Living According to the Winter Season with Chinese Medicine

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP

The ancient Chinese created a system of medicine that has evolved over thousands of years and is still used today to effectively treat modern diseases. Chinese medicine is only a part of a greater concept the ancient Chinese used to live their everyday lives. It is a branch that springs from a larger tree that encompasses all aspects of life. This is why the doctor of Chinese medicine does not only deal with the body or physical aspects of one's health, they are teachers educating patients on how to live a healthy and balanced lifestyle, because this is how we attain health, and the Chinese knew it. It is deeply entrenched in their medicine.

Chinese medicine teaches to live in harmony with the seasons, and according to Chinese medicine theory, there are five seasons - winter, spring, summer, late summer, and fall. Each season has many associations which help us to change our habits as the season's change so that we may create more balance between our bodies and the external environment.

When Chinese medicine was being developed thousands of years ago, people were living in a state of complete harmony with nature. They rose with the sun, ate what grew in each season and were acutely aware of their natural environment as it had a direct effect on every aspect of their lives. The lives of the people had a flow that changed depending on the time of year. Things like what foods were eaten were dependent on what happened to be growing at that particular time and what was available. When to get up, how to dress and what kinds of activities we're engaged in were dependent on the important connection that people had to their environment. Because these simple steps were taken people were able to stay healthy throughout the year and had the tools to keep their immune systems and their organs strong so that they could ward off disease.

This fancy chart was made by Chinese Medicine Living

Winter in Chinese Medicine

Winter represents the most Yin aspect in Chinese medicine. Yin is the dark, cold, slow, inward energy. This is compared to the Yang of summer whose energy represents light, hot, quick, expansive qualities. The summer weather is warm, the days are longer and people are out being active. In TCM we believe that the diet and activities in winter should be adapted to enriching yin and subduing yang.

Winter, in TCM, is associated with the Kidneys which hold our body's most basic and fundamental energy. It is believed that by harmonizing oneself with the seasons you can stay healthier and prevent disease, so winter is a good time to strengthen the kidneys. Rest is important for revitalizing the kidneys, which is why some animals hibernate in winter. It is also a good time to look inward, reflecting on ourselves with meditation, writing, or other inward practices such as Tai Chi and Qi Gong. These practices help us to connect to our inner selves and help to support kidney energy. They are very helpful to relax the mind, calm our emotions and raise the spirit.

The sense organ associated with the kidneys is the ears, and our ability to hear clearly is related to kidney health. The quiet and stillness of winter allow us to hear more of the world than the buzzing activities of summer. This forces us to slow down, rest and relax.

The body part associated with the kidneys are the bones, so it is important to pay close attention to the bones in the winter months making sure to tonify and heal any problems in this area. This is also why winter is a time when Chinese medicine prescribes bone broths as nutritional therapy, as they are warming, nourishing and especially good for the bones. Bone broths are also powerful Jing tonics, as Jing is produced by the bones. Jing is depleted by activities such as extreme and prolonged stress, lack of sufficient sleep, working long hours, and excessive behaviours like too much drinking and drugs. Winter is the best time to supplement the body's Jing supply and bone broths are just what the doctor ordered.

Activities in Winter

Activities should represent the season with a turn inwards, with more self-reflection, quiet time writing, meditating, reading and other soul-nourishing activities. Winter is a time to slow down and feed ourselves both physically and spiritually. Internal martial arts and meditative practices are particularly helpful at this time of year. One should go to bed earlier and sleep later to receive the full healing effects that sleep has to offer.

Many people love winter. They feel energized with the coming cold and love to be out snowboarding, skiing and going for walks in the snow. For others, winter causes them to retract, stay inside and can cause some to feel sad or even depressed because of the lack of light and reduced physical activity. The good news is that winter can be enjoyed by everyone if we live, eat and exercise according to the season and pay attention to our bodies preferences.

Winter Foods

Winter Foods in Chinese Medicine : Chinese Medicine Living

There are many foods that are beneficial for us to eat during the winter season. These foods are the ones that naturally grow in this season - squashes, potatoes, root vegetables, winter greens, carrots, cabbage, mushrooms, apples, and pears. In winter, our bodies need warming foods like soups made with hearty vegetables, and rich stocks cooked with animal bones are best. Foods that specifically nourish and warm the kidneys are:

  • black beans
  • kidney beans
  • broths cooked with bones
  • lamb
  • chicken
  • walnuts
  • chestnuts
  • black sesame seeds
  • dark leafy greens.

A small amount of unrefined sea salt is also helpful as the taste associated with the kidneys organ is salty, but remember, moderation in all things is important. For more on the subject, you can read this - Black Foods for Kidney Health.

Cooking should be for longer periods using low heat and less water. This infuses foods with heat that helps to keep the body warm in the cold winter months. Hearty soups, whole grains, and roasted nuts are good on cold days and offer nourishment to feed the body and tonify the kidneys in cold winter months.

The principle of harmony between what we eat and the season is based on hundreds of years of practical experience. Chinese nutritional therapy is an important component of Chinese medicine and truly believes that you are what you eat. The food that we consume has a profound effect on the body, affecting our health and wellbeing. Foods become part of the body after being consumed (internal) and the weather and environment have an effect on us externally. Chinese dietary philosophy suggests that you embrace native foods along with eating locally grown, organic and chemical-free foods that grow in season. According to TCM the thing about the modern diet which is the most unhealthy is that we are able to eat foods all year round that may be grown unnaturally with the use of pesticides rather than ones grown naturally for only part of the year. This is the way nature intended us to eat. Eating natural foods that grow in the present season is what our bodies are designed for and prefer. This is one of the main ways that Chinese Medicine guides us on how to remain healthy all year long.

Winter Foods in Chinese Medicine : Chinese Medicine Living

This lovely image from TCM007

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Chestnut for Kidney Health

By Vicky Chan of NourishU

According to TCM, winter is the season for promoting kidney health. Kidneys have astringent and active storage functions which help in preserving energy. In winter, our body is also designed to better absorb rich and nutritional foods to stay warm and healthy. For people who have a cold constitution with cold hands and feet, weak kidney health with frequent urination, cold and stiff body and constant pain in their lower back and ankles, winter is the best time to correct these health problems as it is when the body is most responsive to nutritional treatment. Winter food should be eaten with less salt to reduce work burden on the kidneys. Elderly people in particular should take winter/kidney tonics which can greatly improve their body constitution and promote better resistance to illness.

Winter/kidney tonics include superior warming herbs, fatty and meaty foods. Warming herbs such as dang shen, ginseng, astragalus, reishi mushroom, longan fruit and deer horn are most popular for promoting yang energy. Warming foods include chive, chicken, mutton, shrimp, ginger, garlic, walnut, mushroom, chestnut, mustard, vinegar, wine, gingko, red pepper and spring onion.

Chestnut for Kidney Health : Chinese Medicine Living

Chestnut is plentiful in winter and is best for making hearty soups and stews. Chestnut is warm in nature, sweet in taste and acts on the spleen, stomach and kidney. The following is my favourite winter recipe with chestnut which is very delicious but needs some work for preparing the chestnuts. It is well worth the effort!

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Pork Ribs, Shiitake Mushroom
and Chestnut Stew

Therapeutic Effects

  • Strengthens spleen
  • tonifies kidney
  • strengthens tendons
  • promotes blood circulation and stops bleeding
  • cures asthma, cough, back pain and diarrhea
  • promotes weight loss
  • protects the heart
  • lowers blood pressure and cholesterol
  • combats cancer

 

Chestnut for Liver : Chinese Medicine Living

Ingredients

(3 to 4 servings)

  • Chestnuts – about 20
  • Pork ribs or chicken pieces – about 400gm
  • Dried shiitake mushrooms – 6 to 8
  • Carrot – one
  • Minced ginger – 2 spoonfuls
  • Minced garlic – 2 spoonfuls
  • Spring Onion – 3 pieces
  • Dark soy sauce – 3 spoonfuls
  • Light soy sauce – 3 spoonfuls
  • Sugar – 2 spoonfuls
  • Sesame oil – one spoonful
  • Cooking oil – about 3 spoonfuls
  • Cooking wine – 2 spoonfuls
  • Potato starch – one spoonful

Directions

  1. Prepare chestnuts ahead of time by cutting a few crosses on the outer shell by using scissors. Then put chestnuts in a toaster oven (a few at a time) to bake on medium heat for about 10 minutes. Use a small knife to remove the shell and membrane together while still hot (please wear gloves!). The alternative method is to remove the hard shell first with a small knife, then put chestnuts with membrane in boiling water to cook for about 8 minutes. Strain and remove membrane while warm.
  2. Soak mushrooms for 30 minutes or until soft, rinse and slice into halves. Peel carrot and cut into pieces.
  3. Wash ribs/chicken pieces. Put them in boiling water to cook for a few minutes to remove foam and fat. Retrieve, rinse and strain.
  4. Warm one spoonful of oil in a skillet. Put chestnuts in, stir to brown for a few minutes (so chestnuts will not be so easily disintegrated when cooked), remove and put aside.
  5. Add one spoonful of oil to the skillet, put in half of the ginger and garlic to stir briefly and put in the mushrooms. Stir, add one spoonful of sugar to mix well and follow by one spoonful of cooking wine and half a cup of water. Cook for a couple of minutes and put aside.
  6. Add one spoonful of oil to the skillet, put in remaining ginger and garlic and ribs/chicken to stir for a couple of minutes. Add in remaining sugar, cooking wine and stir for a couple of minutes more and then add mushrooms, carrot and enough water just to cover everything. Add soy sauce, bring to a slow boil, cover with lid and simmer for about 30 minutes. Add chestnuts and simmer for another 15 to 20 minutes to just a little sauce is left. Add water if necessary.
  7. When the meat and chestnuts are cooked to the desired softness, add salt to taste if necessary. Wash and cut spring onion into sections and add to the cooking. Mix potato starch with 2 spoonfuls of water and sesame oil, add to the cooking and cook for another minute and serve.

 

Chestnut Recipe for Kidney : Chinese Medicine Living

USAGE

Serve with rice. No restrictions.

Chestnut for kidney health

* Featured image from paleohacks.com

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Winter - The Water Element

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP

Much of Chinese Medicine is based on the theory of the five elements, or Wu Xing. Each element has many associations, including a season, both a yin and a yang organ, colour, direction, taste and emotions. Below is a list of the seasons, their elements, organs and the emotions associated with them.

Summer - Fire  - Heart - Joy
Late Summer (or the end of any season) - Earth - Spleen - Worry or Over Thinking
Autumn / Fall - Metal - Lungs - Sadness
Winter - Water - Kidneys - Fear
Spring - Wood - Liver - Anger

The winter season is associated with water and the kidneys. The kidneys are the foundation of our yin and yang energies, store our Jing (or essence) and govern vital activities like birth, growth, reproduction and development. The kidneys are said to open into the ears, thus our ability to hear clearly is dependent on strong kidney energy. The kidneys also govern bones, teeth, hair on the head, the nervous system and brain.

Strong Kidneys

The kidneys in Chinese medicine are not the same as they are seen in Western medicine. They are not simply two separate organs that sit at the level of the lower back, remove wastes and release hormones. They are en entire organ and energy system that is connected to the rest of the body, is paired with the bladder, and has important functions both physically and emotionally. When kidney energy is strong we are lucid and able to articulate our thoughts and feelings.  Children grow quickly, and have strong bones and teeth. They are smart, learn quickly and can think clearly. Strong kidney energy will also help a person move through the stages of life without difficulty, giving them the ability to adjust to changes and better able to cope with stresses that come along the way. Strong kidney energy also give the ability to take in information and process it effectively as we go through life, to make keen observations and making you seem wise beyond your years.

5 elements Chinese Medicine

Kidney Deficiency

A deficiency of the kidneys often manifests as developmental problems both mentally and physically. In children these manifest as problems with growth and development, such as learning disabilities, physical deformities, and dental cavities. In adults symptoms of kidney deficiency are sore lower back and knees, frequent urination, prematurely greying hair, weak, brittle bones, arthritis, dental cavities, hearing loss and pain in the soles of the feet. Because the kidneys are also the source of our sexual energy, lack of libido, impotence and infertility are signs of a deficiency of the kidneys.

The Water Personality

The Archetype for Water: The Philosopher

A person with a water type personality will have the following characteristics:

  • Sincere
  • Introspective
  • Modest
  • Observant
  • Sensible
  • Lucid
  • Curious
  • Careful
  • Innovative
  • Resourceful
  • Frugal
  • Objective
  • Particular

Below is a description of a water personality in five element theory taken from the book Between Heaven and Earth...

Revelation propels the Philosopher in her relentless quest for truth. She brings to light that which is hidden, uncovering new knowledge, dispelling mystery, eroding ignorance. Scrutinizing life until the meaning and significance of her impressions coalesce into the germ of understanding, she is like an old time prospector with a nose for nuggets, sifting through the gravel of notions and beliefs, tireless in her effort to apprehend the nature of reality. Just as the miner digs through tons of ore before unearthing a single gem, the Philosopher searches doggedly for truth, which, like a diamond, is esteemed not only for its radiant sparkle, but for its abiding hardness as a tool to advance civilization. It takes millennia to crystallize the residual mineral essence of fossils into this precious stone. Time is the pick and shovel of the Philosopher, who exhumes the bones of culture that endure. The Philosopher yearns for meaning that transcends the rudderless meandering of human affairs.

As she offers insight to the world, she relies on her hope that knowledge will be married with wisdom, power and compassion, aware that destiny is the final authority. Able to envision what can be, she is critical of what is by comparison. She discerns the inevitable disparity between apparent and ultimate reality. As the custodian of our memories and dreams, she articulates our aspirations, our ends, but does not define for us the machinery of their realization, our means.

*From Between Heaven and Earth by Harriet Beinfeld and Efrem Korngold

The Water Body Type

There are certain physical attributes that each element portrays. The water body type has a round face and soft, white skin. They love to move and they have long spines. They are loyal to their friends and colleagues and are excellent negotiators. They are sympathetic, slightly lazy and don't always tell the truth. They are usually quite sensitive and self aware. The strong point for water types is their digestion.

The Kidneys and Emotions

The positive emotion of the kidneys is willpower, so when kidney energy is strong we will have willpower and live life with focus and direction. When kidney energy is weak we are susceptible to fear and anxiety. This works both ways, deficient kidneys can leave us fearful and anxious, and if we experience an excess of these emotions, it can deplete kidney energy. A person susceptible to anxiety, panic attacks or phobias may be suffering with deficient kidneys.

Winter is the best time of year to build up kidney energy. It is a time for a contraction of energies and introspection. Winter is a time to rest, going to bed earlier and waking later. The diet should consist of hearty, warming foods, like soups and stews. The longer and slower the cooking, the warmer they become. Supplementing our "post heaven essence" by eating well, drinking clean water and living moderately will help to strengthen kidney energy. The first point on the kidney meridian is on the bottom of the foot, so walking and running stimulates this point and floods the body with kidney energy - so regular exercise, especially outside is great for your kidneys. Acupuncture and Chinese herbs are also a wonderful way to correct deficiency and keep the kidneys strong. So, enjoy the cold weather, and be sure to take care of your kidneys - they will love you for it.

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If you would like a downloadable information sheet that will tell you all about how to live in harmony with the Winter Season in Chinese Medicine, you can find it here - The Winter Season in Chinese Medicine.