Well, it seems that Winter has arrived! It seemed to take a little while, but when it did, it was quite dramatic - at least in the Northeast! - with this past weekend's snow and wind.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Winter is the season that represents the most “Yin” aspect of Chinese medicine. Yin is a darker, slower, cooler, moist energy. This is compared to the “Yang” summer season, where it’s light outside much longer, there are a million things happening, and it’s usually warm.
How does winter make you feel? For some of us, we are invigorated - Winter and snowfall give us a reason to hit the slopes or skating rink or just to plod around in snowshoes. For others, we withdraw a little, or may feel some sadness or even depression. In general, though, we can all enjoy Winter if we live, eat, and exercise properly within the nature of the season and in accordance to our bodies' preferences.
So, if you want to hit the slopes, that's fantastic! Remember to bundle up (of course) and keep yourself fueled with foods that are warming and that provide long lasting energy.
If you want to cuddle up inside and watch the snow from the warmth of your home, that's great, too -embrace the urge to "hibernate" and rest and sleep more. This is the season to do it. Because it is still important to move your body, starting or reviving a yoga practice is a great way to stay fit during the cold months without feeling cold! This article from Yoga Journal provides more information on practicing yoga in the winter.
In TCM, Winter corresponds with our energetic "Kidneys", the organs seen to hold the most basic essence of our being and our energy - our internal "battery" (sometimes equated to the adrenal glands in Western medicine). In TCM, it is believed that by harmonizing oneself with the seasons, you can avoid illness and promote great health. Therefore, during the Winter it is a good time to focus on strengthening the Kidneys.
Rest helps regenerate Kidney energy - that's why hibernation (for some species) is a good idea! In addition to resting more, Winter is also a great time for inner reflection, especially after the mayhem and social activity of the holidays. We should take time to look deeply into ourselves to reflect on the past year, understand our present, and prepare for the coming year. Meditation, prayer, journaling, goal creating exercises, counseling, coaching, and other techniques that reveal our deeper desires to our conscious mind can be very helpful. These tools support Kidney energy and have the ability to calm our emotions, relax the mind, and raise our spirit.
Eating warm foods such as nourishing soups and fragrant stews help our nourish Kidney energy and prepare our bodies for the coming of Spring in a few months. Elson Hass, MD wrote an interesting book: “Staying Healthy with the Seasons,” that discusses how to eat and exercise with each season and the changes that occur in nature and within our own bodies. It's a great book that we recommend for those wanting to learn more about this topic!
The foods to eat during Winter are the ones that naturally grow during this season - squashes, root vegetables (carrots, yams), winter greens, mushrooms, apples, pears and citrus fruits. Foods harvested in the Fall and dried for the Winter, like nuts, beans and grains, are also good. In the Winter our body needs warm foods - so soups made from vegetables and rich stocks with animal bones are nourishing. Specific foods to nourish and warm the Kidneys include black beans, kidney beans, bone broths, lamb, chicken, walnuts, chestnuts, black sesame seeds, and dark leafy greens. A small amount of unrefined sea salt added to home-cooked foods is also helpful since the taste associated with the Kidney organ is “salty.” Be mindful not to oversalt, though (as usually is the case in Western cuisine) - as always, we encourage moderation!
As for cooking methods, it is best to bake, roast, stew, and slow-cook foods in the Winter. Warming spices such as cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom are wonderful additions to Winter recipes. In TCM, we don’t recommend very hot spicy food in the Winter because these foods create sweating, which is actually a cooling process. However, a small pinch of hot spice helps increase circulation, which is beneficial. So, add a small amount of pepper and other flavorful spices for taste, but avoid overdoing hot spices.
Of course (and always), continue drinking water. Even though we may not be sweating as much, out bodies still need water in this season - especially with our increased exposure to the drying nature of interior heating systems. The water you drink doesn't have to be cold, actually, we recommend that you drink room temperature or warm water (or herbal tea). Ginger root tea is great, as is cinnamon stick tea.
Finally, acupuncture and Chinese herbs can help your body maintain balance in the Winter months. With acupuncture, we can help nourish Kidney energy by selecting points along the Kidney meridian. Additionally, by using a warming technique called moxibustion, we can introduce a stronger warming energy into the body by applying an herb called Mugwort to acupuncture points on the belly and/or low back. It feels heavenly! For cases where the coldness seems to be at a deeper level in the body, we can prescribe herbal formulas that can help nourish the Kidney and stoke the body's internal "fire".
So, stay warm and stay nourished. We wish you all a Happy and Healthy New Year!