It’s that time of year when the world starts to go quiet and we all start longing for a very deep rest. As we bustle about getting ready for the holidays, the rest of the animal kingdom is slowing down, settling in and saving energy for spring. Traditional Chinese Medicine wants us to take a que from nature and start incorporating restorative practices into our winter routine. Read on to discover five holistic tips to help you optimize the yin energy of the winter season and benefit from the coldest months of the year.
According to the 5-Element Theory in Chinese medicine (TCM), winter is associated with the water element. Water is a symbol of wisdom, fluidity, and femininity (or yin energy), making this season the perfect time to rest and reflect, go with the flow, and develop your inner wisdom. Then, once springtime approaches, you’ll be ready to sow the seeds of growth and expansion.
1. Slow down
As daylight hours shorten in the winter, this is a time for hibernation and retraction in the animal kingdom. Similarly, our energy tends to dwindle as the temperature dips and nights become longer. With the intention of resting and resetting, winter is the ideal season to get into the habit of going to bed earlier and waking up later.
In addition to enjoying longer and deeper rest, we can also spend more time reflecting and nurturing ourselves (both in the physical and emotional sense) this season. In nature, winter to spring marks the transition from death to rebirth in nature. We can follow nature’s lead and spend the season thinking about the things in our own lives that no longer serve us. What do we want to let go of? What intentions do we want to set for the rebirth of springtime?
As we slow down, this is also a good time to reduce intense physical exercise and instead stick with lower-impact workouts like restorative yoga and tai chi to conserve energy and facilitate the process of self-reflection.
2. Support kidney health
In meridian theory, the kidney meridian stores “jing,” or congenital essence, also known as the “root of life.” Essence is the origin of chi and blood, and primordial yin and yang. It is responsible for key functions from growth and reproduction to healthy aging. It also affects the autonomic nervous system, teeth, hair, ear, brain, and bone health.
The winter season is associated with the water element and manifested by the kidney and bladder meridians. Winter is hence the best time to nourish the kidneys. In TCM, the best foods for the kidneys are generally color-coded black: black rice, black sesame seeds, black beans, lentils, blackberries, blueberries, oysters, woodear mushrooms, and seaweed.
3. Keep the feet warm
Cold and wind are considered two of the six main factors in TCM that can cause imbalance. It goes without saying that staying warm is crucial to maintaining good health during chilly winters. This means bundling up when going outside and protecting your midriff, neck, and head from being exposed to the wind and cold.
Have you ever had the experience of warming up your feet and feeling your whole body immediately warm up too? This is because our feet have lots of blood vessels and nerve endings and play an essential role in temperature regulation. Similarly, the kidney meridian begins on the bottom of your feet, so it’s vital to keep your feet warm to prevent cold from entering the body. At home, consider wearing socks or cozy slippers if you tend to get cold feet. Or, try having a warm Epsom salt foot bath before going to bed. Soaking your feet will warm up your whole body in no time, support the quality of your sleep, and guide any overactive energy from the head back to the source—the kidney.
4. Support Wei Qi
By receiving regular acupuncture in the winter, we can align our energy with the season and support our wei qi or defensive energy. Seasonal tuneup sessions can be used to benefit the kidney and bladder meridian for overall health. Getting plenty of sleep, managing stress levels, and keeping the body moving are also ways to support health daily. Stay active with low-intensity exercise to keep the blood flowing. Take a long walk even though it might be gray outside!
With dipping temperature, winter is also typically a time for old injuries to flare up. From a TCM perspective, the windy, cold, and sometimes damp weather can result in stiffness in the muscles and joints. Try acupuncture for musculoskeletal support to promote healthy blood circulation and support the comfort and mobility of your joints. You can also use a heating pad daily, but don’t go overboard. Limit to about 20 minutes at a time.
5. Eat naturally salty foods
Eating fresh and seasonal produce is a great way to support the body as it goes through cyclical changes with the seasons. In winter, the water element is associated with the salty flavor, so this is a season to enjoy slightly saltier foods (as long as high sodium is not an issue for you). I’m not talking about salty potato chips but naturally salty flavors such as seaweed, miso, and high-quality sea salt.
On top of that, pungent flavors are associated with the metal element, which is said to promote the water element according to 5-Element Theory. Some examples are ginger, scallion, cinnamon, cloves, garlic, and horseradish.