In East Asian Medicine (EAM) winter is the time to turn inward with meditative thoughts and conserve one’s energy. The winter’s energetic system is found in the Kidneys and manifests physically in the ears, lumbar spine and knees. Positive energy in this season reflects in a calm ability to handle stress with consistent focus and moderate energy throughout the day. Hearing can be more acute in the winter months, but the lower back and knees may experience more discomfort than in other times of the year. Some aspects of the Chinese medicine Kidney energetic can be seen in the biomedical kidney’s water metabolism, adrenal, reproductive and excretory functions . Through self-neglect or from prolonged stressors, people may find themselves anxious, irritable, fatigued and in some ways fearful or insecure. Since the cold slows the flow of blood and warmth to our extremities, activity should maintain continued circulation of the body’s fluids and proper joint relationships, as well as build our resources rather than deplete them.
Beneficial activities include Qi Gong, Tai Chi, low-intensity movement or corrective exercises. Pre-workout exercises designed to warm the body up should be done for longer duration than in the hotter times of the year. Outdoor activities should be during the warmer, sunnier parts of the day and kept at a shorter length of time.
The weather can creep into the body and aggravate old injuries, arthritis and other aches and pains. This is especially true for outdoor athletes such as runners, bikers and hikers who spend a lot of time exposed to the elements as well as our aging populations and younger children. Pain patterns manifest in different ways.
- Wind: marked by a decrease in range of motion and pain that changes location.
- Cold: fixed stabbing pain with spasms that does not usually have inflammation, is aggravated by cold and relieved by warmth.
- Damp: fixed and intense pain with a feeling of heaviness, numb skin and muscles that wet conditions may aggravate.
- Heat: not so common in the winter; characterized by local inflammation and/or redness in the joints or extremities, and may be aggravated by heat.
The wind is a carrier of other pathogens such as cold and dampness. Adequate clothing or protection is imperative. The yang parts of the body where most external pathogens enter and cause problems, such as the back and nape, should be covered. Normally our immune system (wei qi) is ample protection but chronic exposure, poor food choices and weaker or overworked constitutions create susceptibility. Enjoy foods that nourish the Kidneys and warm the interior of the body. Choices should include nourishing soups, broths and stocks, moderate spices and congees or porridge.
- Foods that nourish the Kidneys: black beans, grapes, bone broth, eel, quail, walnuts (hu tao ren), black sesame (hei zhi ma), Chinese yam (shan yao), goji berries (gou qi zi), seaweeds: sargassum (hai zao), kelp (kun bu) or other varieties
- Warm foods: lamb, deer, beef, chicken
- Warm spices and herbs: mild peppers, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, ginger (sheng jiang)
- Although salt guides to and nourishes the Kidneys, it is unnecessary to add copious amounts to our modern diets. Instead utilize seaweed, which is rich in iodine, and sea salts for cooking.
- Raw and cold foods make the body weaker by disrupting digestive processes. They include: iced drinks, ice cream, and excessive raw vegetables and fruits.
Overtraining or overworking in the winter will greatly affect your performance in the following season. Be aware of early signs and adjust your activities accordingly. Signs include – but are not limited to – a higher resting heart rate, decreased focus, mental fatigue, insomnia, mood swings, chronic muscle soreness, frequent injuries, delayed recovery, sensitive digestion, and/or unwanted weight loss or gain. Athletes and exercise enthusiasts who continue through the colder months of the year should follow these guidelines.
- Regular acupuncture and tui na treatments restore balance to the body and speed recovery.
- Warm-up sufficiently. Include the use of a foam roller and dynamic stretching.
- Avoid prolonged static or deep stretching at the beginning of workouts as this will cool the body down further, increasing the chance of injury.
- Stay hydrated and maintain adequate nutrition. The body sweats less in the cold and relies more on exhalation and urination to expel water and waste, which creates the illusion of hydration.
- Rest and be aware of signs of over-training.
By conserving energy, exercising moderately and eating well you can enjoy the season and ready yourself for a smooth transition and expansion into Spring.
For other articles on winter, see East Asian Medicine Winter.