Just one day of 85-degree temperatures and 100 percent humidity is all it takes to send most of us straight to the nearest ice cream parlor, with visions of Popsicles, frappés, and iced mochas dancing in our heads. But while those treats may sound good, for tempering the effects of all that heat and humidity, they're overrated.
According to Ayurvedic principles, it's not a food's temperature that makes it cooling, but rather its innate qualities. Each and every food is classified according to whether its energies promote heating or cooling. Sour, salty, or pungent foods boost heat; sweet, bitter, or astringent foods cool you down. To keep your inner thermostat in check, you need to choose the right foods—and avoid the wrong ones. Ayurveda also identifies certain fragrant essential oils as having cooling properties. Here's what you need to know.
Bag the Ice
It may sound counterintuitive, but loading up on chilled or frozen foods and drinks (even ice water) can be harmful. All that cold dampens your digestive fire, which means you won't absorb nutrients as you should, says Ed Danaher, an Ayurvedic consultant.
Fortunately, there are plenty of equally tasty alternatives to the standard frosty delights. The liquid from young coconuts—these are green, not brown—makes a fabulous cooling drink, says Michele Khalef, yoga therapist and Ayurvedic cooking instructor. It's wonderfully refreshing even at room temperature. It also makes a great smoothie: Mix it with coconut flakes or chunks and toss in some cilantro.
Fight the Fire With Fruits and Veggies
Reluctant to cook on a hot summer night? Throw together a salad or just lightly steam a few vegetables instead. Plenty of hot-season crops—including collard greens, chard, spinach, salad greens, celery, summer squash, and cucumbers—are classified as cooling according to Ayurveda (try this recipe for the Warm Spinach and Squash Salad pictured above). And most of them, when examined by modern scientists, turn out to have a high water content as well.
From the standpoint of Ayurveda, though, their cooling effect is due to more than a high water content: they're considered bitter and astringent, qualities that reduce the fiery pitta element in your constitution, or dosha. (To find out more about your dosha, take the quiz: What's Your Dosha?)
Fruits that can cool you down include dates, figs, pomegranates, raisins, and prunes. And next time you have a hankering for lemonade, go for limeade instead; limes are more cooling.
Be Spice Wise
Cuisines from hot countries around the world are full of hot-cold blends that are perfect for summer meals. "The cooling herbs keep the pungent herbs' heat in check," Danaher says. A classic heating-cooling combination is a blend of spicy peppers with refreshing cilantro. Lime juice, mint, or coconut can also help cool a hot meal.
Another good blend, says Khalef, is chai. Its spices have heating properties, but adding milk, which is cooling, can temper them. Your choice of sweetener also has an influence: Honey is heating, while date sugar, barley malt, maple syrup, Sucanat, and turbinado sugar tend toward cooling. And, of course, drinking chai at room temperature will also diminish its warming effect.
Eat Early and Often
Whatever foods you choose, Mother Maya (formerly Maya Tiwari), founder of the Wise Earth School of Ayurveda in Candler, North Carolina, advises eating several light meals a day, rather than two or three larger ones, for easier digestion.
Attend to the Essentials
Still feeling uncomfortably hot? Add essential oils to your summer routine. Use them as perfume, suggests Pratima Raichur, aesthetician, chemist, and botanist. "Rose, jasmine, sandalwood, vanilla, and vetiver are all cooling and smell beautiful," she says.
Applying an essential oil to the skin works even faster than inhaling its aroma, says Raichur, because the active components are absorbed into the bloodstream. (You shouldn't use synthetic oils this way, as they lack some of the natural oils' healing properties.) Sandalwood oil is especially effective, she adds, when you apply it to your temples or the "third eye" in the center of your forehead. Be sure to mix the essential oil with a base oil such as sunflower or coconut, so it doesn't irritate your skin.
A cooling blend Raichur especially likes is five drops each of sandalwood and vetiver oil in a base of one ounce of sunflower, coconut, or pure jojoba oil. For a heat rash remedy, Raichur mixes brahmi oil with neem and a drop of camphor.
Tapping into the wisdom of the Ayurvedic ancients—who undoubtedly knew a thing or two about coping with hot weather—will help you sail through the summer feeling serene and fresh. After all, the season should be a pleasurable, playful time of celebration—or in Mother Maya's words, "light, fragrant, sweet, and innocent"—not a time to be undone by the sun.
Coeli Carr has written for the New York Times and Alternative Medicine