Winter health comes from adjusting to the cyclical changes in nature around us. The yearly cycle is an interplay of Yin and Yang, each moving from dominance to obeisance and back again. Winter is the time when Yang energies internalize and Yin energies dominate.
In winter everything huddles up and retracts in order to survive. Leaves and flowers disappear from trees, animals hibernate and daylight becomes shorter. The earth lies barren and deserted as nature takes its inward period of reflection, preparing for the outward growth and expression of spring. What happens now, during rest and recuperation, lays the seed for the following year.
In winter, your Yang energy internalizes, to warm you up from the core and illuminate your internal world. This cold and dark climate is your time to focus inwards. Time to reflect on your health, conserving and nourishing your internal strength.
In Chinese medicine, winter is associated with the Water element, manifested in the body in the organ systems of the Kidney and Bladder. Imbalances arising as the cold of winter sets in may manifest as:
- lower back or knee pain
- memory issues
- menstrual pain
- lowered libido
- poor circulation
- fearful emotions (anxiety and phobias)
- urinary disorders
To live in accordance with the seasons, and maintain winter health, requires embracing and nourishing the qualities of Water in your life. This is the time where the focus is inwards to allow internal nourishment.
Rest and activity
Reducing your overall activity level is the first place to start in living seasonally. Change exercise routines to slower, less intensive routines that require less expenditure of energy. During exercise aim to only break a very mild sweat, if at all, to help conserve your energy. Activities such as gentle yoga, Tai Chi and walking are suited to this time of year, rather than intense gym sessions and other exercises that require a lot of energy.
As the hours of daylight are shorter, to live in sync with this cycle of nature it is best to head to bed early and wake up later. The intention here is to maximize the time of rest and recuperation. This means you are more dormant in your lifestyle when the world around you is doing the same. Rest is important for your winter health, hibernating bears know this instinctively.
Mental and emotional
This is the time to nurture yourself and your inner ideas of what you desire for your life. Like still water reflects your face, reflect upon your goals. The Water element is associated with your drive and will. This is a great time to begin developing and planting the seed of your intentions. This prepares the soil as you enter the growth energy of spring, where you bring action your plans.
Meditation is a great way to assist your mental and emotional system to slow down and follow the inward movement of your Yang Qi. Fifteen minutes set aside daily, to simply concentrate on your breath, can have profound effects throughout your day.
Avoiding entertainment that is overly exciting helps your mind to rest and internalize. Instead seek entertainment that stimulates reflection and contemplation, which is more suited to this time of year.
Important practices to nourish the Water energy for winter health include:
- listening to your body
- reflecting on who you are
- accepting yourself as you are
Keeping warm is important, cover up and avoid exposure to the cold. In particular covering up the lower back and neck area when outside is important. Scarves, beanies, gloves, jumpers and no midriff baring tops are the way for winter.
Keeping your feet warm is important, as the sole of your foot is where the Kidney meridian begins. It is important to not walk barefoot on cold floors, to avoid cold penetrating the body directly. Slippers and Ugg boots are not only comfortable and comforting, but also help keep you healthy.
A hot water footbath before bed, with Epsom salt added, is great to help keep warm and nourish your Water energy. This draws heat down away from your head, which internalizes your thoughts and emotions, contributing to a good nights sleep. This also cools your body core, inducing melatonin production, which makes us feel sleepy.
Winter is a Yin time of the year, too much cold natured food introduces an extra amount of Yin energy that can be overwhelming. At this time of year your bodies require more warmth to function in the presence of cold influences. The less of our internal warmth that must be directed to digest cold natured foods, the better for your overall winter health.
Minimizing the intake of foods straight from the fridge or with a cold nature is best at this time of year. Cold natured foods include foods naturally in season during summer that have the purpose of cooling us down. This means reducing foods such as cucumbers, citrus, melons and tomatoes. Foods with a lack of Yang Qi, or vital life force, are also considered cold natured. This means heavily processed foods are also best avoided.
This is the time of year to take more time in the preparation of food, eating stews, soups and casseroles. Slow cooking of the food allows the ingredient to rest throughout the cooking process, mimicking the seasonal movement.
Marrow is fantastic to support your deepest energy reserve known as your Jing, which is stored in the Kidney. Slowly cooking organic meat with bones allows this essence to be extracted into the food.
The salty flavor has a resonance with the Water element, including some in your diet is important. Moderate amounts of salt are beneficial, but it must be high quality such as naturally dried sea salt. There are many minerals found in good quality salt which are essential for the function of your body. Highly processed salt is detrimental to your health, damaging the Water energy in your body.
Foods that are naturally in season at this time of year are the most appropriate. In particular, foods that benefit the Water element in winter include:
- kidney or black beans
- dark green leafy vegetables
- nuts such as walnuts and chestnuts
- soy sauce
- millet and barley
- foods that are blue or black (the colour associated with the Water element)
For the best winter health, including some warming spices to your cooking such as cinnamon, ginger, garlic, cumin etc. to keep your body warm and happy.
Drinking hot as opposed to cold drinks also is important. Hot ginger or cinnamon tea, or even better Chai, is great to reintroduce some warmth to your belly.
Making adjustments to your lifestyle is of primary importance for your winter health. External assistance from Chinese medicine treatment can complement and solidify these changes.
Acupuncture and massage can assist your body in finding harmony with the natural Qi of this time of year. Through stimulation of specific points and meridians, the energy of the Water element in your body can be accessed.
Cold contracts by nature, which can cause congestion of our energy. Moxibustion and herbal medicines can help boost your Yang Qi, to cope with the overwhelming influences of cold.
If you fall ill with an infection, then a Chinese herbal formula can boost the ability of your body to return to a state of wellness. This will generally focus on warming the body that is opposition to the cold energetic action of vitamin C and antibiotics.
This is not to say that antibiotics are not useful, but their overuse and side effects are becoming more commonly noted. Instead, a herbal formula is a natural way to achieve recovery, without the risks of excessive antibiotic use.
When we begin to fall ill with colds in winter, Vitamin C is a popular choice. Vitamin C from a Chinese medical perspective is cold in nature, especially in concentrated forms such as powders and pills. It is better to ensure an adequate intake of this from fresh fruit and veg instead to keep you well.
It is best to only take herbs that have been prescribed by a qualified Chinese herbalist. This is to ensure they are safely prescribed, and are tailored to your current presentation for the best results.
In winter the seeds are nourished for the patterns of health and wellness that you will experience over the following year. Align yourself with the energy of the Water element, for the best winter health.