“During the winter months all things in nature wither, hide, return home, and enter a resting period, just as lakes and rivers freeze and snow falls. This is a time when yin dominates yang. Therefore one should refrain from overusing the yang energy. Retire early and get up with the sunrise, which is later in winter. Desires and mental activity should be kept quiet and subdued. Stay warm, avoid the cold, and keep the pores closed. Avoid sweating. The philosophy of the winter season is one of conservation and storage. Without such practice the result will be injury to the kidney energy.”
~Maoshing Ni, PhD, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine, page 6
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), winter is ruled by the water element, which is associated with the kidneys, urinary bladder, and adrenal glands. The kidneys are referred to as the ‘Root of Life’, the source of all Qi (energy) in the body. They store our reserve energy, to be used in times of stress, healing, preventing illness, aging gracefully, and rule over our reproductive functions. This coincides with the Western understanding of the kidney/adrenal functions, which regulate our ability to handle stress, our energy levels, and our sexuality.
Rest and Rebuild
Winter is the time of year where our yang energy moves inward, and our yin energy dominates. This is the perfect time of year to focus on introspection, being receptive, storage of energy and resources, spending time with family, and savoring slow-cooked foods such as soups, root vegetables, and whole grains. We should keep our body core warm, and not expose ourselves to excessive cold. This is the time of year to rest, and rebuild our physical and spiritual selves. Reflective writing, reading, and quiet activities that nourish us spiritually are important.
The emotion related to the Water element is Fear. While a little fear can help keep us safe, excessive fear is depleting to the kidneys. It manifests as generalized insecurity and feelings of fearfulness, which in turns blocks our ability to feel and express love and joy (the primary expressions of the heart). We should avoid intentionally causing fear, instead focusing on being calm and peaceful. Meditation is a wonderful practice to enhance our feelings of centeredness and calm. Whether it is sitting quietly for an hour, taking five minutes to focus on our breathing, or other mindfulness practices, now is a good time to focus on them.
Salty and bitter flavors are appropriate for the winter months, promoting a centering quality to our foods, which encourages our capacity for storage. These foods cool the exterior of the body while warming the interior, allowing us to adapt to the colder weather. One must use salt cautiously though, as too much will cause coldness and retention of water, which weakens the kidneys and heart. Protecting the kidney-heart connection is vital, and can be accomplished by adding bitter foods into the diet, as this flavor is said to enter the heart.
Most bitter foods also have other flavor qualities. Foods such as lettuce, watercress, endive, turnip, broccoli, kale, celery, asparagus, scallion, rye, oats, quinoa, and amaranth are good this time of year. Citrus peels are also bitter in nature, and can be used to enhance dishes. Herbs tend to have the strongest bitter qualities – herbs such as chicory root, burdock root, and horsetail. Chicory can be found in some coffees. Typical kitchen herbs that have a bitter quality are basil, cardamom, fenugreek seed, marjoram, marigold, oregano, parsley, white pepper, sage, savory, thyme, and turmeric. Small, regular amounts of bitter foods in the diet are better than large, strong, infrequent doses.
Salty foods include soy sauce, miso, seaweeds, salt, millet, and barley. Many types of seafood are salty, including abalone, anchovy, clams, crab, lobster, mussels, oysters, sardines, and scallops. Duck is considered slightly salty, as is pork (ham is very salty). Garlic is a good addition to the salty foods. Use in moderation, and be cautious with prepared foods, as they tend to have an excess of salt added.
Bone broth is often touted as a wonderful restorative, and it is. It is highly nourishing, especially for the kidneys. It is an excellent source of minerals, and can boost the immune system and improve digestion. It can be made from the bones of ox, beef, bison, lamb, poultry, or fish, and vegetables and spices are often added. Use whatever is readily available in your area, and what suits your taste. No matter how nutritious bone broth maybe, it won’t do any good if you won’t eat it! You can save the leftovers from a roasted chicken or turkey, or get your bones from the local butcher.
Recipe for Bone Broth
2 pounds of bones
1 onion – chopped
2 carrots – chopped
2 stalks celery – chopped
1 Tablespoons of apple cider vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
If you are using raw bones, you will have a richer flavor if you roast them in the oven first. Place in roasting pan and roast for 30 – 45 minutes at 350 degrees.
Place bones in large stock pot. Cover with water and add the vinegar. Add in the chopped vegetables, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer on low for up to eight hours. For the first few hours a foam will rise to the top; skim it off as needed and continue to cook.
During the last 30 minutes of cooking you can add a couple cloves of garlic, if desired.
Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Remove the bones and vegetables using a metal straining spoon. You will know the broth is done if it starts to gel when it cools. Can be stored in the refrigerator for up to five days, or in the freezer for up to three months.
If you want to make into a heartier soup, add cooked rice and/or vegetables to taste after broth is strained.
Finding quiet, calming activities, and focusing on self-nurturing are essential to maintain optimal health during the winter. Getting sufficient sleep, resting when needed, and eating wholesome foods allows us to build up reserves so that we are ready for the growth and uprising energy of Spring. Catch up on those books you’ve wanted to read. Keep a journal, or explore some creative writing. Spend time with family and friends, sharing hearty soups and breads. We do not have to give in to the constant demands to go-go-go, but can find a little time each day to just BE.
~Cyndi Bartlett, LAc.