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Staying Healthy in Winter

BY: JESS CLAYTON, M.AC., L.AC. – DECEMBER 21, 2018 – ACUPUNCTURE 

As Autumn has begun to give way to Winter’s chilly darkness, you may be feeling the seasonal change within yourself. The ancient Chinese believed in living in harmony with the natural cycles of their environment in nature. Thousands of years ago when Chinese Medicine was being developed, people rose with the sun, ate what grew in each season and were aware of how the environment around them had a direct effect on every aspect of their lives. Because of these tools to keep their immune systems and their organs strong, they could prevent disease. With the hustle and bustle of the holidays as well as with today’s modern conveniences it can be hard to remember to live seasonally, especially during the Winter months. The cold and darkness of Winter is the ideal time to slow down, reflect, replenish your energy, recharge your reserves and conserve your strength for the Spring. 

Winter and Summer are the two most extreme seasons in nature. In the ancient world, the Winter time was the toughest season to maintain health due to the cold weather, hibernation of the animals, decrease in plant and vegetable life and shorter hours of daylight. Winter is the most yin time of the year according to Chinese Medicine which means dark, cold, slow, inward energy which is the opposite of the yang of Summer where the energy is light, hot, quick and expansive. The quietness and stillness in nature around us in the Winter reminds us to slow down, rest and relax. The Winter solstice on December 21st signifies the beginning of the Winter in the solar calendar. It is the shortest day and indicates maximum yin energy of the year. The next day after the solstice we begin to see a little more of the yang energy emerge with a little more light and we slowly head towards the Spring’s warmth and growth. When we are in the deep, stillness of the Winter we are reminded to reflect on our lives and health, to reconnect to our inner selves, to surrender to the darkness around us and within us and rest more in order to replenish. 

In the Five Element Theory of Chinese Medicine each season is associated with an element and an organ. The Winter is associated with the Water element and the organ it is associated with is the kidneys. The kidneys are considered to be the source of all energy within the body in Chinese Medicine. They store all of the reserved qi within the body so that it can be used in times of extreme change or stress in order to heal, prevent illness and age gracefully. In Western Medicine we know that the kidneys are in charge of regulating the water metabolism, stabilizing the heart and blood pressure and maintaining homeostasis within the body. In Chinese Medicine, the kidneys are responsible for all of this in addition to the health of teeth, bones and bone marrow and because of this the kidneys are thought to be responsible for skeletal structure and function, intelligence, reason, perception and memory. As we age we lose water and our bodies become drier. Our bones and hair can become more brittle, our skin begins to lose elasticity and our brains begin to lose flexibility. By nourishing our bodies through the Winter time we can strengthen the kidneys and their functions to be able to stay healthy, prevent illness and age with more ease. 

It is believed throughout Chinese Medicine that harmonizing oneself with the seasons can improve health and prevent disease. The emphasis in the Winter is on conserving, storing and replenishing our energy for the upcoming year ahead. Following some simple lifestyle tips can help to maintain balance, nourish and strengthen the kidneys and create more ease and harmony throughout the most yin time of the year:

  • Keep Your Neck, Low Back and Feet Warm – With the wind, rain and snow comes the colds, flus, aches and pains. Paying extra attention to keeping these specific areas of your body warm is extremely important. Chinese Medicine says that the neck contains wind points through which pathogens can enter so keeping the neck protected is crucial especially when it is windy. Wearing a scarf keeps your neck and head warm which gives immune functions a boost, prevents wind from entering the body and are also very fashionable. The low back is closely tied to the strength of the kidney qi due to the organ itself being located in our lower backs. Keeping the low back warm and covered from the elements when outside is very important so that the cold does not penetrate the organ itself. Cold tends to enter the body through the feet which is also where the kidney meridian begins. Cold causes things to slow down and contract which can make us even colder. By keeping your feet warm with socks and good boots when outside in the snow you can keep your kidneys and the rest of your body warm. This is especially important if you are trying to conceive. 
  • Slow Down and Exercise with the Season – Exercising is always healthy but from a Chinese Medicine perspective it is best to change the way that you approach it in the Winter. Winter is a time to slow down and activities should represent the season by turning inwards with more self-reflection and quiet time. Activities such as journaling, meditation and reading are particularly great this time of the year. Other activities such as yoga, gentle stretching, qi gong and tai chi are also great exercises that balance your body by still moving but also conserving energy in the Winter so that you can put it into action in the Spring. Physical movement is essential for circulating energy but avoid perspiring excessively. In Chinese Medicine, the sweat is seen as an escape of yang energy which can injure the kidney qi allowing for colds, flus and other illnesses.
  • Get Plenty of Sleep – In the Winter time we need even more sleep then the rest of the year. If we are looking to nature to influence our lifestyle habits we see that animals and plants in nature are hibernating and sleeping more this time of year as well. The ancient Chinese texts advise people to go to bed early and rise late. By building extra time in your schedule for rest and focusing on sleep like it is a new hobby you are preserving your yang qi and warming your body when cold. Sleep deprivation can tax our immune systems and lead to illness. Overdoing it will be more draining in the Winter months than it would be in the Spring or Summer and it can be harder to bounce back from. If you are feeling tired there is a reason for it and it is best not to fight the urge to rest. Try going to sleep earlier or even waking without an alarm once the sun is up, if possible.
  • Reduce Stress – According to Chinese Medicine, stress, frustration and unresolved anger can work together to throw off your immune system and allows pathogens to affect your body. We all know that stress has a negative impact on our minds and bodies. Find a way to relax and release stress on a daily basis especially during the cold Winter. Avoid experiencing excessive emotions in the Winter because they drain your energy reserves. Start paying attention to how you feel and listen closely to the messages that your body is trying to send you. Pick up a new indoor hobby this Winter such as knitting, baking, journaling or reading as a way to help reduce the stress in your life, be contented and give yourself some personal space away from others as well as from modern technologies such as the television, computer or cell phone. Acupuncture is another way to reduce stress quickly and safely with a calm hour to focus on yourself, relax and get some peace. Research has even shown that acupuncture affects your brain chemistry in a positive way by releasing endorphins. Consider giving yourself the gift of acupuncture this Winter season. 
  • Eat with the Season of Winter – Eating foods that are available from your local farmers at any given time of the year can really help your body adjust seasonally. Eat foods that are highly nourishing and in season. In Winter it is not recommended to eat raw or cold foods in order to protect your kidneys and nourish your digestive system. Instead try hearty soups, rich stocks cooked with animal bones and root vegetables. Cooking should be for longer periods of time using low heat and less water. This infuses the food with heat which helps the body to keep warm in the cold Winter months. It is very important to stay hydrated during the Winter by drinking room temperature or hot water, or tea. Too much cold or raw foods or drinks will overly chill the digestive system causing contraction and tightness and ultimately your body will have to work harder to try to warm up your foods before digesting them. Bone broth is extremely important during the Winter months. Bone broth not only makes your bones strong and healthy but it boosts the immune system, reduces inflammation and heals the digestive system. It is one of the most beneficial substances that we can consume for health and longevity. You can eat it alone, as a base for a soup or use it to cook rice in place of water. Other foods that are good to eat in the Winter time include:
    • Vegetables such as – Acorn Squash, Asparagus, Beets, Beet Greens, Broccoli, Cabbage, Carrots, Celery, Chicory, Cucumbers, Hubbard Squash, Kale, Leeks, Lotus Root, Mushrooms, Onions, Parsnips, Potatoes, Pumpkin, Rutabaga, Scallions, Spaghetti Squash, Spinach, Swiss Chards, Turban Squash, Turnips, Yams
    • Whole Grains such as – Alfalfa Sprouts, Barley, Congee, Millet, Oats, Oatmeal, Porridge, Quinoa
    • Meat or Fish Proteins such as – Anchovies, Chicken, Clams, Crab, Crayfish, Flake, Lamb, Mussels, Octopus, Oysters, Pork, Pork Kidneys, Sardines, Squid
    • Herbs and Spices such as – Cinnamon, Cloves, Fennel Seed, Garlic, Ginger, Parsley
    • Lentils and Legumes such as – Adzuki Beans, Black Beans, Green Lentils, Kidney Beans, Red Beans, Red Lentils
    • Nuts and Seeds such as – Almonds, Black Sesame Seeds, Cashews, Chestnuts, Flax Seeds, Hemp Seeds, Peanuts, Pine Nuts, Pumpkin Seeds, Sunflower Seeds
    • Fruits such as – Apples, Blackberries, Blueberries, Cranberries, Dried Berries and Fruits, Goji Berries, Mulberries, Pears, Persimmons, Raspberries
    • Fermented Foods such as – Kimchi, Miso, Olives, Pickles, Sauerkraut, Soy Sauce, Tamarin Sauce
    • Other Foods such as – Agar Agar, Eggs, Black Rice, Bone Broths, Honey, Kelp, Kombu, Nori, Soy Milk, Tempeh, Tofu

Thousands of years ago, the ancient Chinese Medicine practitioners intuitively discovered that nature and the human body are all deeply interconnected on the energetic levels and that many specific interrelationships could be practically applied for self-healing purposes. Chinese Medicine believes that harmonizing oneself with the seasons you can stay healthier and prevent disease. Winter is a great time to become more yin and strengthen the kidneys, rest and revitalize yourself similar to the animals hibernating in nature. By slowing down, eating warm nourishing foods, sleeping, resting more and getting seasonal acupuncture treatments we can begin to nourish and tend to ourselves the way that nature does and revitalize our energy reserves for the yang of the Spring and Summer months to come.  

1 thought on “Staying Healthy in Winter

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