Winter and Chinese Medicine: How to Support Immunity, Maintain a Healthy Weight and Recharge Your Batteries

by Dr. Patricia

Do you feel super tired, lethargic and (dare I say) a bit lazy this time of year?

Do you crave warm, richer foods and cozy evenings spent curled up on the couch?

If so, congratulations! Despite the 24/7 demands of modern life, your body’s internal clock is still well-tuned to the seasons.

Now, the second question: are you honoring your body’s requests for more sleep, heartier meals and down-time? Or, do you feel guilty about it?

If you’re struggling with guilt or shame over this, I’m here to tell you to embrace your body’s wishes to slow down—and better yet, to honor them as a natural source of connection to the upcoming winter season.

Winter falls under what Traditional Chinese Medicine considers a “Water” phase in the 5 elements of nature; where the Kidney and Bladder come into focus.

It is also a natural time of year to go inward—both insofar as nourishing your inner organs and nourishing your inner being.

The mantra I recommend for my patients this time of year is: go slow in all things related to one’s physical, mental, and spiritual health.

If you’ve forgotten how to slow down and surrender to the quiet, cozy darkness of winter then read on.

In today’s article, you will learn exactly what you can do to strengthen, nourish, and recharge your physical, mental, and emotional batteries, while preventing common seasonal ailments.

Winter’s Focus: The Kidneys—Your Body’s Battery and Energy Source

Unless you have a specific chronic condition (such as kidney stones), most of us don’t think much about our Kidneys on a regular basis.

However, did you know these humble organs hold and maintain your body’s most essential and fundamental energy reserve?!

They act like your body’s year-round battery, and thus need nourishing and recharging this time of year.

Your Kidneys are also directly connected to the health of your ears, eyes, hair, sexual organs, blood, fluid balance, and structural organs and systems—such as your teeth and bones.

If you struggle with anything like lack of sex drive, impotence, bone health issues, ear infections, poor hearing, bladder infections, incontinence, vision issues, fatigue, anxiety, high blood pressure, weak teeth, brittle nails and hair, edema, or maintaining your energy levels, then you will want to pay special attention to your Kidneys this time of year.

Insofar as emotions go, the Kidneys and Water element are associated with fear .

When the Water element/Kidneys are imbalanced, this can contribute to disorders such as anxiety, depression, seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and phobias.

According to TCM wisdom, one key way you can help balance that sense of fear is by taking advantage of the quiet introspective atmosphere winter provides.

Take time to take stock, and approach it in an unhurried manner.

For example, journaling is a wonderful wintertime practice, as is introspective meditation, reading spiritual or self-help books, seeking counseling or therapy if you need it, and reflecting on who you want to blossom into come Spring.

Early to Bed, Late to Rise (you finally have a real reason to sleep more)

This time of year, many of my patients tell me they feel more tired and lethargic…but also feel guilty about resting more.

My advice is to listen to your body, as winter is the optimal time of year for better sleep.

In fact, I highly recommend getting to bed at least one or two hours earlier than normal, and even waking later (if possible).

Think about it. Only one hundred plus years ago, before electricity and central heating, everyone rested more in the wintertime out of necessity (after all, would you rather climb into a cozy bed at 7PM or stay up in the freezing cold darkness?).

Traditional Chinese Medicine, and our body’s own internal clock, suggest we copy this ancient practice today.

Again, approach sleep in a slow fashion—in other words, take your time with it.

For most of us, that means changing our habits a bit. Here are some tips to make this transition easier:

  • Start by going to bed just 30 minutes earlier, then increase that amount by 15 minutes every week until you can naturally awaken before your alarm (or close to it).
  • Make it a point to turn off all media and electronic devices at least one hour before bed.
  • Dim the lights as the sun sets.
  • Turn down the heat at night to between 60-65 degrees and/or open a window. This will not only motivate you to get in bed sooner, but studies have shown we sleep best at 60-68 degree temperatures.
  • Follow the other recommendations below for easier sleep.

If you typically struggle with sleep, know that many people find it much easier to fall and stay asleep asleep this time of year—so be open to that natural transformation.

If you’re still having trouble sleeping, check out this article and be sure to seek immediate help from your practitioner.

What About Exercise?

Exercise and movement are important any time of year, but it’s how you exercise that can make or break your health in winter.

For example, consider replacing fast, strenuous exercise like distance running, burst training or lengthy weight-training sessions with gentler, slower exercises such as yoga, tai chi, or qi gong.

Think slow, restorative movements over strenuous jarring activities.

Brisk walking outdoors is also an excellent practice. Just be sure to dress warmly and cover your neck, ears, shoulders, and lower back to prevent excess coldness from invading your organs.

What to Eat, and NOT to Eat, in the Winter Months

As with all things food, it’s important to maintain a balance in our eating habits during the winter months.

Yes, good to all still enjoy holiday feasts and parties; however, for improved immune support allow for seasonal eating at least 80% of the time.

This will help you maintain a healthy weight, nourish the Kidneys and Bladder, recharge your energy or Qi, promote good sleep, and keep toxins at bay.

To keep things simple, focus on slowing down in all aspects of eating: the foods you buy, the way they’re prepared, and how you savor them.

For optimal health, focus on the following foods :

Foods that are in season, such as:

  • Root vegetables (carrots, turnips, parsnips, winter squashes, rutabagas)
  • A variety of sweet and white potatoes—enjoy with skin-on for maximum nutrients
  • Winter greens, preferably cooked—kale, mustard greens, collards, etc.
  • Mushrooms—be sure to branch out and try a variety like immune-boosting shiitakes, maitakes and lion’s mane
  • Pears
  • Apples
  • Cabbages
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Onions, leeks and garlic

Warming foods

  • Soups and Stews
  • Braises
  • Bone broths and stocks
  • Veggie/mushroom broths and stocks
  • Miso
  • Bay leaves
  • Cardamom
  • Ginger
  • Garlic
  • Nutmeg
  • Fennel
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme
  • Roasted nuts
  • Cooked and slow-cooked foods
  • Butter
  • Whole grains such as millet, quinoa, brown rice, amaranth, etc.

Kidney, Bladder, and Bone-Loving foods

  • Walnuts
  • Chestnuts
  • Black sesame seeds
  • Black beans
  • Kidney beans
  • Bone broths of all varieties
  • Marrow bones
  • Cooked leafy greens
  • Meats, like lamb and chicken, preferably cooked on-the-bone

Salty Foods (within reason)

*Note: the taste associated with the Kidneys is salt, but you can overdo it and cause dehydration. To harness the healing power of salt, eat naturally-salty foods and be sure to use high-quality salts sparingly.

  • Anchovies
  • Himalayan pink salt
  • Miso
  • Sea salt
  • Shrimp

Drink Plenty of Water and Warm Herbal Teas

Remember, the winter months can suck the moisture right out of you—and your Kidneys rely on a steady supply of fluids.

Therefore, aim to drink at least 8 glasses of pure water per day. You may also add in warm herbal teas such as ginger, fennel, thyme, or green teas with raw honey.

Due to its diuretic affect, coffee isn’t ideal this of year. However, if you can’t live without it (I get it), aim to consume just one cup per day, and add an extra 1-2 glasses of water or herbal tea to replace those fluids.

Insofar as what NOT to eat, avoid cold cooling foods, too much raw food (ferments are OK in moderation), excess sugar, and diuretic food and drink like alcohol.

Follow these tips, keep the mantra: “go slow”, and you will notice a remarkable difference in how you feel this winter and in the warmer months to come.

Wishing you a deliciously slow, warming and transformation winter season.

-Dr. Patricia

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