Why give yourself permission to do nothing these days, especially at a time of year when most are busily making New Year's resolutions?
Winter: Time of the Kidney, Energy Replenishment and Storage
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), this is the Kidney time of year: the two- to three-month period when the Kidneys naturally want to store energy and replenish reserves so we have energy for the rest of the year. Whether you live in tropical Hawaii or frosty Minnesota, the body's objective during winter is the same: storage.
The TCM Water element rules winter, associated with the Kidneys, Adrenals and Bladder. These regulate fluid metabolism, bone health, reproduction, and the endocrine system. They also store the deep inherited constitutional energies of the body. Thus, strengthening the Kidneys helps maintain and protect a healthy trust fund of energy.
The Kidney is a unique organ in Chinese medicine. Although its element is Water, which is cooling, it also has a fiery aspect that's linked to the adrenal, hormonal and reproductive processes. Too much cold can injure the fire quality, just as too much heat can harm the water aspect. Those with Coldness usually dread winter. Likewise, those who overextended themselves in summer, or who ate inappropriately in the summer and fall, also feel cold in winter.
Winter's cold drives your life fire deeply inward, collecting itself like a hibernating bear for the coming spring. Winter is the time to retreat and go within to replenish your reserves. The season gives us cues to follow: the sun sets early and rises late. With less sunlight and colder weather we naturally stay inside more. It's time to stoke your inner furnace, to rest, nourish and replenish your trust fund energies spent throughout the prior year. Conserve and preserve your resources, essence and energy in winter; it is not a time for extravagance. Winter provides us with the opportunity for inner reflection, assessing the past year and learning from our experiences.
Exhaustion at this time is more harmful than during any other season, even though the consequences may not be felt until later in the year when the energy you expect to have isn't there. When Kidney energy is low, fear (the emotion associated with Kidney in TCM) can become a year-round problem that intensifies in winter. Now is the time to protect your vital constitutional energy and metabolic fires. Doing so helps prevent winter's imbalances and keeps you well throughout the entire year.
People who feel worse when winter arrives often fear the cold. Usually they have chilly hands and feet, sit hunched over, experience lower back pain, urinate frequently, have a groaning and gravely voice and look pale with dark circles under their eyes. They may even experience a sense of insufficiency or fearfulness, and lack the will or determination to follow anything through.
Those who continue eating cold foods in the winter (iced drinks/foods, juices, raw foods, salads, soy milk) not only impair their digestive and metabolic fires, but also create coldness in the body. This engages the immune system to maintain body warmth: extra work means a taxed system and therefore, the body becomes more susceptible to illness. The following symptoms may arise:
- feeling cold all the time
- fear of cold
- frequent urination
- cold and sore lower back
- lowered sex drive
- night time urination
- poor immunity
- frequent colds and flu
- joint aches and pains
- digestive problems
- cold hands and feet
- poor memory
It's not unusual to experience depression, irritation, or "cabin fever" in winter. While rest is essential in winter, guard against lethargy as this causes your body's energy to stagnate. You'll then seek stimulation, which usually is interpreted as hunger. Turning to food rather than exercise causes unnecessary weight gain and further stagnation, which then results in spring's symptoms. Instead, exercise regularly and pursue creative outlets.
Early to bed, late to rise is the key to winter: slow down and replenish your energy (make deposits into your trust fund). Use the extra quiet time to reflect, dream, share stories around the fire, stay warm and cozy, reflect, meditate, write in your journal and take naps. Continue at a slower pace throughout the year to follow, including summer, so that your trust fund is stronger next winter and you won't experience the same exhaustion.
A Winter-Appropriate Diet
Pay careful attention to the energy of food and herbs in winter. The outside cold drives the body's heat deep inside and food and herbs should be taken to reinforce and support this.
- Eat all cooked food to aid digestion, free energy in maintaining vigor and immunity and add heat to the body to keep our inner fires burning strong. Include plenty of protein and foods that warm the body and strengthen the Kidneys, Blood and Energy, such as lamb cooked with dang gui and ginger, oxtail or bone marrow soups, pork and beef, root and leafy green vegetables, aduki and black beans, roasted buckwheat, winter squash and walnuts. (Scroll down for a note about cooking foods with warming herbs.)
- Instead of juices, eat small amounts of cooked fruits, adding spices like cardamom, ginger and cinnamon for digestion, or drink hot apple cider with these spices.
- Cook food with warming spices such as onions, garlic, ginger, cumin, fennel, basil, fenugreek and parsley.
- Avoid spicy foods during winter. Spicy foods like salsa and curries seem warm but are used in hot climates to induce perspiration, which takes heat out of the body.
- Drinking coffee to push through tiredness depletes the trust fund reserves even further, as does alcohol. Use grain drinks instead of coffee, and warming teas in place of alcohol.
Vegetarians especially need to guard against the cold energies of winter, as vegetarian diets tend to create Coldness in the body. If you are vegetarian, increase your protein intake, eat only cooked foods, liberally use spices in cooking and forego juices, fruit, salads, tofu, soy milk, raw and cooling foods and iced drinks/foods.
Salty is the Water element taste. A salt craving often indicates weak Kidneys/Adrenals. A little salt and herbs high in mineral salts, such as seaweed and nettles, can be added to teas, grains and soups to help Kidney energy. Too much salt, on the other hand, causes water retention.
The Best Ways to Stay Warm
Dress warmly to maintain body heat: wear plenty of clothes, cover your head outdoors and don scarves and warm socks. Be sure to keep your lower back warm, too, as the waist is the site of the Kidneys and your life fires. Jackets and clothing should be long enough to cover this area completely (bare midriffs invite sickness; and in women, menstrual problems later in life). Alternatively, use moxibustion over your abdomen and low back and put a hot water bottle on these areas while asleep.
Keeping hot temperatures indoors creates tiredness and sluggishness, and stresses the body when we go outdoors through the temperature extremes. Therefore, keep the heat down indoors to more closely match the temperature outside and dress warmly instead.
On the other hand, excessive use of hot tubs and saunas to get warm in winter actually causes more Internal Coldness because you loose valuable inner heat through sweating. Guard against further heat loss by taking cool showers, going into the cold plunge or rolling in the snow after hot tubs and saunas to push heat back into the body (you'll actually feel more vitalized and warm afterwards).
Winter Herbs for Balance
- Herbs that internally warm, strengthen and move Blood circulation are specific now, such as cinnamon bark, deer antler, fenugreek, dried ginger, American ginseng, elder flowers and berries, prickly ash, bayberry, galangal, celery seeds, saw palmetto and spices such as dill, cloves and cardamom.
- Continue any immune tonics started in the fall, such as astragalus and Siberian ginseng.
- Cook herbs with soups or in food, an excellent way to increase nutrition and strengthen the body's reserves, or decoct as teas.
- Tinctures, especially those made with red wine, are most appropriate in winter because alcohol has Heating energy.