Updated: Apr 5
TCM: In general, each season is assigned a particular organ (spring – liver; summer – heart; late summer – spleen; autumn – lungs) and winter is the season associated with the Kidneys. The theory behind TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) is that we should be living in harmony with the seasons. This means eating seasonal foods and doing things in accordance to the energies of the seasons that we find ourselves in. Naturally in the dark and cold of winter, we slow down and we tend to seek warmth and places to rest and sleep. That’s our body’s natural body and circadian rhythms telling us to conserve energy for the cold months of scarcity to come. Similarly, the Kidney organs, being defined as “the root” of the body, tend to help us slow down and conserve energies. Think of trees shedding their leaves and siphoning all their energies deep down into the roots of the earth – this is what the energetic tendencies of the winter tend to make us want to do and since the kidneys “sink and descend” our body’s natural qi (or energy cycles) downwards for storage, so too must our behaviour follow this. When we live in harmony with the energy of the season, we live in a way that is natural and doesn’t fight the direction of life.
Naturopathy: A healthy lifestyle is so important when it comes to supporting the immune system, especially in the winter months. Increased intake of green vegetables, understanding you stress, moving your body, and getting that sleep in consistently are great places to start. Also, let’s not forget about Vitamin D. As the we move into the winter months, the days are shorter and the sun is certainly less abundant. I often inquire about how much daily sun exposure my patients get (and it’s usually not a lot). Sufficient Vitamin D has anti-inflammatory affects, supports bone health and has an incredibly important role in supporting a healthy immune system. Set yourself up powerfully for the winter months by having your Vitamin D levels checked. Too much vitamin D can be just as harmful as too little.
Can managing one’s diet (i.e. eating the right kinds of food) be helpful in managing winter health?
TCM: Yes! This is where the idea of eating in season can be expanded on. It was mentioned earlier that the kidneys are “the root” of the human body and like the roots of a tree or plant, all the starches, sugars and fibers of the plant get stored in a bulk root-like structure deep in the ground where it naturally guards the nutrients deep in the earth so frost and snow cannot get at it to damage it. Eating roots and tubers is a great way to manage winter health as this particular food is found in abundance and is nutrient-dense – perfect for this time of year when leafy greens and delicate flowering tops cannot survive the harshness of winter. We eat these dense energies to “root down” and to get ourselves nourished in order to withstand the extreme icy frosts and snowstorms of the winter. Incorporating a larger portion of roots on your dinner plate can help our bodies assimilate and conserve the energy we get from these kidney qi nourishing tonic foods. Whereas eating a delicate dandelion green and bitter herb would cause us to release quantities of starchy sugars and fats in our bodies (more suitable for shaking off excess fats and starches from a winter of eating and storing), eating starchy carbohydrate dense roots in the dark of winter will help us lock in those nutrients that we will need to help us sustain our health when the weather gets cold.
Naturopathy: Absolutely! The foods that naturally grow in season such as squashes, root vegetables, hearty greens etc. are the most beneficial to us during any season! Be careful of consuming too many cold foods (i.e. all the smoothies and raw salads) in the winter and incorporate warming soups and stocks. Naturopathic medicine has always aligned with the TCM philosophy on this. Choose a variety of foods that you like, that grow seasonally and prepare them in a way that is easily assimilated.
What are good foods to eat or prepare for optimum wintertime functioning?
TCM: All sorts of roots and tubers are perfect for this time of year! Excellent examples would be: beets, parsnips, carrots (there are so many varieties of heirloom carrots available in the supermarket); the humble potato; rutabagas; celeriac root; turnips. All black coloured foods are generally considered Kidney enhancing foods because, according to TCM theory, black is associated with the season of winter as well and hence, has a special affiliation with kidneys. Eaten in moderate quantities in the winter, black coloured foods like: black sesame seeds, black beans, black soybeans, quinoa (there is a variety of black quinoa) – all these have kidney toxifying or strengthening properties. Salty foods are also allowed to be eaten to a moderate degree to nourish the kidneys. Each organ in TCM theory is associated with a particular taste and kidneys are associated with the taste and flavour of salty (the other organs and tastes are as follows: spleen – sweet; lungs – pungent/acrid/spicy; liver – sour; heart – bitter)
Naturopathy: A person’s nutritional status greatly affects their immune systems ability to respond. Eating a diet rich in antioxidants, polyphenols and flavonoids is a great way to support your immune system. Add garlic, which contains anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties. Be conscious to include foods that provide you with plenty of micronutrients and trace minerals such as Vitamin A, C, and E, zinc, selenium and iron. My favourite are Camu Camu and Amla extracts.
What sorts of foods should a person avoid that would detract from healthy winter living?
TCM: Certainly avoiding cold, raw and generally minimally prepared foods would be helpful as these foods, energetically speaking, require a fair amount of the body’s own internal heat to break down and then to assimilate. Body heat requires energy and since the Kidneys function as the body’s “battery pack” (as I like to refer to them as), you are taking a fair amount of energy that would have otherwise gone into storage and conservation for living through the cold weather and using it up to break down raw and difficult to digest down foods.
Naturopathy: Anything that can dampen the strength of the immune system. The usual suspects are refined sugars, inflammatory foods (i.e. your personal sensitivities, packaged foods, nightshade vegetables) and too much raw/cold food. The most important thing is to pay attention to your body. Are you bowel movements chaining? How is your energy? Ultimately, it’s about creating awareness of what your body is asking for.
Is there anything else that someone can also do to help boost one’s health during the cold winter months?
TCM: Keeping your body clock fairly regular is always a helpful thing to do. This is always difficult given the fact that we live in a 24 hour world where with the flick of a switch or the swipe of a button on our cell phone screen, we can wake ourselves out of a deep sleep and plunge immediately into a work day (even if we know biologically that we did not receive the adequate amount of rest). The season of winter contracts and slows down. We need to as well. That isn’t to say that we need to necessarily shut down and stop engaging with the world. We need to change how we engage with the world and be choosy on when. Generally speaking, we need to be more selective with where our winter storage energy goes – should we spend it aimlessly cruising through internet sites doing online shopping and watching mediocre TV shows or should we choose instead to spend less of that time doing just that and slowing down earlier instead, meditating and doing things that nurture our emotions and allow us time to sink deeper inwards as the earth does at this time of year?
Naturopathy: Movement & taking rest! I encourage patients to keep participating in moving their bodies, getting out of the house and not letting the winter cold impact their connection with community.
Keep your natural pharmacy stocked. Herbs such as Echinacea and Astragalus have been shown to have anti-viral properties and are immune modulating.
If you do experience a cold or flu, take the time to rest. It’s the kindest thing you can do for yourself (and those around you).
Are you interested in acupuncture or naturopathic medicine? Daryl Fang & Dr. Emily FitzGerald would be happy to answer your questions! Learn more on how Traditional Chinese Medicine and Naturopathic medicine can help you stay healthy this winter! Contact us to book a complimentary 15 minute consultation.
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