Summer in Boulder: Hot, Hazy, and Unhealthy

wildfire smoke and mountains

I’d like to start this post by telling readers I am not an alarmist when it comes to environmental health. Although I believe in the importance of clean water, pure air, and organic food, I also believe our success as modern humans demands that we adapt to environmental circumstances that are less than ideal. Widespread pollution—both indoor and outdoor—are part of daily life.

Living in Boulder, Colorado, we are lucky. We source our water from nearby reservoirs fed by mountain runoff. Much of the farming and agricultural practices in our county are designed to be eco-friendly—organic, minimally damaging to co-existing wildlife, and as water-wise as possible. The Boulder community has, overall, done a good job of envisioning an urban future where humans live in, and benefit from, a healthy circle of natural environmental wealth. 

Climate change is changing all of that—rapidly. All we have to do is look at the last two summers in Boulder.

I’ve lived in Boulder since 2003 and have witnessed a slow but steady shift toward a warming city on a warming planet. My husband, who works in landscaping, attended a presentation on climate change five years ago in which the speaker told her audience that soon, summers in Boulder would be like Albuquerque, New Mexico. Indeed, that prediction feels accurate.

This summer I began paying closer attention to my clients’ ailments in light of the high heat and smoky air conditions. Many times I would look out my office window at the obscured Flatirons and say, “Do you think any of this has to do with the haze?” Invariably, people would tilt their heads and say, “Maybe. I never thought of that.”

Now that we are adjusting to the “new normal” for summers in Colorado, I urge you to consider the impact our air quality is having on your health. Wildfire smoke, ground-level ozone, and air pollution can make anyone feel unwell—including relatively healthy people. Here is a list of conditions I saw this summer that show a direct relationship to air quality:

  • Headaches
  • Sinus issues
  • Asthma
  • Allergies
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia

It’s not just air quality though; the intense heat is aggravating us as well.

Chinese medicine pays close attention to environmental factors when it comes to illness. Simply speaking, there is no human illness separate from the environment in which it appears. The world we inhabit becomes the world we internalize.

Heat, in particular, can challenge the body in ways you might not immediately recognize. Sure, it’s important to stay hydrated and avoid heat exhaustion in Colorado summers, but depending on your constitution, heat can cause many other health problems.

Here are a few issues that can be aggravated by months of 90-degree heat:

  • Menopausal hot flashes
  • Mouth sores
  • Stomach ulcers and GERD
  • Constipation
  • Allergies
  • Migraine headaches
  • Gout
  • Some forms of arthritis
  • Urinary tract infections

Clients with heat-sensitive constitutions will need to be extra vigilant in the years ahead during the summer months, especially people who are not accustomed to hot, dry climates.

Although waiting the summer out in air-conditioning is an option, this will only help with the high heat, not with atmospheric dryness. For me personally, I found the dryness of our summer to be particularly irritating to my lungs and sinuses.

Chinese medicine offers many solutions for lessening the impact of our difficult summers. Acupuncture is an excellent remedy for hot conditions, including everything listed above. I recommend starting regular acupuncture treatment in May or June before things get really heated up and continuing a maintenance schedule through the summer.

Diet also plays a role in mitigating the impacts of environmental stress. Universal irritants—coffee, alcohol, sugar, and refined carbohydrates—will add to systemic inflammation, as will smoking cigarettes or marijuana. I advise eating cooling, moistening foods during this time as much as possible, including fruit, whole grains, and vegetables. Remember, the more fruits and vegetables you eat, the more moisture you’ll get in your diet.

Finally, Chinese herbs. The Chinese herbal pharmacopeia is teeming with herbs that clear heat, moisten the lungs, and expel phlegm. Unlike acupuncture, herbal medicines are taken every day, which is great for people who travel or have a busy summer season. If you can’t make it in for treatment, herbs are a good choice. I can always help you with an herbal formula that fits your constitution.

Summer 2022 will be here before we know it.

We should assume it will be as hot and hazy as the last two summers and prepare ourselves ahead of time. Just like fire and flood mitigation, preventative medicine is a way of anticipating future stressors and seeking solutions before we become ill.

If you’ve had a difficult summer this year, make a plan for next year that includes acupuncture and herbal medicine before the temperatures rise. The stronger you feel entering the season of smoke, haze, and high ozone days, the more likely you’ll be to enjoy the summer season again.