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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Winter Congee Recipe for Colds & Flu

Congee

Traditionally known as hsi-fan or rice water, congee is eaten throughout China as a breakfast food. It is a thin porridge or gruel consisting of a handful of rice simmered in five to six times the amount of water. Although rice is the most common grain for congees, millet, spelt or other grains are sometimes used. Cook the rice and water together in a covered pot for four to six hours on warm, or use the lowest flame possible; a crockpot works very well for congees. It is better to use too much water than too little, and the longer the congee cooks, the more powerful it becomes.

Healing Properties

This simple rice soup is easily digested and assimilated, tonifies the blood and qi, harmonizes the digestion and is demulcent, and nourishing. It is also useful for increasing a nursing mother’s supply of milk. The liquid can be strained from the porridge to drink as a supplement for infants and for serious conditions.

Other therapeutic properties may be added to the congee by cooking appropriate vegetables, grains, herbs or meats in with the rice water. Since rice itself strengthens the Spleen-Pancreas digestive centre, other foods added to a rice congee become more completely assimilated, and their properties are therefore enhanced. Listed below are some of the more common rice based congees and their specific effects.

Winter Congee Recipe : Chinese Medicine Living

  • Aduki Bean - Diuretic, curative for edema and gout
  • Carrot - Digestive aid, eliminates flatulence
  • Celery - Cooling in summer, benefits the large intestine
  • Water Chestnut - Cooling to viscera, benefits digestive organs
  • Duck or Carp Broth - Reduces edema and swelling
  • Fennel - harmonizes the stomach, expels gas, cures hernia
  • Ginger - warming and antiseptic to viscera, used for deficient COLD digestive weakness: diarrhea, anorexia, vomiting and indigestion
  • Leek - warming to viscera, good for chronic diarrhea
  • Mustard - Expels phlegm, clears stomach congestion
  • Black Pepper - expels gas, recommended for pain in bowels
  • Poppy Seed - relieves vomiting and benefits the large intestine
  • Purslane - detoxifies, recommended for rheumatism and swellings (phlegm)
  • Radish - Digestant, benefits the diaphragm
  • Pickled Radish - benefits digestion and blood
  • Taro Root - nutritious, aids the stomach, builds blood

Congee Recipe

Use 1 1/2 cups of uncooked rice, unless you already have some cooked rice in your fridge. You’ll have to extend the cooking time to 1-1/2 to 2 hours with uncooked rice, but you will be rewarded with a bowl of yummy goodness that is soothing both spiritually and physically. There are so many things that you can add to congee that add both flavour and texture to the final dish. You can refer to the list above or see what you have in the fridge and be creative!

Time: About 1 hour

Makes: 4 servings

Ingredients

Winter Congee Recipe : Chinese Medicine Living

  • 2 cups cooked white rice
  • 5 cups water
  • 1/2 pound chicken bones or 2 chicken thighs
  • 3, 1/4-inch-thick slices fresh ginger
  • 1 plump clove garlic, smashed
  • 1 green onion, tied into a knot
  • 1/4 of a whole yellow or red onion
  • Soy sauce, salt, and white pepper to taste
  • Sesame oil and/or kecap manis for drizzling (optional)

Garnishes:

  • Shredded chicken (from the thighs above or leftovers)
  • Green onions, chopped
  • Fried garlic
  • Fried shallots

Winter Congee Recipe : Chinese Medicine Living

Directions

  1. In a medium pot, combine the rice, water, chicken bones, ginger, garlic, green onion, onion and bring to a boil over high heat. Skim off any scum or foam that rises to the surface.
  2. Reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer for 1 hour, stirring occasionally so that the rice doesn’t stick to the bottom of pot and burn.
  3. If using chicken thighs, remove them after 20 minutes and scrape off the meat and shred or chop. Set the meat aside and return the bones to the pot. Continue cooking for another 40 minutes or so.
  4. When the rice grains are swollen and the mixture is as thick as oatmeal, the congee is ready. If it gets too thick, add more water. If it’s too thin, cook it until it reaches the desired smoothness and thickness.
  5. Remove the bones, ginger, garlic, green onion and onion. Add soy sauce, salt, and white pepper to taste.
  6. Ladle into individual bowls, drizzle with sesame oil, and garnish as desired.

Winter Congee Recipe : Chinese Medicine Living

Winter Congee Recipe for Colds & Flu : Chinese Medicine Living

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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.