Winter Wellness

The new year has begun, and we are officially in Winter, the most yin time of the year. The core teaching of East Asian medicine is that we are healthiest when we live in harmony with Nature’s cycles. Just as the seeds that are now in the ground are lying dormant, waiting for enough warmth and daylight to begin generating, so it is our time for repair and restoration, for taking stock of our resources, and for making plans and setting intentions for the rest of this year. If we take our rest now, we will have the energy to spring forth into action in the next season. 

Winter is the season of water; its corresponding organs are the bladder (yang organ) and the kidneys (yin organs). The kidneys are the root of our willpower and store our jing, or essence. Depleting jing through over-work, over-exertion, too much stress, too little sleep, etc., causes us to age prematurely. Just think of how the adrenal glands sit atop the kidneys, and how they produce cortisol in response to stress. Winter is the best time of year to revitalize the kidneys and replenish our essence.

The bladder is the organ that controls the storage and elimination of water for the body. Energetically, the bladder is the source of our deepest strength and energy reserves. Words associated with the water element are determination, ambition, endurance, resolve. Our ability to manifest these qualities is dependent on the health of our inner reservoir, from which we can draw inspiration as well as action.

Winter Activities:  Although we should allow ourselves more rest and rejuvenation this time of year, this is not to say we should be sedentary! We may crave movement to keep our bodies warm and our energies circulating. No matter the season, the body needs a weekly combination of strength, cardio, stretching, and balancing exercises to maintain optimal health. Activities appropriate for this time of year are more fluid in nature: yin yoga (look for classes that emphasize holding postures, which build strength), walking, indoor swimming, tai chi or qi gong, indoor rock climbing, and dancing are all excellent options. The key is not to overdo it (in an attempt to counteract holiday weight gain, for example). 

Winter Wellness:  Symptoms of dis-ease that tend to manifest this time of year relate to kidney/adrenal health (high or low blood pressure, electrolyte imbalance, water retention [edema], sugar metabolism, stones) and bladder health (urinary tract infections, urination difficulties, incontinence). Issues with hearing, blurred vision, and headaches; with impotence/infertility, and with the bones may become more prominent in winter, as may weakness or pain of the lower back or knees, and aches/strains in the calves and ankles. We may also tend to feel more fearful/anxious, as fear is the emotion related to these organs and season. Depression and difficulty adapting to new circumstances are other indications that the kidneys or bladder may be stressed.

Winter Mindset:  The reserves of water that we hold in our bodies allow our thoughts and ideas to flow. This is a great time of year for reading, daydreaming, journaling, meditation, and creative expression of all forms. Take notice of your thoughts and words: are they constantly overflowing, impossible to contain? Or do your mind and conversations feel as dry as the desert, with no flow at all? Either extreme can indicate an imbalance in our water element. Water season is also the time for organizing and building our financial reserves, so that we can feel secure in the knowledge we’ll be able to survive “dry spells.” 

Winter Foods:  Make sure to drink plenty of water to guard against dry winter air and indoor heating. The following foods particularly support the bladder & kidneys: salty foods such as miso and seaweeds; black foods such as black soy beans and black sesame seeds (make the condiment gomasio!); hearty winter soups, roasted nuts (walnuts, sunflower seeds, chestnuts), whole grains (millet, oats, and buckwheat), root vegetables (carrots, onions, turnips, potatoes), legumes (lentils, red adzuki beans), winter greens, bone broth, micro-algae (spirulina and chlorella), fish (all shellfish; smoked fish, salmon, shrimp, tuna); and meats like lamb, pork, duck, and venison. Warming spices such as ginger, cinnamon, garlic, and small amounts of cayenne are appropriate now. Fresh-ground flax seeds provide essential fatty acids that lubricate our joints, as well as fiber to promote regularity.

Seasonal Support:  Schedule an acupuncture treatment to keep your kidneys (& adrenal glands) and bladder healthy this winter.

Transition to Autumn

The transition from summer to autumn is a progression from the most yang time of year toward a season of increasing yin energy. Autumn is the time to harvest the fruits of the year’s labors, and to begin to conserve energy in preparation for the cooler months to come. Our energy begins to turn inward. This is the season of the Metal element in Chinese medicine. Its corresponding organs are the lungs and large intestine (colon). The lungs are the organ of inspiration (oxygen as well as ideas), and the colon is the organ of transformation & elimination. Thus, we commonly see symptoms of dis-ease in the skin, respiratory system (including throat & sinuses), and colon, all of which are inter-related.

Autumnal Activities: Energetically speaking, we’ve past the time of intense physical activity. Rather than expending excess energy and shedding weight, our focus should be on building up our reserves for the coming winter. Exercises that stretch and strengthen the muscles are appropriate, as are those that benefit the respiratory system and organs of elimination. Yoga, martial arts, weight-bearing exercises, and easy cardio all make sense.

Autumnal Mindset: This is the time for giving gratitude for what has been, and then releasing it to make room for what’s next. We reflect on & appreciate the accomplishments of the year. We get organized and seek clarity for new intentions, goals, and projects. Clutter, procrastination, and unresolved feelings of loss, regret, or grief all signal that one’s metal element is out of balance and needs attention.

Autumnal Wellness: The self-care practices of meditation (sitting or moving), breathing exercises, acupuncture, and bodywork all help support our vital energies in autumn and tune us into the innate rhythms of our body. Dry-brushing before showering is excellent for the skin and lymphatic system. Congestion, constipation, allergies, and skin problems are more prevalent this time of year and indicate stagnation in the lungs and/or colon. You may feel the need to use a Neti-Pot or do a gentle dietary cleanse. Because autumn can be full of activity, it’s important to stay balanced through self-care.

Autumnal Foods: Following are some foods particularly suited to this season of metal (autumn) and therefore the lung & large intestines: pears, asparagus, cauliflower, fennel, garlic, onion, leek, radish, arugula, black beans, peanuts, pistachios, duck. All the warming spices: caraway, cardamom, cayenne, cinnamon, clove, coriander, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, turmeric.

It’s time to transition our meals to more warming & nourishing foods. Soups, stews, curries, teas, etc. Stay hydrated as the air turns dryer. Increase your fiber intake (fresh-ground flax meal is superb) to keep the colon functioning well as foods become denser.

Seasonal Support: It’s a good time to schedule an acupuncture treatment that will support your lungs and colon for the fall!

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