Winter Wellness: Stay Healthy this Winter with Chinese Medicine

Winter Wellness: Stay Healthy this Winter with Chinese Medicine

Winter is on its way! The chill of the colder season is creeping in and we are preparing for the new season ahead – and all the wonderful things that come  with it. ‘Tis the season of gratitude, family gatherings, cozy blankets, early nights in, and fabulous treats.

In nature, winter is a time of rest and renewal. Animals hibernate, plants retreat. There is cold quiet that seeps deep into the earth. Our lives, too, should be slowing down but this season tends to be fraught with stress and busier-than-usual schedules. The holidays pack a hectic punch for many, and cold weather unfortunately translates to more aches and illnesses.

As we saw with Fall, Chinese medicine has a special way to understand the season and provides a blueprint for healthy winter living. Here, we will dive into the season’s special attributes, associations, and lifestyle recommendations to put us on track for a blissful winter and kiss the usual blues goodbye.

Winter In Chinese Medicine
Here in the southern US, winter often conjures up visions of plummeting temperatures and soaring utility bills rather than sugarplum fairies.  This is all the more reason to get to know winter on a deeper level and tune-in to this special time of year.

Winter is the most yin of all the seasons. Fall transitioned us from blazing summer, now we are at the opposite side of summer’s yang: dark, cold, rest, slow. Winter is associated with the element of water and the organ system of the Kidney and Urinary Bladder.

To consider what this means for us, health-wise, we need to understand the channel pathways of the Kidney and Bladder. The Kidney channel starts at the sole of the foot, then ascends up the inter leg, into the knees, and up the front of the body to the chest. The Bladder channel begins at the eye, then moves along the head, to the nape of the neck, then down each side of the back, into the sacrum, and down the back of the legs, ending at the pinkie toe. Both channels also connect internally in the regions of the low back and perineum.

As you can see, these two channels traverse a great portion of the body and can be involved in many different health issues. These often involve the musculoskeletal system and pain in the neck, back, hip, knee, ankle, or foot can worsen. In winter, the cold (and often damp) weather exacerbates these issues even further.

Along with it’s association with knee, foot, and joint pains, the Kidney is also the powerhouse of the body. Our vital energy comes from the Kidney (and the adrenals). Chronic stress is big trouble for the Kidney system. We all need to turn the dial down in winter and allow our Kidney system to rest. Unfortunately, many of us actually ramp things up in winter. This leads to quicker burn-out, sleep issues, anxieties, aches and pains, premature aging, and fertility issues.

The emotion of winter is fear and spirit is will. We can easily see how, before the age of reliable heating units and supermarkets, that winter was likely a time of fear. Will there be enough food? Can I survive? The will to live is required to make
it through this tougher season. This stills hold true in our modern times. Year-end is often a time of deadlines in business, worries about finances, conflict in relationships, and planning for the future. The unknown is an interesting concept for us humans and when the water element is out of balance, this idea causes fear rather than excitement. 

Common Complaints in Winter

Are you one who dreads winter because your symptoms always seem to be worse in the cold weather? This is a common complaint for many sufferer of back pain, knee pain, and other issues.

Because of the Kidney and Bladder’s connection to water metabolism, problems like edema, puffy faces, and mucus build-up are common in winter. Fertility and libido are also ruled by the Kidney. When the Kidney is weak, this
area often suffers. People notice low libido, sexual dysfunction, fertility struggles, or increased menstrual pain and other reproductive issues.

Low energy in general is a normal response to the slower, more restful winter season, but for some it becomes extreme. This is likely a sign that your Kidneys are taxed and your body needs to rest more and take on some of the recommendations that follow to really boost your system.

We touched on fear as the emotion attributed to winter, but the holidays and winter can be emotionally triggering for many of us. Family gatherings may stress you out or maybe the season leaves you feeling lonely. It is especially important to spend some extra time tending to your inner self during this season to help you navigate the emotional waters of this time.

Diet in Winter

I am a big advocate for eating with the seasons. Choosing the foods that are in season in your local area will not only help out your pocketbook, but will ensure that you are getting a well-grown, healthy product.

Winter is the time for warmth. Soups, stews, baked and roasted meals are your best friends in this season. This is the time to load up on heartier foods like root vegetables, full-fats, and lots of warming spices.

You still want to incorporate some fresh fruits and vegetables in winter, but these are best eaten either light cooked or with something warming alongside such as a comforting soup or hot cup of tea.

Avoid anything freezing or very cold like ice water or ice cream. Avoiding dairy in winter is very helpful for keeping the sniffly, dripping noses at bay.

Warming Winter Foods:
Parsnips, sweet potatoes, onions, leeks, carrots, squash, black beans, dates, berries, fish, beef, chicken, lamb, veal, rice, oats, barley, chickpeas, walnuts, pistachios, olive oil.

Sassy Winter Spices:
Black pepper, dried ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, rosemary, turmeric, star anise, nutmeg, fennel, garlic, paprika, chili 

Exercise in Winter 
In general, opt for slower, more restorative exercises over heavy cardio. Activities like yoga and tai chi are amazing for winter. If you are not much of a yogi, gentle stretching every morning is a great way to start the day and prevent aches and
pains in the colder weather. Walking and jogging are also great to promote healthy circulation and clear your head.

 

Mental and Emotional Care in Fall

Like fall, winter is the optimal time for introspection. We are more tuned into our inner worlds in winter, and it is natural to turn inward and think about our lives more deeply at this time. Use techniques like journaling or create a vision board.
Grab a cup of tea, a cozy blanket, and a box of old photographs. Allow yourself to retreat into the past and find gratitude in the experiences life has granted you.

The spring will bring a wide world of expansion and growth, so now is the time to start planting your seeds. Do you have a big goal you are working towards or need to make some major life changes? This is the time to settle in and create your plan so that you can take action when spring’s stimulating energy starts stirring things up in a few months. Now is the time to set your intentions for the new year.

If you do find that you slip into depression, anxiety, fear, or any other emotional sludge in winter time, you must adopt a practice that helps keep your head above water. Acupuncture can be amazing for emotional health and is recommended
especially in times of increased stress. Outside the treatment room, movement and meditation are the best medicine. Keep your gentle exercise habits at least 3 or 4 days per week. If you haven’t started a mediation practice yet, now is a great time! Download an app on your phone like Calm or Simple Habit, or try out this guided winter meditation.

Meditation is a fantastic practice to start any time of year, but with fall’s internal focus, this can be a particularly helpful time of year to begin meditating regularly. 

 

Take Care and Prevent

At the heart of Chinese medicine is prevention. As practitioners, we are always striving not only to fix our patient’s problems, but to prevent other issues from showing up down the road. When using the principles of Chinese medicine in your own life, the same is true.

Taking extra self-care time in winter will keep you healthy so that you can enjoy all the best of the season AND set yourself up for success for the oncoming year. Regular acupuncture helps to keep the winter woes at bay, so it’s best to stay on top of your treatment plan throughout the rush of the holidays.

Rest is the name of the game in winter. Carve out time for meditation, reading, napping or just an extra long peaceful morning coffee. It is amazing what can happen when you allow yourself a break. When the mind settles and the body is cared for, you are much more open to new ideas and happier perspectives. And you deserve that! Make this your best winter yet!

 

 

Written by Heather Schuerlein

Dr. Heather Schuerlein is a licensed acupuncture physician and doctor of acupuncture and oriental medicine in the state of Florida. She combines her practical knowledge with over a decade of clinical experience to help guide her patients on their healthcare path.

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