Happy New Year everyone! January is flying by and with El Nino we definitely have colder “winter” weather here in So Cal. I want to start the new year off with tips to improve and sustain your health during the coldest of seasons. Anyone out there complaining of perpetual cold hands and feet? What about issues with chronic back pain, fear, low energy or infertility? If so, then your kidneys may be weaker and this is the best time to strengthen them, as your kidney energy is highest during the winter season. Winter is the most yin of all seasons. Remember, yin is darkness, cold, inward, and slow energy (review the principles of yin and yang here). It is the opposite of summer, the most yang time of the year, where things happen quickly and we tend to be more physically active.
To integrate with winter, we should be more receptive and introspective. This is the time to listen to others’ advice and ideas. You may find that someone has something useful to share with you. With the new year, it is also the best time to look at the goals we are setting for the year and how we can better reach them. The yin principle also emphasizes resting, storing and saving, physically, mentally, and even financially. Are you saving for a house? Are you training for a marathon? While slow yin processes predominate during winter, we should still stay active to keep these goals in motion.
Here are basic concepts based on Chinese medicine/philosophy to remember about the winter season:
- Five elements: Water
- Organs: Kidneys and Bladder
- Sense Organ: Ears/Hearing
- Tissue: Bones
- Emotion: Fear and fright
- Voice Sound: Groaning
- Fluid Emitted: Urine
- Paramita (Way to correct imbalance): Keeping moral precepts
- Enviromental Influence: Cold
- Development: Storing
- Color: Black/Dark
- Taste: Salty
- Direction: North
Winter and Our Kidneys
The number one thing to do to revitalize and energize our kidneys is to rest. The kidneys are the batteries to our bodies and we are born with a finite amount of energy (review the concept of kidneys and our jing/essence here). This is also why we see animals slowing down by hibernating through the winter. They rest, save, and store their energy so they have enough to work and gather during the warmer months. We can also “hibernate” by looking inward through meditating and writing (i.e. doing less physical exertion and using our mental skills more).
The kidney channel originates at the bottom of our feet so if you are prone to cold feet (literally and figuratively) wearing socks and or slippers to keep your feet warm will help strengthen your kidneys. Figuratively, those who lack motivation or get “cold feet” also have weaker kidneys as your kidneys dictate motivation and courage.
Our bones are most affected by the health of our kidneys, so it’s important to ensure we are getting enough Vitamin D (for absorption of calcium) and magnesium. Our jing and essence become depleted with prolonged stress, working long hours, poor sleep, and excessive drug and alcohol use. Warm soups and bone broths are great to eat during winter to ensure strong bones and to restore our energy.
Winter Foods and Preparation
Foods should be cooked longer, at lower temperatures and with less water during winter. This way, we are able to retain the nutrients in our foods. Warm soups, whole grains, and roasted nuts (especially almonds and walnuts – great for your cholesterol!) are perfect to eat on cold days. Avoid cold and raw salads as our goal is to warm the body’s core. Dried foods, dark beans, seaweeds, and steamed winter greens strengthen the kidneys in the winter.
Flavors for Winter
Salty and bitter foods are appropriate to eat during the winter (if you have high blood pressure then salty foods should be limited). Salty and bitter foods promote a sinking and centering quality which helps our body’s capacity to store nutrients. They help cool the outside of our body while warming the core.
Bitter foods are usually not completely bitter, but have a component of bitterness combined with other flavors (review the five flavors here). Bitter foods include lettuce, watercress, endive, turnip, celery, asparagus, alfalfa, carrot top, rye, oats, quinoa, and amaranth. Bitter flavors are protective on some foods such as citrus peels and the outermost leaves of cabbage.
Salty foods include miso, soy sauce, seaweeds, salt, millet, and barley. Salt is usually over-represented in the western diet while bitter flavors are under-used. I typically recommend less salt in foods as excess salt can actually harm the kidneys and bladder causing more internal coldness. For those who are still cold after eating salty and bitter flavors, I suggest adding warming foods to your diet. See the photo gallery below for common warming foods! Happy winter!