Winter is hard. It’s cold, messy, and takes some getting used to. Every fall, I get into a little funk thinking about what’s to come in the months ahead—the snow, lack of sunlight, and chipping ice off my windshield. When you really think about it, winter pretty much sucks.
However, it also serves a purpose. In Chinese medicine winter is more important than simply being a season to get through. Each season has an inherent task, and while in the fall we are meant to eat the harvested bounty to prepare for the coming cold, in winter our job is to conserve and consolidate our energy, as well as look inward—it prepares us physically and emotionally for the coming spring and year ahead.
While you may think of staying healthy during the winter in terms of not catching every cold or flu that’s going around, there is actually more you can do to improve your health as you get through the cold and dark days of winter. Among them:
-Conserve your energy. There are a number of jobs that your body undertakes, and all of them require energy, or Qi. It takes energy to keep warm, digest food, power your immune system, and keep your muscles moving. Just the simple act of maintaining your body temperature in the winter demands more energy than at any other time of the year. So slow down, get a little more rest, and make sure you’re getting plenty of good quality sleep.
-Help your immune system out. When it seems like everyone around you is coughing and sneezing, wash your hands. A lot. Wash them even if people aren’t sick. And try to keep your hands away from your face—your eyes, nose, and mouth act like a special delivery conduit for any viruses or bacteria lingering on doorknobs and keyboards. In addition, if you’re feeling especially run down, stressed out or overwhelmed, take good care by eating well and taking a little more time for yourself.
-Take care of your Chinese Kidney system. In Chinese medicine, each organ is associated with a season. Winter is the time of year most associated with nourishing your Kidney, which is the organ system most closely linked with your overall body constitution. Your Kidney becomes depleted by chronic stress, working too hard, lack of sleep, and burning the candle at both ends. Symptoms associated with Kidney depletion can include overwhelming fatigue (adrenal fatigue) a stiff or achy lower back and/or knees, hair loss, hearing problems, osteoporosis, and premature aging. The single most important thing you can do to keep your Kidney healthy is to deal with highly stressful situations in your life.
-Eat for the season—and the health of your Kidney. In general, foods that are cooked longer are easier to digest and more warming energetically. A salad full of greens and raw vegetables is fine during the height of the summer, but in the winter a stew or hearty soup will serve you better. In addition, choose foods that are a little more substantial like root vegetables, squash, and beans. Black foods, such as black sesame seeds, sea vegetables, darkly colored vegetables, black or kidney beans, and walnuts are especially beneficial to your Chinese Kidney. Be sure to include warming herbs, such as ginger and cinnamon in your recipes, and opt for warm drinks like tea or warm cider.
-Stay warm. If you’re like me and go through winter feeling chronically cold, try warming your core. The easiest way is with a heating pad or heated rice bag placed either at the small of your back or right below your navel. Heating for five or ten minutes a couple of times a day can stoke your internal pilot light and actually make you feel warmer.
-Pay attention to the light. During the day, try to make some time to get outside or sit in a sunny window. If that’s not possible, enlist the help of a full-spectrum light. In addition, respect that the longer nights are nature’s way of telling you to get a little more sleep.
-And finally, take some time to look inward. Reflect on the events of the past year and the choices you’ve made, and look forward to the coming year and the return of the light. This time of contemplation is often the impetus for making changes and resolutions in the year to come.
The theme for surviving winter is to rest a little more, eat a little heartier, stay warm, look inward, and conserve your energy. In a few months you’ll need that energy to get outside and enjoy the longer, warmer, more expansive days of spring!