéeing bitter melon slices with eggs or fermented black beans for an “absolutely delicious” meal.
“[It] is known as a strong heat-clearing food,” Chiu says. “So if you’re getting summer breakouts, cold sores, and inflammation, [you] might cook up a bitter melon for dinner.” But, she cautions, watermelon and bitter melon “are not great for people with weak digestive systems who easily and commonly have loose, soft stools and diarrhea.”
Returning to TCM’s everything-in-moderation credo, the fact that cooling foods are recommended in summer does not mean that you should chow down on them 24/7. Women in particular have to be careful not to overdo it, according to Chiu.
Another summer staple to be mindful of is ice. Consuming it, including in beverages, is heavily discouraged by TCM, Ly says, as too much of it can cause a buildup of dampness. Defining the concept or sensation of “dampness” as an accumulation of “waste or waste materials in our body,” Ly says it can manifest as a broad range of ailments, from severe fatigue to fluid retention.
“Everyone groans when I say this, but … if you have digestive problems and issues with menstrual cramps, you’ll have less issues when you avoid ice,” Chiu says. “Even though it’s summer,” she adds, “you’ll do better with warm or hot foods in those cases.”
Chiu’s only other TCM-informed beauty advice is refreshingly simple: “Have fun, be joyous.”
Since the heart is the primary organ associated with summer, “lean into your imagination, do things that give you a sense of awe,” such as watching the sun set or adventuring outside, Chiu says. “Lean into the outdoors to soak up the qi (energy) of nature. Come winter, you won’t get that opportunity like you do in summer.”
“Filling up your spirit in this way makes you beautiful, because in TCM we recognize that beauty isn’t just topical — it’s deep,” she explains. “And making sure to nourish your spirit is important.”
Studies and Sources Referenced:
Hasanudin, K, et al. (2012) “Corn Silk (Stigma Maydis) in Healthcare: A Phytochemical and Pharmacological Review.” Molecules,
American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine. (2018) “Staying Healthy in Summer According to Chinese Medicine.” https://www.actcm.edu/blog/featured/summer
Cleveland Clinic. (2023) “Can You Eat Corn Silk? 4 Health Benefits of Corn Silk.”
Liu, G, et al. (2022) “Bitter Melon—an Asian Vegetable Expanding in Florida.” University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/HS1271
Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. (Updated December 22, 2021) “Bitter Melon.” https://www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/integrative-medicine/herbs/bitter-melon