Wisdom for Winter Wellness
Living Seasonally with Chinese Medicine
By Dr. Lauren Dyer, L.Ac, DAC
In nature, Yin embodies all that is cold, dark, reflective, and directed inward.
Knowing this, it makes sense why Winter is considered the most “Yin” time of the year in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM): the daylight is shorter, the temperature is frigid, and nature is nudging us to conserve our energy.
In the early days of TCM (5,000 years ago) practitioners and the agricultural communities they served understood how nature was mirrored in their health—how our bodies change in response to our environment. After all, we are just as dynamic as the seasons: our internal systems have their own rhythms and are always shifting towards homeostasis.
By embracing the changes each season brings and adopting habits that will help us live in harmony with them, we are truly benefiting our mind and body.
Here are some key associations for the Winter in TCM:
YIN ORGAN: Kidneys
KIDNEY TIME: 5 - 7pm
TISSUES: Hair, Bones, Marrow
So what does all of this mean? Here’s what you can do to be well this Winter:
Nourish Your Kidneys
The Kidneys are ruled by Winter. In other words, they are the organ that require more attention and protection during this time of year.
In TCM, the Kidneys are considered our “life gate.” They store our vital energy, called “Essential Qi” and Essence (Jing) which we are born with. The Kidney’s are like our body’s batteries; they are responsible for growth & development, metabolism, temperature regulation, reproduction, as well as managing our energy levels on a daily basis. Just like with any battery, there’s a limit to how much we can expend. Chinese Medicine reminds us to use our Kidney energy and Jing wisely since we are only born with so much. Although it naturally declines with age (no matter how much we try), there are lifestyle habits and choices that can deplete it sooner.
THINGS THAT WEAKEN THE KIDNEYS
Too little sleep
Long hours of physical/mental exertion
Prolonged exposure to a cold environment
Feeling stressed all. the. time.
Nutrient depletion from poor diet
Drug & Alcohol abuse
How to know if your Kidneys need support…
In practice, there are some key symptoms I look for when assessing if someone has, what is called, a “Kidney Deficiency.” This does not mean there is something “wrong” with your Kidneys in the sense that you need to seek out immediate medical attention. However, they are indications that an imbalance exists and, if not addressed, can decline over time:
Kidney Qi Deficiency
Translation: You have a mild depletion in Kidney Qi. This is one of the earlier, less chronic patterns I see where the Kidney’s ability to hold, store, and filter is compromised:
Dizziness, tinnitus (ear-ringing), decrease in hearing, weakness in low back, low back pain that is dull/sore/achey in nature, back pain worse with exertion, chronic fatigue, low libido, nocturia (bed-wetting in the evening), mild anxiety, depression, takes a longer time than normal to recover from illness, frequent illness.
Related Conditions: Adrenal Fatigue, Low Back Pain, Insomnia
Kidney Yang Deficiency
Translation: You have lower reserves of “Yang” energy that warms, moves, and promotes the functions of other organs. As a result, you will notice ‘cold signs’ and conditions where poor circulation, slowed metabolic and mental processes, plus a lack of ‘holding’ is apparent:
Extreme sensitivity to cold, feeling cold constantly (despite attempts to layer/warm up), cold feet, cold/sharp pain sensations in low back, weakness in knees and back, forgetfulness, feeling withdrawn, depression, exhaustion, sluggish metabolism, weight gain, loose stools, edema, urinary incontinence, low libido, infertility, impotence and spontaneous ejaculation in men; amenorrhea (loss of menstrual cycle) and ovulation disorders in women
Related Conditions: Reynaud’s Syndrome, Hypothyroidism, Dementia, Depression
Kidney Yin Deficiency
Translation: You have lower reserves of “Yin” energy that is responsible for cooling, anchoring, and moisturizing the body’s tissues and other organs. This manifests in ‘heat signs’ and conditions where dryness, malnourishment, and a ‘rising’ dynamic is evident:
Dry mouth or throat (especially at night), always thirsty, night sweats, restless sleep, hot flashes, feelings of heat in chest/palms/feet, dark urine, constipation, tinnitus (ear ringing), declining muscle mass (thin body type), stiffness in joints/muscles, chronic low back soreness, forgetfulness, panic attacks, hair falls out easily, for men: premature ejaculation, for women: recurrent UTIs, vaginal dryness, infertility
Related Conditions: Kidney Stones, High Blood Pressure, Perimenopause, Hyperthyroidism
Kidney Essence Deficiency
Translation: You have significantly lower reserves of Kidney energy in the form of “Essential Qi” and Jing, possibly from birth, a combination of lifestyle habits that ‘used up’ your reserves, or just because you might be older in age. Jing can be compared to our genetics. Just like how DNA is a blueprint for our development (with several factors—including lifestyle—influencing its expression later on in life), Jing is the deepest-stored component that affects our health and longevity. When a Jing deficiency is apparent, conditions that affect aging, the bones, teeth, and the brain/mental functioning are apparent.
Physical disabilities (especially in the bone-level), slow recovery from injuries and illness, cognitive/learning disabilities, delayed growth/puberty, accelerated aging (looking older than you are), premature hair loss, hair graying, severe forgetfulness/memory loss, infertility (low ovarian reserve, poor egg/sperm quality)
Related Conditions: Alzheimer’s, Genetic Disorders, Osteoporosis, Rickets
Please Note: These are not all of the patterns and symptoms associated with the Kidneys, but reflect the most common ones to give you an idea of what each pattern looks like.
Now that we’ve established why it’s important to protect the Kidneys, read on for some tips on how this season.
Winter Wellness Tips
LAYERS ARE LIFE: STAY WARM
Cold is not just a temperature in Chinese Medicine, it’s a pathogenic factor—and the most obvious culprit for that nasal congestion and stiff neck in the Winter months. Think about what happens when you’re cold: your body becomes tense. Why? The cold constricts blood vessels, limiting circulation and nourishment to our muscles and joints, causing pain and stiffness. I work with a lot of people during the Winter who have pain from exposure to the cold. Yes, Acupuncture plus Moxa (TCM heat therapy) is helpful, but prevention is still the best medicine, so here are some precautions you can take:
Keep your neck and back covered: these are areas where pathogens like the cold and wind can easily enter the body. The back of the neck is called the “Wind Gate” for this reason! If left exposed to the elements, you’re more likely to catch a cold. So layer up, especially outdoors or if you work in a cold environment.
Keep you feet warm—The Kidney channel begins on the sole of the foot, so warm feet will prevent cold from moving up the channel and affecting the Kidneys themselves. Anytime I see cold feet in practice, I know the Kidneys are involved and can use some strengthening.
Keep your digestive fire strong
During the Winter, we want to be mindful of supporting our Kidneys as well as our digestive system—and in TCM, these are closely linked. The Kidneys are considered the root of our “digestive fire” (if you picture a pot on the stove: the Kidney Yang is the flame below) which maintains our metabolic processes, making sure our Spleen/Stomach can transform and distribute nutrients efficiently. In the Winter, you can keep your digestive fire strong by eating mostly warm, easily digestible, and cooked foods. This is not the season for shakes, smoothies, and salads, whose cold-raw nature can make our digestive system work harder to process what its being given, leading to sluggish digestion, bloating, gas, and loose stools.
I’m not saying you can’t or shouldn’t have any cold-raw foods (that is not realistic), but at least in moderation. Pairing those foods with some warming spices (ginger, cardamom, cinnamon) or a cooked side-dish helps too. In general, Winter is a time for cooking foods for longer at lower temperatures, which makes stews and soups ideal.
Crave Salt? Moderation is key for embracing the flavor of Winter, Salty, which nourishes the Kidneys. A Little salt is good and even necessary for our bodies, just not too much. If your energy drops at 5-7pm, this means your Kidneys (and Adrenals) can use some support; having a salty snack at this time can help.
Other Kidney Nourishing Foods:
Black Foods: Blackberry, Black Beans, Black Tea
Micro-Algae: Spirulina, Seaweed, Nori, Chlorella
Greens: Escarole, Endive, Bock Choy
Root Vegetables: Sweet Potato, Turnip, Beets
Whole Grains: Oats, Barley, Amaranth
Nuts: Water Chestnut, Walnut
Broths: Bone Broth or Veggie-based
ASSESS THE ROLE “FEAR” PLAYS IN YOUR LIFE
In TCM, emotions are a known cause for illness, and each one affects our organs in specific ways.
Fear is the emotion that governs the Kidneys. Unlike its bad rep, fear is actually a normal and healthy emotion—its purpose is to protect us. It is when we try to ignore our fears that they tend to grow, become chronic, or even irrational which keeps us from having the willpower to make basic decisions and live our life. It’s no surprise the Kidneys govern fear: in Western Medicine, the Kidneys house our adrenal glands, which produce cortisol and norepinephrine when we are faced with threatening situations, stress, and major life changes. Those cliche expressions hold some truth: getting “cold feet,” meaning you could not make a move due to fear—that describes a weakness in the Kidneys! That concept of getting “stage fright” with involuntary urination? Fright weakens the Kidneys to the point it cannot withhold qi and body fluids. You see? It’s all connected.
Not all fears can be rationalized though, and I encourage my patients struggling with deep-seeded ones to work with a therapist in addition to Acupuncture.
If you know that fear holds too much power in your life, try sitting with it. Allowing yourself to feel your fear gives it less power over you—as uncomfortable as it might be to let your mind wander there, it can feel liberating. When each fear crops up, sort through it: see what your fear is trying to protect you from vs. what is worth stepping outside your comfort zone for.
The Kidney Channel starts at the base of the foot, in a point called Yongquan—Gushing Spring. This is a great point for strengthening the Kidneys (Adrenals too) plus as the lowest point on the body, it has a powerful descending and grounding effect.
Use It For:
Anxiety, Insomnia, Vertex Headaches, Hypertension, Nausea, Hot Flashes, Poor Memory, and disorders of the throat/tongue (inability to swallow, loss of voice)
To Find It:
Feel for a tender depression on the bottom of your foot, between your second and third toe. This point is at the base of the ball of your foot, just before the arch.
Press this point for 30-60 seconds as needed during the day, such as if you experience a drop in energy during the early evening hours (like 5-7pm—the Kidney‘s time), or if you feel like you can’t ‘get out of your own head,’ this is a good point to help you feel settled. Press to your comfort level, but it should feel a little tender.
Well, there you have it!
I know it’s a lot to reflect on, but that’s what this season is for after all.
I wish you a Winter filled with realizations, still moments, good health, and the conviction to follow your path.
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Disclaimer: Information contained in this article is not meant to diagnose or treat any medical symptoms/condition. If you have any health concerns or an emergency, seek out medical attention. If you are a patient of ours with a health concern, contact us so we can help and make appropriate referrals as needed. If you have questions, feel free to reach out via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading!