As we move into the colder and darker months of winter, life on earth begins to draw its energies inward. This pilgrimage towards the center helps animals, plants, trees and insects to conserve their energies in preparation for the colder months ahead. What I love about traditional Chinese medicine is its emphasis on our relationship with the natural world. After all, we wouldn’t have survived as long as we have if we hadn’t developed a profound respect and understanding for the cycles of nature.
The human body is a miniature reflection of the universe, according to Chinese medicine. There are times we feel as expansive and abundant as summer; as conservative as the fall; as quiet and tranquil as winter; or as rejuvenated and inspired as the spring. And just like the seasons, these transformations within the body are equally unpredictable. In Chinese medicine, there are five elements fundamental to the cycles of nature that are reflected in the cycles of our bodies. They represent physiological processes that occur within each of us. The elements are Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. Each element is associated with an organ system, a season, an emotion, a color, taste and so on. They play an important role in not only our health and wellbeing, but also in our relationships with one another, our bodies and the planet.
As we leave the months of warmth, sunshine and abundance behind, the natural world begins to draw its energies quietly inward. Perhaps during this time of year it would be wise for us to follow suit; to take stock of what’s important in our lives and let go of the inessentials. This prepares us to conserve our energetic reserves for the colder months ahead. Wintertime can be a very spiritual time of year – not because of all the religious holidays, but because the natural world stands bare and exposed and becomes peacefully still. As the seasons change, we strive to find balance as we acclimatize energetically and physically to the changing weather.
The kidneys are the organ system associated with winter. It’s interesting to consider that we celebrate some of the most energetic holidays during this quiet time of year. We spend more money on gifts, get stressed out at the malls, indulge in sweets and alcohol, stay out late and travel more – not to mention some of the emotions that get triggered during this time of year. So it comes as no surprise that some of us are left feeling exhausted, depressed and unwell by the time winter is in full swing. Our adrenal system has been working overtime to support the energy we’ve spent during this time of year. The kidneys are considered the deepest organ, the root of yin and yang, and our internal “battery”. If it becomes unbalanced, many of our other organ systems will suffer. Digestion can become more unpredictable, our immune system compromised, and our sleep affected, to name a few of the possible reactions.
In Chinese medicine, nutrition not only reflects the individual’s needs but also the energetic needs of the season. When the weather is cold we want to be warm and deeply nourish ourselves from the inside out. Consuming root vegetables, hearty soups, whole grains and well-cooked foods helps to support our digestive system. Water is the element related to the kidneys and to winter. It represents our deepest reserves, reminding us to go with the flow and not to cause waves. To comfort and support the kidneys, try luxuriating in a warm sitz bath. Keeping our feet and lower back warm, also helps the circulatory system. And getting adequate sleep is essential not only to help us function during the day, but also because it’s the time our bodies regenerate, replenish and repair themselves.
Instead of fearing or loathing the winter, try looking at it as a time of rest and reflection, where the cold and dark nights move us to seek inner warmth. Cuddling in front of a crackling fire with a good book or some good friends is a great way to keep warm and inspired.