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Stay Healthy this Winter with Chinese Medicine

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.” ― Edith Sitwell

On December 21st, the Sun's path will glide along the bottom of the Northern Hemisphere, heralding the solstice of winter. The winter solstice brings with it the shortest day of the year and gradually increasing hours of sunshine. To say, darker days will slowly shift back to light.

Beneath the chilly shadow of winter, the world naturally turns inward. The impulse of the body is to similarly retreat and turn towards an innner hearth. Motility in all aspects slows. For some, there's also a renewed sense of clarity and vigor - so much to look forward to: Wrapping the year on high, holiday festivities, fresh layers of shimmering snow. There's usually dozens of gatherings to attend. Sometimes seemingly antithetical to a less supple body waking amid overcast, chilly mornings. Or a body fatigued from a day of work, mustering the energy to head into the darkness - at 5pm. With less sunlight, some people experience increased sadness, restlessness and anxiety. This is not uncommon, and, balancing polarities of light and dark is what this season is all about. Take the time to enjoy activities with those you love, and also make time for quiet reflection and to restore.

In Eastern traditions, winter is considered deeply Yin : dark, cold, slow, inward, and ruled by the Water element. Like a tide returning to its source, winter offers us a time of contemplation, a time to rest more quietly and enter the depths. In the cold, the body naturally contracts. When the physical body contracts, the mind does too. This physiological/energetic contracting links us with the primal tension of Fear - the emotion most associated in Traditional Chinese Medicine with Winter. Often unsettling, fear ignites uncomfortable sensations and reactivity. In the same (slower) breath, fear can highlight our deepest desires – reminding us of what we most cherish and that which we prefer to avoid. In that way, Fear can offer us clarifying inroads to authenticity, to a higher purpose and reveal choices that help us align with that purpose. If you take the time to acknowledge and feel these emotions, you may be surprised by the expansiveness and creative energies that follow.

To navigate the tricky waters of fear, it's helpful to recognize that the emotion, while convincing, is not factual. Fears nearly always stem from or are tethered to earlier beliefs and experiences. The beliefs are usually subconscious and arise of their own accord. While we are powerless over the emergence of fear - and our first thoughts arising from it, we can become finely attuned to the (often contracting) sensations in our bodies when fear does arise. Tightening of certain muscle groups, a shortness or shallowing of breath, a heart beating faster, a sense of being untethered or disassociated. With awareness, we can intentionally relax, breathe and interrupt the old holding patterns and invite-in an entirely new felt sense and experience. As we learn to slow and release old fears, we cultivate a renewed capacity to choose. We learn to choose what we believe, how we feel, and what we want to create. It's not an overnight process, but with daily attention, we can transform our lives and remain calm even in the face of major stressors and challenge.

In addition to the emotion of Fear, Chinese Medicine associates Winter with the vital root organs of the Kidneys, Adrenal Glands and Urinary Bladder. The Ming Dynasty states that “the kidney is the ocean of the human body . . . All the essences and fluids of the body's various pathways pour into the kidney.”

Located between the lower Kidneys at the lumbar spinal processes of L2 L3 is an energetic portal known as Ming Men. Ming Men means “Gate of Life,” “Center of Vitality,” or “Gate of Destiny.” Together with the Dan Tien (an area beneath the navel known as the Field of Elixir), Ming Men ignites the spark of life that sources “the Sea of Qi”. Of its many roles, Ming Men facilitates kidney functioning, enlivens Qi, invigorates developmental and sexual energies, and stimulates the body’s ability to absorb Original or Yuan Qi from the Universe. Because of these reasons and more, Ming Men plays an essential role in Traditional Chinese Medicine as a focal point of health and wellbeing - especially during this season.

Throughout the winter we naturally consume more energy (to stay warm) and our Kidney Qi is more easily depleted. Because of the increased cold, wind and precipitate we are more susceptible to the invasion of external pathogens. Because of the more contracted aspect of the physical body, those pathogens have a greater likelihood of getting in and sticking around. Colds and flus are on the rise, peaking between the months of December and February. To remain healthy and balanced, it’s essential to take extra care during this time. Classical Chinese Medicine offer practices and ideas to protect the Ming Men, strengthen Kidney Qi and invigorate overall immunity. Prevention, as they say, is the best medicine.

"In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.” — Albert Camus

Health Tips for Winter from a Chinese Medicine perspective

  • Follow the inward yin movement of winter and create time for quiet and reflection.

  • Remember that now is a time when fear, contraction and anxiety are on the rise - take moments of pause: breathe, regroup and center.

  • Fall asleep early and rise late - "after the sun's rays have warmed the earth."

  • Enjoy cooked, warming meals. Hearty soups, whole grains, meats and roasted nuts help warm the body’s core and keep us nourished.

  • Partake in family and communal gatherings – this time of year is marked by many festivals of light, which are common in most spiritual and religious traditions.

  • Bundle up – be sure to keep warm, especially the lower back where the Kidneys and Ming Men are located. The upper back, back of the neck and throat are areas that are most vulnerable to wind, cold and other pathogenic influences. Consider extra layers, scarves and hot showers on colder days.

  • To activate the energies of Ming Men, breathe deeply into your low belly. Inhale the breath all the way into the low back, into the kidneys. Gently engage your abdominal muscles to draw the breath into the Ming Men. Repeat this slowly for ten breath cycles, 1-3 times/day.

  • Qi Gong, Tai Chi, yoga and other movement therapies help release stress and encourage a sense of balance and ease.

  • Acupuncture, body work, homeopathic remedies, herbs and other holistic medicines can help uplift and strengthen your inner reserves.

  • Support the immune system by massaging the ear lobes, below the occiput (base of your skull), along the neck and at the armpits (to promote lymph drainage).

  • Many health advocates recommend taking extra Vitamin D and C during this time.

Nutritional Recommendations for Winter

It's a tad precarious offering food recommendations blanket-style. We are all different and our needs are deeply personal. We also each have certain proclivities, sensitivities, and intolerances. So, as with all things you read here, please take this with a grain of salt - or not, low sodium is a great option too.

Like Autumn, Winter is all about warm, cooked foods. Out with the uncooked and cold (like raw vegetables, salads, fruits, iced drinks, smoothies and cereal), and in with with cooked oats and grain porridges, egg dishes, congees, soups and stews.

Baking, roasting, and stewing seasonal foods imbues another layer of warmth. Cooked winter squashes, root vegetables, winter greens, mushrooms, and apples all help elevate our inner temps. Beans, grains and nuts harvested in fall are also perfect for Winter.

Foods that specifically nourish and warm the Kidneys are black beans, kidney beans, bone broth, lamb, chicken, walnuts, chestnuts, black sesame seeds and dark leafy greens. Not only are they delicious, but so healthy for you too! A small pinch of unrefined sea salt in meals helps balance the kidneys. Seaweeds (in moderation) tonify the kidneys and offer a salty/umami taste when cooked with soups, grains and beans.

Steaming mugs of select herbal teas are cozy, medicinal and warming. If not contraindicated, spices such as cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom can heal digestive imbalances and support immune functioning. Very spicy herbs like chili flakes are not recommended in winter because they create sweating, which ultimately cools the body. A small amount of a hot spice, however, can increase circulation, so a tiny pinch of pepper could bring you the perfect balance.

If you’re feeling under the weather: Soups of vegetables, legumes, garlic, ginger and other warming anti-pathogenic herbs like thyme and rosemary are perfect to boost the immune system and ward off colds and flus. A savory miso broth with root, green and sea vegetables as well as chicken soup are great revitalizers after an illness.

In Winter, we naturally crave fats. Satisfy the call by eating healthy fats instead of deep fried and packaged/processed ones. Organic pasture butter, ghee, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado and salmon are all great sources. To better digest fats, room-temperature fermented vegetables are recommended. Bitter leafy greens also aid digestion of heavier foods. Please note: It’s natural to gain a bit of weight to conserve warmth in winter. If needed, you can shed those in Spring. : )

As always, I’m not a doctor. These are ideas not recommendations. To ask any questions or to schedule a session, please reach out to or via phone to call or text: 917.519.2432

Wishing you a very cozy, peaceful and joy-filled Winter season xx

Winter in the desert
Snow covered Saguaro cactus - by Craig K. Lorenz

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