Chinese Medicine encourages us to live in harmony with the seasons, and according to Chinese medicine theory, there are five seasons – winter, spring, summer, late summer, and autumn.
Winter is the season of hibernation, when energy moves inward. A time of retreat and rest, when the Yin (night, female, cold) is dominant and the Yang (day, male, hot) energy moves inward.
Winter is a time of stillness and quiet, amplifying any sound there is. The ability to listen clearly at this time of year is sharpest – not only listening through conversation, but also listening to your own body and understanding its needs.
Winter is the time to rest and to reflect on our health, conserve strength and store energy in preparation for new life and energy in the spring. The body needs to rest and stay warm.
Winter can be a time of colds and flu. The cold from winter can easily leech into our bodies. Cold causes things to slow down and contract, which can make us even colder and things can get stuck. As a result, we may feel tired, stiff and sickly more than usual in winter. Those of us who are prone to fatigue may find the colder months especially challenging. The slowing down and contracting of cold can show up in winter as poor circulation, aches, pains, asthma, arthritis and colitis. Despite this, the stillness and quiet of winter is perfect for reflection, deep meditation and awareness.
From a Chinese medicine point of view winter is the season related to the water element and the organs associated are the Kidneys and the Bladder, both of which are sensitive to cold.
Looking after your Kidneys
The Kidneys are considered to be the gate of life, storing the essence (jing), regulating reproduction and development, and our longevity is directly related to the health of our Kidneys. The Kidneys are also linked to our bones and brain marrow, knees, lower back, and teeth. Part of the job of the Kidneys is to store all of the reserve energy in a person’s body so that it can be used in times of stress and change, or to heal, prevent illness, and to age gracefully. Kidneys are considered the source of all Qi within the body.
It seems impossible to be too good to the Kidneys and supporting them becomes increasingly important, as we get older. You can see how important it is to look after our Kidneys during the cold winter months.
For example, winter pain in the knees, whether it is arthritic or not may be related to the Kidneys. Saying that, skeletal health is dependent on the overall health of the body, so not every bone problem is related to the Kidneys.
In our lives, the health of our Kidneys can be seen in our hair and experienced through the sense of our hearing. Hair loss, premature greying or split-ends all signal Kidneys that could do with a boost. Also many ear problems may be linked to the Kidneys, such as ear infections, deafness and tinnitus.
Getting enough sleep is one way of supporting the Kidneys. Chinese Medicine advises for people in winter to go to sleep early and rise late, after the sun’s rays have warmed the atmosphere a bit. This preserves a person’s own Yang energy for the task of warming when the weather is colder. Of course, depending on a person’s job, this may be difficult, or impossible to do. Maybe it is not possible for you to sleep in late or go to sleep early. Just be aware of the need for more rest in the winter and do the best you can.
Exercise in winter
Winter is a time when many people tend to reduce their activity. It is tempting to be more sedentary when the weather is cooler, but our bodies need the activity to stimulate Qi and healthy blood circulation. Do something daily to get the heart rate up and endorphins flowing. However, extreme exercise and activity is contraindicated during winter. Exercise until you are warm but stop before you sweat too much. Keep your body healthy with gentle exercise – and enjoy some outdoor activities, where you can get some fresh air and sunlight (keeping Vitamin D up). Though on stormy or windy days, it is important to rug up or to stay indoors where possible. The cold that surrounds at this time of year can easily seep into our bodies, lower our immunity and make us more susceptible to colds or flus.
Stretching, practising Qi Gong, and (Yin) Yoga is especially valuable in winter. Before you exercise, rub menthol-based treatments into your muscles and joints to keep the cold out of your bones. My favourites are “Zheng Gu Shui” and Tiger Balm (red), which are available from all Chinese herbal dispensaries.
Keeping warm & staying healthy
The common cold is often caused by an invasion of cold wind. Cold wind usually enters the body through exposed necks and lower backs. So rug up, keep warm, wear a scarf, and if you need a hot water bottle, best to put it by the feet.
In Chinese medicine we believe the head should be relatively cool and the feet warm for proper fluid and energy movement in the body to take place. This is true across cultures – consider the idioms in English about being ‘hot-headed’ or getting ‘cold feet.’
Chinese medicine and acupuncture can also help to prevent colds and flus by helping to build up your immune system. Seasonal acupuncture treatments of only as few as four times a year may help with minor annoyances before they become serious problems. In ancient China, people would pay the acupuncturist when they are healthy and stop paying when they got sick – it was very much treated as a preventative medicine.
Diet – food as medicine
In winter, meals should be nutritious and warming. Winter food such as grains, dried or preserved food, seeds and nuts have an inward-moving energy (like winter itself). Respond to the season by eating delicious stews, soups, broths and slow-cooked meals – probably exactly the foods that you are craving!
As a general rule it is a good idea to avoid raw foods as much as possible during the winter. Raw foods tend to cool the body.
Foods that benefit the Kidneys in winter include sweet potatoes, kidney beans, millet, sesame seeds and lamb. Bone broths are a great way of nourishing and strengthening the Kidneys. You can also use vegetable stocks with, for example a muslin cloth with star anise, liquorice root, fennel seeds, cloves and mandarin peel.
Protect the Kidneys with sufficient amounts of warm water and herbal teas, and sip hot water with fresh ginger to keep the digestive fire strong.
Warm foods to help maintain the Qi and nourish Yang, include cabbage, carrots, red beans, anchovies, bay leaves, chicken, lamb, leek, mussels, pine nuts, spring onions, potatoes sweet potatoes, chestnuts and walnuts.
Warm, pungent herbs for cooking and teas such as cinnamon, cloves, fennel, ginger, black pepper, cardamom, anise, rosemary, nutmeg, shallots, garlic, coriander, dill and horseradish all help to remove cold. These herbs are particularly good for encouraging circulation and transformation of cold and damp.
Also, try to get your daily dose of vitamin C from food sources including capsicums, dark green leafy veggies and citrus fruits (e.g. Kiwi fruits).
We also need to eat foods that benefit the Heart and our Spirit, guarding against winter depression or melancholy. Beetroots strengthen the Heart and blood, and cinnamon warms the Heart.
May you stay warm and healthy this winter!