Chinese Medicine Tips for Winter
Winter Solstice: December 22nd - January 5th
The period that begins the Winter Solstice is referred to as Dongzhi (冬至), which literally means 'Winter's Arrival.' On the first day of Winter Solstice, the Northern Hemisphere experiences the shortest day and the longest night in the year as the sun shines directly at the Tropic of Capricorn. This, the deepest day of winter, marks the peak of Yin and the birth of Yang energy, as days begin to grow longer and nights grow shorter.
Winter is associated with the Water element and the organ system of the Kidney and Bladder. The Water element is the most nourishing and essential substance for life as it contains the genetic blueprint of our constitutional vitality and longevity. Winter is the most Yin season of the year in Chinese medicine. Yin is the dark, cold, slow, inward energy, so winter asks us to slow down, turn inward, and conserve our resources. Cold itself is not yin; it is the absence of yang. Just as nature enters a resting period in the absence of yang, the bears hibernate, the lakes and rivers freeze, and the snow falls; this is the time when yin dominates yang, and we must refrain from overusing yang energy to avoid illness in the spring.
Each kidney weighs about 160 grams (less than half a pound), and the pair filters 200 liters of fluid every 24 hours. In modern medicine, the kidneys are responsible for the composition of blood by filtering it and removing wastes and extra fluids via urine, controlling blood pressure, maintaining pH along with the lungs, making red blood cells, and bone/teeth health. In other words, the kidneys play a major role in maintaining homeostasis (balance) in the body. Traditional Chinese medicine agrees but has a broader range of functions for the Water element. Chinese medical scholars believed the brain and spinal cords to be extensions of the bone marrow (the place where we make blood cells). The Kidney is thought to control the skeletal structure and function of growth, maturation, reproduction, and our intelligence, perception, and memory. The Kidney is the Storehouse of Vital Essence or your life's pilot light, so it is important to recharge and keep that flame burning bright.
Tip #1 - Acupuncture & Herbs
Acupuncture can help you take care of the Kidney and Bladder organs. Important acupuncture points along these channels are used to strengthen the organ's function, support immunity, correct physical imbalances, and treat the emotional imbalances of the Water element. These points are found along these channels at the feet, knees, low back, chest, neck, and head. Keeping these areas warm and covered will maintain the integrity of the channels and keep you well physically, emotionally, and spiritually - so protect your feet, ankles, neck, and head from the winter cold and winds and avoid sitting on anything cold.
In winter, cold and damp unite to create snow. In the body, cold and dampness, which are Yin in nature, can cause turbidity, obstruction, and stagnation leading to tightness and pain. To that end, we are employing more moxibustion in the clinic. Moxibustion is a traditional Chinese medicine treatment that involves the burning of moxa, the herb Artemesia vulgaris, that is thought to facilitate healing. Its use is meant to increase circulation, strengthen the immune system, and warm the body. In direct moxibustion therapy, it can be burnt at an acupuncture point and can either be allowed to burn out completely once lit, or it is extinguished before it burns the skin. Indirect moxibustion involves placing a moxa stick close to the skin until the area turns red, or an acupuncture needle is inserted, and moxa is placed on the top of the needle and ignited until the desired heating effect is achieved.
There are many formulas available if your Water element needs support - we are currently taking herbal telehealth appointments as well as in-person appointments. One thing you can do at home to support your Kidneys is to start using goji berries. Goji berries, also called wolfberries, have been used in China for thousands of years. In the past 20 years or so, they are now known in the west as a "superfood." One reason why is that they pack a nutritional punch. Just one-quarter cup serving contains 150% daily value of vitamin A; 85% copper; 75% selenium; over 60% vitamin B2; over 40% iron; nearly 30% vitamin C; over 20% potassium, and 15% zinc. Goji berries also contain over 20 trace minerals. In addition, goji berries contain eight out of the nine essential amino acids and several important antioxidants such as lycopene, polysaccharides, lutein, and carotenoids which contribute to its anti-aging properties. You can add them to baked goods, into granola or trail mix, in your oatmeal or congee, they can be eaten on their own, or steep about one tablespoon of goji berries in two cups of hot water for ten minutes (or overnight in the fridge) and add honey or lemon slices to taste. People taking blood thinners, diabetic drugs, and blood pressure medications should talk to their doctor before adding goji berries to their diet.
Tip #2 - Willpower
The spirit of the Water element is Zhi, also known as one's will, ambition, purpose, and destiny. “The Kidneys determine our willpower,” writes Giovanni Maciocia, the author of The Foundations of Chinese Medicine. “If the Kidneys are strong, the willpower will be strong, the mind will be focused on goals that it sets and will pursue them in a single-minded way. Conversely, if the Kidneys are weak, willpower will be lacking, and the mind will be easily discouraged and swayed from its aims.”
Chronic fearfulness, the emotion of the Kidney, trauma, ongoing stress (think adrenal fatigue - those little glands that sit on your kidneys), penetrating cold, addiction (also to social media), overwork, and insufficient rest/sleep will all drain the Kidney battery and the Zhi. When there is an imbalance, there can be one of two extremes - a lack of drive or overdrive. Physically, an imbalanced Water Element may look like what we think of when we age - edema, cold extremities, low libido, infertility, impotence, fatigue, insomnia, low back pain, knee pain or weakness, poor memory, dizziness, kidney stones, urinary problems, high blood pressure, excessive fear/paranoia, inflexibility/resistance to change, premature aging (grey hair, hair loss, or wrinkles), tinnitus or hearing loss.
A balanced Water element goes with the flow, and the person moves forward easily and effortlessly. The virtue associated with Water is wisdom, and in the face of the unknown, wisdom empowers us to navigate life without excess fear or anxiety. By transforming our fear into wisdom, we use our resources wisely and manifest our full potential.
“It is the concentrated, internal force of winter that enables a seed to burst forth in spring growth.” ~Nei Ching
Tip #3 - Daily Movement - Slow Down
As Nature moves into a period of rest, we, too, must be cautious not to overexert ourselves. Now is the time to contain ourselves, acting and speaking only when necessary, behaving with prudence, and exerting our will quietly and calmly. Winter is time for internal work. Schedule more time to discover yourself through reflection. Meditation, journaling, dreamwork, and breathwork are great winter activities. Cultivate gentle exercises that strengthen your knees and back - like yoga, Qigong, or Tai Chi. Storing our energy and giving ourselves time to decompress and begin to go inward makes it easier to go through the colder months healthily. You have our permission to sleep longer and build up your energy reserves!
Tip #4 - Food As Medicine
Seasonally available foods will provide the balance your body needs, but we want those foods warm and slow-cooked this season. The color of the Kidney is black. So look to foods such as blueberries, blackberries, mulberries, black beans, and black sesame seeds to boost the energy of the Kidney and Bladder. The taste of the season is salty. Instead of consuming overly salty foods, nourish the Kidneys with the natural sodium found in celery, seaweed, miso, millet, bone broth, seafood, and beans (don't forget kidney beans because they literally look like a kidney). Using salt for seasoning should include Himalayan salt and sea salt, as they contain the lowest amount of sodium and the highest amounts of trace minerals. (I know we are talking food here, but a nice sea or Epsom salt bath is a great idea too.) Nuts and seeds relate to fertility and growth, so include flax, pumpkin, sunflower, black sesame seeds, and walnuts (which look like brains, and remember those ancient scholars placed the brain as an extension of the Kidney). Vegetables that help with water balance in the body, such as celery, asparagus, and cucumber. Warming meats include lamb, beef, and venison. Bitter foods such as quinoa, watercress, endive, celery, turnip, escarole, and rye should be included regularly in meals. Beneficial spices include clove, ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and black pepper.
Daikon radish comes into peak season in winter, making them especially sweet and tender during the colder months. Besides tasting delicious, daikon radishes are also thought to bring our bodies great benefits when eaten during winter. A Chinese saying goes, “Eat radish in winter and ginger in summer, and you won’t need a doctor to prescribe any medicine.” (冬吃蘿蔔夏吃薑，不用醫生開藥方). During the colder months, we tend to eat heavier foods to stay warm, as we should, but this can cause an accumulation of heat in our bodies so that the daikon radish can balance any lingering heat. Also, it is an ancient remedy for alleviating cough. Slice up a small radish, add to a small cup with about one and a half teaspoons of honey, and soak for two hours. From here, you can drink the honey mixture straight, add take two teaspoons of the honey mixture and add hot water (and/or lemon), or even better, eat the radish too! Do this one or two times a day until you feel better.
Cut back on cooling foods, like raw foods, salads, sushi, juices, and smoothies, as they can create too much cold in the body during the winter and require too much energy to metabolize. Additionally, avoid foods that cause dampness and phlegm, such as refined sugar, dairy, fried foods, and alcohol. If you have a sweet tooth, we suggest baked apples and/or pears with cinnamon and a drizzle of honey for a treat. Overeating, irregular eating, and overconsumption (body AND mind) are a part of this season - these all weaken digestion and affect our hormones. Come on in if you need a little jump-start in the new year!
Tip #5 - Nourish Your Kidneys
The Kidneys open to the ears, so our hearing is related to the health of our Kidneys. Ear massage is an ancient Chinese secret to bringing more relaxation into your life. Just start by taking your index and middle finger behind the ear and your ring and pinkie finger in front of the ear and rubbing them up and down a few times - think "live long and prosper" hands and then think it while you do it. Then start at the top of the ear and roll the outer edge of your ear between your thumb and first finger all the way down to the ear lobe and repeat. It works because there are hundreds of calming acupuncture points located on the ear that we utilize with acupuncture to treat everything from anxiety to acute and chronic pain. Massaging the ear stimulates the nerve endings that lead to the release of endorphins, the feel-good hormone that helps relieve pain and brighten your mood. A couple of minutes of easy ear massage brings immediate relaxation to your nervous system.
While the Lungs control respiration, the Kidneys assist by allowing the air to penetrate deeply into the body - only one more reason there is for having a cough, according to Chinese medicine. We call this completion of a breath cycle “grasping Qi.” Try Box Breathing: Close your eyes and breathe through your nose for four counts, observing your lungs fill with air. Gently hold that breath for four counts, then slowly exhale through your mouth for four counts. Hold at the bottom for four counts. Repeat until you are blissed out.
The Kidney is also correlated with our hair. Hair loss can be devastating. The Hair Society estimates that globally, 35 million men and 21 million women suffer from hair loss, beginning at an average age of 35. This year alone, $2.8 billion is expected to be spent on treatment. In Chinese medicine, healthy hair reflects a healthy Liver, Spleen, and especially the Kidneys. Hair will grow well if there is sufficient blood in the body, and blood in the body is governed by the Spleen and the Liver. Kidney essence is needed to keep the hair "black." While our genetics determines hair type and volume, overall hair condition is determined by our lifestyle. Many external and internal factors can affect the condition of our blood and, consequently, the state of our hair. These include stress, anxiety, an unhealthy diet, lack of sleep, and some medications. By understanding the whole patient – beyond his or her hair problems – TCM practitioners seek to restore balance to the body, which can ultimately restore hair health.
Seasonal herbs include goji berries, jujube dates, longan fruit, cinnamon, Rehmannia root, safflower, astragalus, Sichuan pepper, turmeric, cordyceps, bay leaf, and black pepper. As with any herbal medicine, we encourage you to consult your herbalist and healthcare provider to find out what is right for you.
Hoping you find peace in the midst of the chaos that is typical this holiday season. Wishing you health and wellness during your next transition! Be well!