This year winter begins with the solstice, which is the shortest day and longest night of the year. In Oriental Medicine (OM), winter is the season associated with the water element and is yin in nature (dark, cold, moist and still). Just as nature is sleeping and resting in anticipation of warmer days, the season urges us to rest, conserve and replenish our energies until the coming spring. The change in season may bring about abundant allergies, while colds and flus take advantage of the stresses only the end of the year can bring. The emotion associated with the water element is fear and it contains the spirit of will power. An imbalanced water element may present as fearful, which depletes vital energies. Just as water provides fluidity for movement and lubricates every joint, the water element’s spirit guides us to smoothly overcome fear and difficulties.
By supporting positive qualities, the most stressful time of the year can be the most joyous time of the year. To make the most of this winter, enrich Kidney essence (jing) or constitution and maintain your immune system (wei qi) by following these lifestyle changes until spring.
1. Go to bed early and wake up later, stay warm and expend minimal amounts of energy.
2. Avoid raw or cold foods as they tend to cool the body further. Do consume warm foods such as soups, lamb, pork, chicken, peanuts, beans, walnuts (hu tao ren), Chinese dates (da zao), longan fruit (long yan rou), cinnamon (gui zhi), ginger (sheng jiang) and garlic (da suan).
3. Wear warmer clothing to protection your yin qi, but do not make your home or workplace so warm that your body does not adapt to the outside environment.
4. Continue to exercise to keep your pulse and qi strong, but do not exercise to the point of exhaustion.
5. As reinforcement of your lifestyle, acupuncture and Tuina relieve stress and improves digestion. Applied to specific areas such as the abdomen or Stomach 36 (Zu san li area on the lower leg), they also boosts immunity by increasing white blood cell counts.
By adopting an OM lifestyle, embracing the change of season and nostalgia for the year gone by, we can fuel the energies to create new memories in the coming year.
To see how athletes can optimize their success in winter, see Journey Inward for Outward Movement.
In spring, all creatures take advantage of energy that was stored during the fall and winter months. New growth can be seen moving upward and outward, both emotionally and physically, via the reappearance of plants and animals, as well as our own emerging perspectives on life.
Spring is the season linked to the Wood element, and the Liver and Gall Bladder organ system. The energetic Liver should be soothed, nourished or regulated. Its function according to Oriental Medicine (OM) is to circulate Qi (energy) upward and outward in the body as well as control the other organs. The Wood element is characterized by growth and wind, which tend to be found more often in the spring. Wind can strengthen the Liver, but too much can cause it to overact on the Stomach and Spleen. This can lead to a disharmony that may manifest as stomach upset and/or digestive disturbances, acid regurgitation, and possibly diarrhea. For those that may have overworked themselves the previous season, their immune systems may be compromised.
Spring allergens from grass and trees are blown through the air into our bodies. Theses allergens can affect a person, particularly if they are overstressed by life or emotionally overloaded. This, in turn, will weaken their digestive function and wei qi/immune system. An unbalanced Liver energy may result in mood swings, depression or irritability, and occasional outbursts of emotion.
To assist the Liver Qi to flow, incorporate activities that both enliven and relax the body. Exercise should be calm and fluid. Try breathing exercises, stretching, Qi gong, Tai Qi, light weights, and/or yoga. Joint support is important, as the tendons and ligaments are a manifestation of the Liver energies and is well covered by the aforementioned modalities. Rest and recovery, as for every season, are imperative to good health. In this season, going to bed somewhat later in the evening and waking up earlier are applicable.
Springtime foods should be sweet in flavor to nourish the spleen, with some pungentness (spicy) and warmth to help soothe and regulate the Liver’s functions, such as black sesame, quail or Chinese yams. Include some fresh greens like kale and spinach as well as young plants or sprouts. Foods that help soothe the Liver if it is out of balance include chive, onion, peppermint, beans, sea vegetables, vinegars, lime, & animal liver. Although sour flavored foods are good to have at this time, more is not necessarily better. Foods that clog the Liver, such as processed, sugary foods, excessively fatty and hydrogenated fats, are devoid of life and should be kept to a minimum. Other foods to avoid include salty, cold in temperature, excessive raw foods, or difficult to digest foods, accompanied by a decrease in calories to reduce the load placed on the Liver.
Acupuncture and Tuina should be utilized frequently to boost the immune system, alleviate sinus pressure & headaches associated with allergies, assist in digestion, moderate mood swings, and assist in recovery from exercise.
“In the spring and summer when food is plentiful and humans tend to become lazy and slothful, finger pressure is used to increase digestion, fire and restore vigor.” Qi Bo – Yellow Emperor’s Classic
By incorporating regular self care practices via mindfulness, nutrition, exercise, acupuncture and bodywork, one can best retain and improve their own health during this season of growth.
Read about the coming Summer
In Oriental Medicine (OM) winter is the time to turn inward with meditative thoughts and conserve one’s energy. The winter’s energetic system is found in the Kidneys and manifests physically in the ears, lumbar spine and knees. Positive energy in this season reflects in a calm ability to handle stress with consistent focus and moderate energy throughout the day. Hearing can be more acute in the winter months, but the lower back and knees may experience more discomfort than in other times of the year. Some aspects of the Chinese medicine Kidney energetic can be seen in the biomedical kidney’s water metabolism, adrenal, reproductive and excretory functions . Through self-neglect or from prolonged stressors, people may find themselves anxious, irritable, fatigued and in some ways fearful or insecure. Since the cold slows the flow of blood and warmth to our extremities, activity should maintain continued circulation of the body’s fluids and proper joint relationships, as well as build our resources rather than deplete them.
Beneficial activities include Qi Gong, Tai Chi, low intensity movement or corrective exercises. Pre-workout exercises designed to warm the body up should be done for longer duration than in the hotter times of the year. Outdoor activities should be during the warmer, sunnier parts of the day and kept at a shorter length of time.
The weather can creep into the body and aggravate old injuries, arthritis and other aches and pains. This is especially true for outdoor athletes such as runners, bikers and hikers who spend a lot of time exposed to the elements as well as our aging populations and younger children. Pain patterns manifest in different ways.
- Wind: marked by a decrease in range of motion and pain that changes location.
- Cold: fixed stabbing pain with spasms that does not usually have inflammation, is aggravated by cold and relieved by warmth.
- Damp: fixed and intense pain with a feeling of heaviness, numb skin and muscles that wet conditions may aggravate.
- Heat: not so common in the winter; characterized by local inflammation and/or redness in the joints or extremities, and may be aggravated by heat.
The wind is a carrier of other pathogens such as cold and dampness. Adequate clothing or protection is imperative. The yang parts of the body where most external pathogens enter and cause problems, such as the back and nape, should be covered. Normally our immune system (wei qi) is ample protection but chronic exposure, poor food choices and weaker or overworked constitutions create susceptibility. Enjoy foods that nourish the Kidneys and warm the interior of the body. Choices should include nourishing soups, broths and stocks, moderate spices and congees or porridge.
- Foods that nourish the Kidneys: black beans, grapes, bone broth, eel, quail, walnuts (hu tao ren), black sesame (hei zhi ma), Chinese yam (shan yao), goji berries (gou qi zi), seaweeds: sargassum (hai zao), kelp (kun bu) or other varieties
- Warm foods: lamb, deer, beef, chicken
- Warm spices and herbs: mild peppers, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, ginger (sheng jiang)
- Although salt guides to and nourishes the Kidneys, it is unnecessary to add copious amounts to our modern diets. Instead utilize seaweed, which is rich in iodine, and sea salts for cooking.
- Raw and cold foods make the body weaker by disrupting digestive processes. They include: iced drinks, ice cream, and excessive raw vegetables and fruits.
Overtraining or overworking in the winter will greatly affect your performance in the following season. Be aware of early signs and adjust your activities accordingly. Signs include – but are not limited to – a higher resting heart rate, decreased focus, mental fatigue, insomnia, mood swings, chronic muscle soreness, frequent injuries, delayed recovery, sensitive digestion, and/or unwanted weight loss or gain. Athletes and exercise enthusiasts who continue through the colder months of the year should follow these guidelines.
- Regular acupuncture and tui na treatments restore balance to the body and speed recovery.
- Warm up sufficiently. Include the use of a foam roller and dynamic stretching.
- Avoid prolonged static or deep stretching at the beginning of workouts as this will cool the body down further, increasing the chance of injury.
- Stay hydrated and maintain adequate nutrition. The body sweats less in the cold and relies more on exhalation and urination to expel water and waste, which creates the illusion of hydration.
- Rest and be aware of signs of over-training.
By conserving energy, exercising moderately and eating well you can enjoy the season and ready yourself for a smooth transition and expansion into Spring.
For other articles on winter, see Oriental Medicine Winter.