The practice of changing our habits to adapt to the environment and as such live in harmony with the seasons is something that has always been an integral part of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practice. Casting back to the early days of TCM practice many thousands of years ago it was then that our lives truly reflected the sun and the seasons. The work day began and ended with the sun. We undertook daily duties that made sense based on the environment around us. The food we nourished our bodies with was made up of what was seasonally available. Following this ingrained instinctual way of living kept us healthy and taught us ways to maintain the strength of our bodies and our immune response.
How we live now is a far cry from those early years. The market is flooded with an extensive array of foods that are imported, grown out of season, highly processed and full of less than desirable ingredients. Our clothing is fashionable rather than functional which means our bodies are no longer protected adequately from the extremes of the weather open to external invasion of heat and cold. Workplaces operate 24/7, casting aside circadian rhythm and leaving our bodies overworked and lacking quality rest.
This blog aims to educate the reader on the beauty of living with the seasons and hopefully reignite some of those ancient practices that served us so well in the past.
Five Elements Theory Winter AND TCM
Five Elements Theory is one of the governing principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine. You will find references the Five Elements Theory in most of our blogs particularly any of our articles relating to living with the seasons.
Within Five Element Theory the Qi of the self and also the surrounding natural environment is arranged into five elements, fire, earth, metal, water, and wood. These elements move through a cycle that is intrinsically linked with the seasons. These elements when related to our personal Qi are also connected to certain organ systems, emotions, senses, and all have supportive flavours and colours.
When we observe these relationships as organised by Five Element Theory we can more easily fall in sync with the changing seasons and better tune into our individual health needs. This helps us to better understand how our lifestyle and diet can best support our internal balance throughout the year.
The practice of Traditional Chinese Medicine accommodates for the fact that everything intertwines as part of one harmonious entity. When there is complete harmony everything in nature is working together in balance to form one whole. The Yin and Yang theory identifies that amongst this whole there are two components that combining complementing each other in perfect balance.
All the seasons have an inherent nature that is Yin or Yang in its energy. Winter is Yin in its characteristics. The Yin is feminine, it travels slowly with a calming manner and encourages our focus inward. Yin time observes quiet contemplation, it is a time of rest and repair, a time to nourish the body and soul. Because Winter is cool, dark, and wet it encourages these Yin type actions of slowing down and prioritising rest. The Yin of Winter is the perfect opportunity to address your wellbeing, build strength and repair depleted energy stores. This time of rest is important as it is when we build up our reserves for the expansive nature of the upcoming Spring.
The Element of Winter – Water
The element associated with the season of Winter is Water.
The best way to interpret the influence of Water in your personal element is to consider it as your ability to flow. The introspective nature of Water links it to our inner wisdom and how we organise our thoughts. Socially the balance of Water in our element impacts on our energy and stamina and our likelihood to withdraw or engage from social situations.
In Winter, the Water element can be nourished by dedicating focused time to activities such as meditation, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and Yin styles of Yoga. Any activities that draw us inward and allow time in quiet contemplation are beneficial.
If you happen to be dominant in the Water element the potential to become imbalanced during Winter is more likely. Signs of a potential imbalance might include a person becoming excessively withdrawn, reclusive and trapped in the confines of their own mind. There is a disorder called seasonal affective disorder (SAD) which can be the result of an excess of the Water element. Other mental health conditions such as depression may also be experienced. These people would also do well to engage with more Fire to help establish a better balance. This may involve challenging their introverted side to be more spontaneous and social. This can be easier said than done! Acupuncture can be extremely supportive for people who are feeling unbalanced during seasonal shifts. As we move into Winter acupuncture and TCM therapies can assist with boosting the internal Yang.
The Organ Meridians of Winter – The Kidney and The Bladder
As we spoke about earlier the seasons are also connected to the optimal functioning of specific organ systems. These organ systems cycle through depending on the time of year. In Winter, the organ systems that we pay particular attention to are the Kidney (Yin) and Urinary Bladder (Yang). These organ systems are linked to the water element, and it is important that we pay particular attention to ensuring they are well nourished and supported during the next three months.
The Yin organ of the Kidney is also considered the source of our vital essence called Jing. Our Jing is in many ways what makes us who we are it is our primal energy, and it also plays a crucial role in our endocrine and reproductive system. If we allow our Jing to become depleted this has a flow on effect on our overall health and immunity suffers greatly. That is why it become essential throughout the Winter months to sustain and nourish our Kidney Qi.
Along with housing our Jing our Kidneys function to filter water, they retain what is pure and allow it to be circulated throughout the body. The impure is then sent to the Urinary Bladder for elimination. Our Kidney Qi is also considered by Traditional Chinese Medicine theory to be directly associated with the bone marrow and skeletal system, the sense organ of the ears, and the health of our teeth.
The secondary and Yang organ associated with Winter is the Urinary Bladder. Its role is to work alongside the Kidney in the elimination of impure water from the body, serving as a storage unit for the impure water that has been excreted by the Kidney until such time as it is eliminated from the body. If there is an imbalance or weakness of Qi in the Kidney and urinary Bladder system, it could result in the internal build-up of toxic waste.
Common manifestations of an imbalance of the Kidney or Bladder Qi:
Lower Back Pain
Knee pain and weakness
Bladder issues / urinary retention (in small children this can be bed wetting)
Dizziness / Vertigo
High blood pressure
Sexual health issues
Excessive Fear and Anxiety
Resistance to change
There is nothing quite like the painful joint pain flare that takes place for many people in the colder months. The old saying 'I can feel it in my bones' really comes to life in the chilly depths of Winter. If you are someone who can relate to this increased discomfort in June, July and August then click the link to read another of our blogs 'Cold to the Bone - Understanding Bi-syndrome and Beating Winter Pain'
How we can nurture our Kidney Qi:
Enjoy a slower pace. Winter really takes the lead here and we should follow. Be encouraged by the shorter days and cooler weather to switch to more subtle and restorative physical activities such as moving meditation, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, or Yoga.
Prioritise rest. Embrace the slow Yin of Winter by enjoying regular early nights, jump in bed with a heat pack and a good book or use the time to curl up on the couch and practice some quiet self-reflection. Keeping a gratitude diary or journal is a wonderful way to reflect during your Winter of gentle hibernation.
Look after your lower back. In Winter this is of significant importance. Keep your lower back toasty warm. This protects your Kidney energy. Think about wearing long layers during the day and applying a heat pack at night.
Warm toes. Keeping our feet nice and warm is always recommendation from TCM practitioners. That said it is even more important in Winter because the Kidney Meridian begins in the sole of the foot. To protect your Kidney Qi, you absolutely must avoid being barefoot on cold floors. Cosy socks and slippers are a winter must have. Hot nourishing foot baths are also a nourishing Winter activity.
The Emotion of Winter – Fear, Shock and Stress
It’s an unusual approach to think of Fear in a positive light however all emotions are useful and should be respected. Particularly the experience of fear which has a long history of helping us navigate life and keeping us safe. The problem with any emotion does not lie with the emotion itself but rather the experience of an excess or deficiency.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine theory, the emotion of fear with the Kidneys. This is also evidenced in Western science with the conclusion that our ‘fight flight’ response originates in our adrenal glands which are located at the top of the Kidney.
An excess or deficiency of any emotion is going to be detrimental to our internal balance and as a result, our physical health. A weakness of our Kidney system is commonly seen to manifest physically as weakness or pain in the lower back, knee and joint pain, loose bowels, or the excessive need for urination. In our clinical experience one of the most transparent examples of this emotional and health interaction between Fear and the Kidneys is the incidence of bed wetting amongst children.
Another emotion linked to the Kidney system is Fright. Fright does differ Fear, when Fright is experienced, it often affects the Heart along with the Kidney. It is the initial impact of a Fright that scatters the Heart Qi. Sustained fright can then develop into Fear which in turn impacts the Kidneys.
Fear - an ongoing experience of fearing something that is not necessarily present.
Fright - being startled by something in the present moment.
Our body presents us with a remarkable amount of information to help us take care of it. Emotions are something that should not be dismissed but investigated. These are messages to us; it is our body crying out for attention and assistance. These messages are the key to finding the root cause of any imbalance, ill health, or dis-ease. We must learn to listening with respect to all our body tells us.
SAD - Seasonal Affective Disorder
Do you suffer with ‘Winter blues,’ well guess what, you are not alone! Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD is the experience of annually reoccurring depressive episodes that occur throughout the winter months and research shows that it actually affects approximately 1 in every 300 Australians.
Why do we experience SAD in winter?
Reduced Melatonin - resulting in an impacted circadian rhythm = less sleep and healing time = heightened stress.
Reduced Vitamin D - when we absorb sunshine through our eyes it activates our feel-good hormones (serotonin and dopamine) when this does not happen it can disrupt our internal balance leading to feelings of sadness.
How we are nourishing our body in Winter - when we feel tired and flat, we can tend towards meals consisting of more carb, sugar, and fat. These heavier choices which are taxing on the spleen and digestion which can result in mood imbalances.
What can we do to reduce the onset of SAD?
Have a routine and healthy sleep hygiene that ensures quality rest.
Ensure you move your body in a way that works well for you. In winter TCM recommend yin nourishing activities such as yoga, qigong, and walking.
Taking your exercise outdoors in the morning can assist with melatonin production and vitamin D absorption.
Make the most of any break in the weather to be outdoors soaking in the sunshine and connecting with nature in a way that feels good for you.
Eat warm, nourishing, easily digestible meals such as slow cooked meals, soups, and stews.
Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine can be extremely helpful to assist when you feel your internal balance is out of kilter.
The Taste of Winter
Winter inspires us to move towards stews, soups, curries, and slow cooked delights. This is born of our deep-rooted knowing that we need to provide our body with nourishment that is not only ‘warm’ in its preparation but also in its energetic qualities. By ensuring we choose foods that are energetically warm we know we can further assist our body to maintain a warm core temperature. Choosing to consume raw and cold foods or beverages during Winter will be taxing on the digestive system, dampening on the internal fire that we want bubbling along happily in Winter and of course cooling on our overall system.
Examples of energetically warm foods:
Steam or cook vegetables to aid digestion in winter.
Living seasonally presents a bit more of a challenge these days when you can walk into a supermarket and find fruit and vegetables readily available out of season. Because all our foods are now modified to be farmed throughout the duration of the year its difficult to find clear direction of which vegetables are suited to which season. The best way to ensure you are eating with the seasons is to source your fresh produce through local growers, small grocery operations or farmers markets.
What is in season in winter:
Apples and Pears
Flavours that support the Winter Water element are salty and bitter. To further boost your Winter health, you can consider adding these flavours regularly into your Winter meals. *It is important to note here that highly processed salts are not great for our health and to incorporate salts you should be using high quality sea salts in a moderate amount.
Let’s talk Bone Broth:
Bone broth has long been a staple in traditional Chinese culture as a way to build blood, support gut health and nourish the Qi. Traditional Chinese Medicine treats with a ‘like for like’ theory explaining why incorporating an excellent quality bone broth into your daily diet is an excellent way to nourish Kidney Jing and support your bone marrow health.
If you are happy in the kitchen, then whip out the slow cooker or if a quick recipe is more your speed grab the pressure cooker. There are countless amazing recipes available online for bone broths you can cook from home. The ingredients you select for your bone broth are extremely important. You need to ensure you use superior quality organic and free-range produce, particularly when it comes to the chicken or beef bone base.
Vegetarians and vegans, a quick google search will point you in the direction of some meat free nourishing options that can help you support your Kidney Qi in the kitchen.
Now, if you are busy like most of us are and cooking a homemade bone broth is just not going to factor into your day do not panic! There are several great ready-made products which are extremely easy to incorporate as a cup of soup style beverage!
Acupuncture and TCM for Winter health:
Along with all of the above suggestions Acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine is an excellent way to restore and maintain balance as the seasons shift and change. Along with needling, Scott will also use other TCM therapies such as warming moxibustion and herbal therapy to help you nourish your Qi and build up your reserves during this time of rest and repair.
If you would like to learn more about treatment at Red Bridge Family Acupuncture Healesville, please be in contact with us. You can contact us online or by phoning (03)59061494.