“IN WINTER THE BARE BOUGHS THAT SEEM TO SLEEP WORK COVERTLY, PREPARING FOR THEIR SPRING.”
The thought of Winter might bring to mind images of still and snowy landscapes, relaxing days on skis and skates or perhaps a bear slumbering away in the safety of its den. In nature, Winter is a season of quiet, of storage, of renewal and a preparation for the rebirth of Spring. It is a time where the lifegiving energy of plants goes inward and many animals burrow away in states of hibernation to rest and await the exuberance of a new season.
WHY IS THE WINTER SEASON ESSENTIAL FOR VITALITY?
In our modern world where productivity is often praised as the highest goal, the quiet rhythms of winter may not often be valued. Wisdom traditions however have long known that winters’ rest and restoration is a prerequisite for summers bounty. One might say that winter holds the potential for summers growth in its storehouses of water and nutrients. If you doubt the truth in this, talk to any seasoned farmer or gardener and they’ll be quick to affirm that any patch of ground that isn’t amended and allowed to rest won’t be worth “a hill of beans”.
Similarly, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has long understood that without proper rest and renewal our health will begin to fail. Taking the cue from nature, TCM prioritizes the Winter season to focus on restoration and highlights the importance of nourishing two organ systems in particular, the Kidneys and the Urinary Bladder. In TCM both organs are associated with the Water element, their renewal analogous to filling of lakes and reservoirs or a deepening snowpack in order to nourish growth in the hot days of Summer. From a Western Biomedical viewpoint, the association of the kidneys and bladder to water will perhaps make intuitive sense as both organs are involved in fluid metabolism and urine production. The kidneys remove waste products from the blood and send them via urine to the bladder which marvelously expands to store this waste until we reach the nearest loo. However. There’s more to the story…
THE ROOT SYSTEM…
In TCM the kidneys are also grouped with the adrenal glands and are collectively regarded as the roots or energy storehouses of the body, that govern growth, bone health, reproduction and aging in the body. A quick review of modern physiology will help remind us why the ancients held these organs in such high esteem and prioritized the importance of their revitalization.
The adrenal glands, also known as the suprarenal glands as they sit atop the kidneys, produce an array of valuable hormones including cortisol, DHEA, epinephrine, norepinephrine and aldosterone that regulate:
- immune function
- metabolism and healthy weight
- blood pressure
- response to stress
The kidneys also serve a variety of critical functions including:
- filtering the blood and removing waste products from the body via urine
- removing toxins and drugs from the body
- modulating the levels of potassium, calcium, sodium and phosphorus.
- balancing the fluids in the skin and rest of the body
- releasing hormones that regulate blood pressure
- producing an active form of vitamin D that promotes strong, healthy bones
- releasing hormones that control the production of red blood cells
When the adrenal glands, kidneys or bladder are in states of dysfunction a myriad of debilitating conditions can ensue including: osteoporosis, nerve damage, high blood pressure, nutritional problems, cardiovascular disease, extreme fatigue, urinary disease, hormone imbalance and even life-threatening kidney failure.
*Getting to bed well before midnight and allowing yourself as much sleep as you need.
* Giving yourself permission to take breaks and short naps as needed
* Letting go of tasks or relationships that are energy drains
* Getting massage, acupuncture or other bodywork to help support your body’s built in systems of renewal
* Planning a day or weekend away by yourself or with an encouraging companion where the only goal is to simply enjoy and unwind…no work allowed!
REPLENISH YOUR STORES WITH NOURISHING FOODS:
*Make soup the star of supper:
Focus on rich and warming organic bone or root broth – based soups. These one – pot meals provide vitamins, minerals and collagen to help energize and nourish bones, joints, skin, smooth muscle (your bladder thanks you!) teeth and raw materials to support healthy organ function.So, load up that slow cooker with quality raw materials in the morning and ladle up a heaping, hot bowl to enjoy fireside come evening!
*Include dark colored produce and grains in your diet:
You’ve likely heard the nutritional advice to “eat the rainbow”, which is wise as various colors of plants contain different phytochemicals with unique nutritional benefits. In TCM, Winter is associated with the colors black and blue (picture the depths of the ocean) and is a time to highlight the antioxidant rich plants such as blue and blackberries, black rice and sesame seeds, dark leafy greens and beans, dark purple cabbages and cauliflower, dark mushrooms and seaweeds. These dark pigmented plants contain the highest amounts of antioxidants called anthocyanins, which are incredibly cell protective, prevent urinary and other infections, aid detoxification, lower cholesterol and are powerful cancer fighters. The value of these rich pigments is not recent news, in ancient China black rice was so valued for its nutritional content that it was forbidden for anyone to eat except for the Emperors…and thus it developed its alias as “forbidden rice”. Thankfully this superfood is available to even us commoners these days!
*Bring on the bitters!
The bitter flavor is often left out in the standard western diet in favor of sugar or salt. This is unfortunate as bitter compounds have a slew of health benefits. TCM holds that bitter flavors have a downward and clearing action. Probably the most familiar application of this are digestive bitter tinctures that sometimes show up in aperitifs. This time old tradition was and is still used because upon tasting bitter compounds our digestive systems begin to excrete acid, enzymes and bile in preparation to digest whatever meal was to follow. But bitters go beyond digestion. Bitter compounds have also been shown to help regulate immune function and to help improve the detoxification capability of the kidneys and liver! Great! How do you work these helpful compounds in? They are found in great amounts in leafy greens, root vegetables and in the skins of citrus fruit. Unsure of how to use citrus peel? Try including the zest of citrus in your favorite dressings or dishes, add some orange or tangerine peel when brewing herbal tea or simply eat a bit of the natural “wrapper” with that next delicious orange.
Allow your adrenal glands a chance to be restored by minimizing caffeine and refined sugars, both of which cause excess cortisol releases, taxing the precious adrenals. Stick to one cup of coffee or caffeinated tea in the morning when your cortisol naturally peaks and if you want a second cup, switch to warming herbal teas such as ginger, cinnamon, clove or orange that are nourishing but don’t cause cortisol spikes and adrenal depletion.
We are designed to move daily for health, but winter is a time to focus on moving in ways that conserve and restore energy. Consider the following …
*Reduce the intensity of your workouts at least one-two days per week to allow for repair and recovery
*Include practices such as yoga, qi gong or stretching that serve to balance, strengthen and restore the body, mind spirit connection
*Practice self-massage – soak your feet in mineral or Epsom salts (skip if prone to loose stools as Epsom salts are laxatives) and follow up with massage by rolling a golf or tennis ball on the soles of your feet. This acupressure technique will help to bring balance to the entire body and strengthen both the kidneys and bladder as their nerve pathways run through the soles of your feet. Spend a little extra time massaging Kidney 1, also known as Bubbling Springs using the guide for location. In TCM this point is well known for its ability to for cleanse, rejuvenate and awaken up the entire body.
In TCM the ears are associated with kidney health so the relative quiet of winter is an excellent time to nourish your spirit via reflective questioning and listening. Spiritual traditions have long known that without these intentional and meditative “pauses” it is difficult to be aware of and learn from where we’ve been in order to thoughtfully decide where we’d like to go.
In your reflections you might consider the following meditations…
*What slowing and nurturing rhythms help me to feel calm, peaceful and nourished? How can I be intentional to engage one of these practices this week ?
*What draining habits or relationships am I being invited to let go of or address that I might rest and experience peace more completely? What is a next step I can take toward being free of these obstacles in order to experience restoration?
*What tools, support or perspective do I desire to help develop more resilience to stressors?Whether you’re already engaging in restorative practices or haven’t even begun to consider them, be encouraged that any ways you choose to replenish your well of reserves today will provide refreshment come Spring and Summer. Purpose to include even one small, 2 minute change this week that can intentionally nourish your mind, body and spirit!
NOTE: As with all our posts, the information presented here is not intended for diagnosis or treatment. If you are need of support in your healing journey, please don’t hesitate to reach out for our help. We’d be happy to schedule an appointment or give you referrals as needed. You are not alone!