Staying Healthy in Winter

Author: Dr. Maryam Mahanian, DTCM, RAc

Today's article is about Staying Healthy in Winter

According to Chinese medicine, harmonizing oneself with the seasons keeps you healthy and prevents illness. Let’s talk about staying healthy in winter.

We have had quite a bit of winter so far here in Vancouver Canada. We started having a ton of snow on Christmas eve and it poured down pretty consistently for two weeks! As I look out my window, there’s still snow on the sidewalks that haven’t melted. This is unprecedented here on the west coast where we usually just have immense amounts of rain and fairly mild weather.

Winter represents maximum yin. If you’re familiar with the yin and yang theory, you know that yin represents darkness, cold, stillness. Yang represents warmth, activity, brightness. In the yin winter season, we become more receptive and inward. In the summer, the days are longer and people are out and about being active. In contrast, the winter days are short and people tend to stay home and hibernate and replenish the energy that has been used throughout the busy year.

In this season, we want to warm the body’s core. It’s a time to rest as much as you can and to store your physical energy. We want to enrich our yin and subdue our yang with our diet and daily activities.

This deeply yin time is an important time to get our bodies and minds prepared for spring which is a time of renewal, rejuvenation, and fresh beginnings.

The classic texts of Chinese Medicine encourage one to follow the cycle of the seasons in order to stay healthy. Below is what the Huang Di Nei Jing (“The Inner Classic of the Yellow Emperor”), says about the winter season:

“During the winter months all things in nature wither, hide, return home, and enter a resting period, just as lakes and rives freeze and snow falls. This is a time when yin dominates yang. Therefore one should refrain from overusing the yang energy. Retire early and get up with the sunrise, which is later in Winter. Desires and mental activity should be kept quiet and subdued, as if keeping a happy secret. Stay warm, avoid the cold, and keep the skin covered. Avoid sweating. The theory of the Winter season is one of conservation and storage. Without such practice the result will be injury to the Kidney energy. This will cause weakness, shrinking of muscles, and coldness; then the body loses its ability to open and move about in the Spring.”

Here’s a quick summary of the winter associations according to Chinese medicine:

  • Element – Water
  • Yin Organ – Kidney
  • Yang Organ – Bladder
  • Sense Organ – Ears
  • Emotion – Fear
  • Flavor – Salty, bitter
  • Color – Black

Every season corresponds to a particular organ system in Chinese medicine. For example, spring corresponds to the liver. Summer corresponds to the spleen and stomach. Autumn corresponds to the lungs. In the winter, the organ system that is most important is the kidneys. In other words, winter is a crucial time to strengthen and revitalize our kidneys.

Every season is also ruled by an element in nature. Spring is ruled by wood and is associated with birth. Summer is ruled by fire and is associated with growth. Autumn is ruled by metal and is associated with harvest. Late summer is ruled by earth and is associated with transformation. Finally, winter is ruled by the water element and is associated with storage.

Water nourishes and is an essential substance that gives life. The wisdom of water is to flow effortlessly and to take the form fo whatever contains it. It has depth, darkness, and a sort of mystery. A balanced water element is able to move smoothly and effortlessly through the season. The kidneys, belonging to the water element, have a great deal to do with the transformation and transportation of fluids in our bodies.

The emotion associated with water is fear. This includes anxiety and shock. Fear, in appropriate amounts, is essential to our lives as it ensures we are careful and cautious in our actions. In excessive amounts, we may experience many phobias and lack of courage.

The importance of the kidneys can’t be emphasized enough. The kidneys are the foundation of all the other organ systems. They are often referred to as the “root of life” because they store the essence. Essence is also referred to as “Jing” in Chinese medicine. The kidneys govern birth, growth, reproduction and development. Our essence determines our constitution, strength, vitality and longevity. It’s the basis for our sexual life and the foundation of sperm health in men and egg health in women. Having said this, insufficient essence can be a cause for fertility issues, impotence, physical or mental underdevelopment and premature aging. Aging itself is due to a decline of our essence over time. Another reason to take good care of our kidneys is that the health of our bones, joints, teeth, ears, brain, and marrow are all influenced by the kidneys.

So what can we do during this winter season to take the best care of our kidneys?

Rest and Self-Reflection

As said above, rest is crucial to rejuvenating the energy of our kidneys. Go to bed earlier and sleep later. Going to bed early doesn’t mean you need to wake up early. On the contrary. Try not to get out of bed until the sun rises. Look inward. Meditate, journal, pray. Practices like yoga, tai chi, and Qi Gong are ideal. Self-reflection, reading, writing, knitting, arts and crafts, and other nourishing activities are so wonderful this season.

Rest and self-reflection

Keep emotions calm

Stay as calm as possible and keep your peace of mind; Strong emotions cause leakage of energy from your body. In winter we want to conserve the energy in our bodies.

Best Winter Diet

Highly nutritious foods like animal proteins are recommended like beef, lamb, chicken, duck.  Cook foods longer at a lower temperature and with less water.

Bone broth – especially because bones are associated with the kidneys

Root vegetables

Beans help support the kidneys

Warming foods – cinnamon, ginger, meat stew (especially lamb), rice porridge (congee), hot pot, avoid cold foods like salads, sandwiches, sushi, smoothies

Tonics: ginseng/dang shen, walnuts, dang gui, longan fruits, red dates, shan yao (chinese yam), pumpkin, potatoes

Salty and bitter foods
Salty and bitter foods are recommended during the winter months because they cause sinking and centering. This means that they heighten the capacity for storage. Salty and bitter also cool the exterior of the body and bring heat deeper and lower into the body.
Salty foods support the kidneys while bitter foods are a bit cooling which will help to balance the very warm temperatures of the other foods recommended during the cold months to prevent excessive heat build up. The general rule of thumb when it comes to flavors is that a little bit will support the organ system while excessive amounts will harm that organ system. So try not to overdo the salty and bitter flavors.

Some examples of salty foods are miso, soy sauce, seaweeds, millet, barley plus any food that has salt added to it. This is easy to find in our modern diet as salt is already quite overused.

Some examples of bitter foods are daikon radish/cabbage (kimchi), citrus peel (chen pi) – warming and moving, watercress, quinoa, turnips, asparagus, alfalfa, carrot top, rye, oats, amaranth. The bitter flavor is also the protective coating of foods like citrus peels and the outer layer of cabbage.

Black colored foods are helpful to the kidneys: black sesame, black fungus, black beans, black rice, black pepper

Helpful Teas

  • dried ginger & red date tea
  • Longan + red date + goji tea
  • Citrus peel tea
  • Rose tea
  • Masala chai tea

Other Tips

  • Take things slow. Be kind to yourself and others. Don’t give your energy away when it doesn’t feel right to you.
  • Keep yourself warm, especially in lower abdomen, lower back and soles of your feet
    Drink warm teas, eat soups and stews
  • Soak your feet in warmhot water for at least 30 minutes every evening
  • Wear proper clothing in winter; Not too thick to cause sweating because that can leak your Qi. Not too thin to be too cold.

Hope these tips will help to support you this winter season and set you up for a wonderful spring to come.

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