Winter is the season of retreat and rest, when the yin (night, cold) is now dominant and yang (day, hot) energy moves inward. The trees are losing their leaves; the animals starting to hibernate through the long, dark winter days. Winter is a time of stillness and quiet, amplifying any sound there is.
The ability to listen clearly at this time of year is sharpest… not only listening through conversation, but listening to your own body and comprehending its needs, as well as having a deeper understanding of yourself and your interactions with others.
Winter is a time of gentle celebration where nutritious and warming food and family connection is promoted. Hence, many cultures have their biggest family/food festival of the year in this season – cosy gatherings promoting interaction with friends and family with plenty of warming, comforting foods and perhaps a little tot of your favourite tipple.
On stormy or windy days, stay indoors when possible. The body qi needs to be conserved by keeping warm but not hot. Take care not to sit too close to the fire. Reduce hot showers or baths as the pores of the skin open and yang qi is easily lost. Keeping life simple and avoiding excessive lifestyles in winter is emphasised in Chinese medicine by this saying:
Staying seventy percent warm, seventy percent satisfied with food, eating lots of root vegetables and cabbage will make you strong and healthy” Chinese countryside proverb
Keeping the feet warm through winter is essential in order to nourish Kidney qi. More hot-water foot-baths are recommended just before going to bed. If you need a hot water bottle, best to put it down by the feet. In Chinese medicine we believe the head should be relatively cool and the feet warm for proper fluid and energy movement in the body to take place. Just like the ancient Chinese landscape painting where at the top there is ice-capped mountain and below where the river runs down is a warm valley. In cold winters, good boots and thick trousers are most important. Think about the saying about ‘hot-heads’ and getting ‘cold-feet’.
The common cold is often caused by an invasion of cold wind. Cold wind usually enters the body when you get cold. Prime targets are exposed necks and lower backs.
Winter is also a good time to get the qi moving with light physical Qigong exercise to prevent stagnation. However, on stormy or windy days, it is important to dress properly or to stay indoors where possible. The cold that surrounds us at this time of year can easily seep into our bodies and lower our immunity. Exercise until you are warm but stop before you sweat too much. Practice of Qigong is especially valuable in winter.
Warming foods help maintain the qi and nourish yang, including cabbage, carrots, red beans, potatoes, cereals, walnuts and chestnuts. A little tot of your favourite tipple helps the circulation of yang within the body and helps drive out the cold energy.
The cold from winter can easily leech into our bodies. Cold causes things to slow down and contract, which can make us even colder. This can typically show up in winter as poor circulation, aches and pains, asthma, arthritis or colitis.
Winter pain in the knees, whether it is arthritic or not, can often be eased by foods that support the Kidneys, since the Kidney’s are related to the knees.
For abdominal cold and pain try a leek and potato soup or a good old fashion mutton/lamb stew. Black beans are yin-building and or you can add a warming herb such as rosemary to lentils or other beans. Pine nuts, anchovies, mussels, trout, walnuts and chestnuts are also warming. If you have cold-damp, you can encourage circulation and transformation with warming herbs such as ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, fennel and anise. These herbs and spices are extremely valuable and not only for taste and flavour but also for health and proper function of the body. This is most likely why the spice trade was so valuable to the Europeans and other civilisations. Vitamin C is cold on the body and digestion, so in winter you may want to try and get your Vitamin C from food sources such as pumpkin soup or warm fruit compote.
The Organs of Winter
Winter is the season related to the water element and the organs associated are the Kidneys and Bladder, both of which are sensitive to cold. The Kidneys are considered to be the gate of life, storing our essence, regulating reproduction and development, fluid distribution and our longevity is directly related to the health of our Kidneys. It seems impossible to be too good to the Kidneys in Chinese medicine and supporting them becomes increasingly important as we get older.
In our lives, the health of our Kidneys can be seen in our hair and experienced through the sense of our hearing. Hair loss, premature graying or split-ends all signal Kidneys that could do with a boost. Bone marrow is linked with the Kidneys as are problems with the knees, lower back and teeth. Many ear problems can be linked to the Kidneys and the health of our Kidneys directly impacts on reproduction and sex drive.
The Bitter & Salty Flavour
This gets a little confusing in Chinese medicine, as the winter season is clearly related with the Kidney’s and the water phase, which is associated with the salty flavour. However, at this time of year, we are in encouraged to be moderate with salty foods and increase bitter flavours.
One should nourish heart qi by decreasing salty foods and increasing bitter ones.
The salty flavour is associated with the Kidneys and the water element. This is because the salty flavour is yin and cooling and moves energy down and in. It has a grounding effect and moistens dryness, softens hardness (such as muscle knots and cataracts), enhances digestion, eases constipation and abdominal swelling, increases appetite, is calming and improves concentration.
With the seasonal energy, we reduce salt to prevent water from developing an overbearing influence and prefer bitters to maximise health.
A little salt is good, but more is not necessarily better. Salt slows the circulation of the blood, which is bad for people with heart problems or high blood pressure, and increases fluid retention and appetite, which makes it hard to shed extra weight. It is important not to stress the Kidneys with too much salt in winter because little salt is lost through sweating when the weather is cold. The best salty foods for people with damp are seaweeds (dulse) as they do not dry the body and can be very beneficial. This is probably the primary motivation for the Japanese to find as many ways as possible to include more seaweed in their diet.
Age-old preservation methods such as salting and souring bring the energies of food into the core and are suitable for winter. Make the most of pickles and sauerkraut in winter.
Salty foods include crab, crayfish, clams, oysters, mussels, sardines, pork, squid, miso, soy sauce, seaweeds, millet, barley or anything with salt added.
Bitter is yin, cooling, descending and contracting. It reduces excess such as heat and dries and drains dampness. Bitter flavours ease inflammation and infections. Bitter reduces swelling and encourages bowel movement, so is good news for people trying to lose weight, especially for those with heat. For the Heart, bitter clears heat and removes damp and mucus in the arteries, which helps lower blood pressure.
As the yang in winter retreats to the deep interior of the body, it is easy to get toxic heat rising to the surface. This is why it is not recommended to sit too close to the fire (particularly not overheat the hands), nor take too many hot baths/showers.
Bitter foods include dandelion, yarrow, chamomile, alfalfa, bitter melon, lettuce and rye. Asparagus, lettuce and papaya are bitter and sweet.
Deficient Kidney Yin & Blood
Winter is the season of regeneration and repair, so it is the perfect time to tone the yin. A general yin deficiency, which is akin to not enough fluids in the body to balance the yang activity or bodily functions, shows up as a reddish tongue, often with a line or crack down the center. Other symptoms of general yin deficiency include, hypoglycemia, diabetes, a tendency to thinness, dryness, insomnia, irritability, worry, excess thoughts and night sweats.
Kidney yin reduces heat and sedates the body. It supports, moistens, stabilises and builds tissue. It is the Kidney yin that controls the fluids of the body. For example, it is balanced Kidney yin that provides enough water for the Heart to guard against Heart fire, or inflammation of the Heart.
What is Kidney Yin Deficiency?
Yin deficiency can more specifically effect a number of organ systems in Chinese medicine and the most common is called Kidney yin deficiency with symptoms of dizziness, ringing in the ears, dry throat and mouth, low back pain, weak legs, spontaneous sweating, a very red tongue. Kidney yin deficiency can easily lead to Kidney yang deficiency and impotence and lack of sex drive. Insufficient Kidney yin also has emotional symptoms, the effects are insecurity and fear, the personality is not rooted or grounded and has a tendency to move from one issue to the next without getting to the cause of the problems. Menopause is a time in a woman’s life when the Kidney yin is insufficient and the body no longer has extra blood to run the fertility cycle. Fluids that stabilise the Kidney and relax the liver become deficient with hot flushes and sweating in the upper part of the body common when the Kidney yin is no longer strong enough to anchor the heat in the lower part of the body.
Foods to build Kidney Yin
To build yin we recommend eating animal products such as oyster, sardine, crab, clams, eggs, pork, cheese or duck. It is important to eat these rich foods only in small amounts so that the yin is built up gradually rather than creating mucus and blockages in the body that could further deplete yin. To build yin more gradually stick with rice, as you preferred carbohydrate. Foods in winter that build yin include beef, barley, black beans, millet, mung beans, beetroot, kidney beans, wheat germ, seaweed, black sesame seeds, molasses, spinach, sweet potato and potatoes. Congees, stews and soups, stocks in particular, naturally support yin.
If you are run-down, feel like you have sluggish circulation, anemia, vertigo, tendency to faint, nervousness, easily skip periods, lower back pain you may not be producing enough Blood. Be gentle on the digestion by choosing warm, well-cooked foods. In winter foods that nourish and strengthen the Blood include pumpkin, beetroot, pork, rice, kidney beans, coconut milk and chestnuts.
Deficient Kidney Yang
Symptoms of yang deficiency may include cold hands and feet, pale face, mental exhaustion, and low spirits, weak knees and lower back pain, low or no sex drive, infertility, irregular periods, sterility, urinary problems, edema, asthma, lack of will power and direction and a large pale tongue.
If Kidney yang is weak, you won’t be able to breathe in deeply.
Foods to increase Kidney Yang
Foods that specifically target Kidney yang include cloves, fennel seeds, black pepper, ginger, walnuts, black beans, onions, leeks, shallots, chives, chicken, lamb, trout and salmon.
Walnuts are good for Kidney yang, and can ease lumbago. Bake in honey and store in a glass jar. Eat just one, once a day!
So, What To Eat In Winter?
In winter we need to eat foods to create warmth, support the Kidney yin and yang and encourage the energy down and in. We also need to eat foods that benefit the heart and shen (spirit), guarding against the winter doldrums.
Eat warming foods in winter, probably exactly what you feel like…soups and stews. Energetically warm foods include anchovies, bay leaves, chestnuts, chicken, coriander, fennel, leek, mussels, mutton, nutmeg, pine nuts, rosemary, spring onions, sweet potatoes and walnuts. Preparation of food can also add to the warming nature like stewing and slow cooking. We can use this knowledge to prepare cooler foods like tofu, which for example can be fried to take off the cold edge in winter.
Foods that benefit the kidneys
Foods that benefit the Kidneys in winter include sweet potatoes, kidney beans, squid, millet, sesame seeds and lamb. In general, grains, seeds and nuts have an inward moving energy and are good for winter. However, for children it is important not to overdo grain intake, especially if not cooked very well. This can easily cause phlegm in the system showing up as runny nose, colds, earache and respiratory problems. Especially for the younger children, emphasise vegetables or rice porridge rather than grains or meat, which are harder to digest. Both children and adults should remember to always chew nuts very well and try to choose the fresh roasted varieties, otherwise they can be hard on the digestive system.
The health of the body is important, not just for its own sake, but because of the interconnectedness of the body with the mind and the spirit. Anything done to the body has equal consequence for the mind and spirit also. If you feel good physically, you will be more balanced emotionally, mentally and spiritually.
Enjoy the natural retreat and rest of winter and maintain a daily Qigong practice and stillness within your mind and body.