Wildfire Season 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. That being said, wildfire season in Boulder, Colorado, has become quite unhealthy.

Living in Boulder, 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 wildfire season in Boulder, 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 wildfire season in Boulder 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 time during wildfire season in Boulder, 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.

Care for the Caregiver

Caregiving is one of the most socially important roles we can provide for others. Over the course of our lifetime, we will likely move through a variety of caregiving roles, from parenting small children to providing support to an ailing spouse. As we age, the people we love will age, too. For many of us, the strength of our caregiving capacities will be challenged by our own physical and mental limitations.

As an acupuncturist specializing in treating elders and caregivers, I am here to help.

In my work with elders, I am reminded every day of the need for skilled, compassionate caregivers in aging services. We live in a time when children often live far away from their parents, complicating the ability to provide one-on-one care. For some older adults, the network of caregivers they can rely on is very thin—considerate friends or sometimes only paid employees. Aging can create unforeseen vulnerabilities, such as dementia or compromised mobility, situations that require the kindness of a caregiver’s patient support and watchful eye.

Because of the challenges of aging, the difficulties for caregivers can be immense. Primary caregivers, or care partners, as some prefer to be called, shoulder physical, mental, and spiritual worries that often go unshared. In a caregiving relationship, the person with fewer hindrances may feel unable to complain, vent, cry, or express anger about their position. After all, they may think, I’m not the one with Parkinson’s. Or, Who else will take care of all of the work if I don’t?

The pressure to be super-human can take its toll on even the most resourceful caregiver.

At Boulder Acupuncture and Herbs, I am focused on elder health. Implicit in that vision is a commitment to the wellbeing of caregivers, too. After all, without a vital caregiving community, how can we provide the necessary help elders need to stay safe, healthy, active, and engaged through their senior years? Caregivers are a critical piece of this social puzzle.

Unfortunately, caregivers are at a greater risk of developing depression, physical burnout, and long-term health issues. The impacts of extensive caregiving are becoming much more publicized, as shown by the Family Caregiver Alliance of San Francisco, California. According to FCA, the choice to place a family member in a long-term care facility is usually linked to the caregiver’s health, not necessarily the elder’s health. This means we have a lot to do, as a community, to keep our caregivers, and our seniors, well.

What, then, can acupuncture do to help care for the caregiver? So much.

Here are 7 ways acupuncture can benefit caregivers:

  1. Your job is physically demanding. Acupuncture is proven to relieve pain.
  2. You go home tired but still can’t sleep. Acupuncture treats insomnia.
  3. You eat on the run. Acupuncture optimizes digestion.
  4. You work with many people, every day. Acupuncture boosts your immunity.
  5. You help others age well. Acupuncture keeps you active.
  6. You are human. Acupuncture reduces stress, anxiety & depression.
  7. You care for everyone else. Your acupuncturist is your ally in health.

Caregivers need to be reminded that their wellbeing is as important as that of their care partner’s. By shifting the conversation on caregiving toward the needs of caregivers, we build strength, resiliency, and compassion into our community. This leads to a win-win for elders and the people who care for them every day.

If you are doing the super-human work of caregiving, please reach out for a little support. The Boulder County Area Agency on Aging has many resources for caregivers, including respite care, classes, a lending library, and so much more. Boulder Acupuncture and Herbs is here for you, too.

Most of all, thank you for all that you do.