Winter weather is settling in here in Walla Walla, WA. As we bundle up and cuddle up in the evenings, it reminds me that winter represents a very important season in Chinese and East Asian medicine. Each season has strong ties to specific organ systems and acupuncture meridians in East Asian medicine. The way we adjust and live in each season can directly affect these organ systems and our health.
Winter is the season of the Kidneys (note: I intentionally capitalize Kidneys. It is a larger concept than the mere physical organs themselves, and capitalized in our textbooks on Traditional Chinese Medicine). The Kidneys in East Asian medicine hold the fire of life, our vitality, and the vigor that was given to us during conception from our parents. Besides filtering the blood and creating urine, they are in charge of our bones, teeth, low back, knees, and how early or late our hair turns grey. Emotionally they are in charge of fear and terror.
If your Kidneys become fatigued, then you may start to experience unexplained fear and/or terror or paranoia associated with fear. The cognitive function of the Kidneys is considered your will. The will to live. The will to create new habits. The color associated with the Kidneys is black. The flavor associated with them is salty. The element associated with them is water. If you take these concepts out into nature, the Kidneys have a strong relationship to those forces that both nourish life and endanger it. For instance, the ocean has a mysterious, mystical draw for many of us. In its depths, the water gets very dark, as light can only penetrate the ocean to a certain level. It can be a joy to swim, snorkel, and surf in. But if you have ever been surfing or swimming in a large swell, you know that in an instant the waves can hold you down with a powerful strength. Water created the grand canyon by persistently flowing towards the ocean. It is this type of strength and persistence that inform the quality of will associated with the Kidneys and East Asian medicine.
When your Kidneys get fatigued, any number of symptoms can arise. You may experience:
- mild, low back pain that becomes chronic
- have a tendency to ‘throw your back out’
- achey knees
- low libido
- peeing frequently
- an increase in waking up to pee at night
- feeling afraid more easily or easily startle
- you may have difficulty staying asleep at night
- general fatigue
- feelings of depression and lethargy
- low pitched ringing in the ears
- unexplained agitation
- dark circles under the eyes
- difficulty feeling safe
- For women: painful, scanty periods, or no periods (called amenorrhea)
- For men: erectile dysfunction
These symptoms can be mild or severe and are generally considered a warning sign that some lifestyle changes and acupuncture may be necessary.
What you can do at home and during winter:
Since winter is the season of the Kidneys, winter is considered the best time of year to strengthen and nourish your Kidneys. According to East Asian medicine your winter lifestyle sets the tone for your health in the following year, especially the spring.
Eat black foods: Since black is the color of the Kidneys, black foods such as black wood ear mushrooms, Shitake mushrooms (considered black in East Asian medicine), black beans, black rice, black sesame seeds, and hijiki seaweed are all thought to nourish and strengthen the Kidneys.
I like to keep a large bottle of black sesame seeds around and use them as a garnish on nearly everything during the winter.
Eat Bone Broth:
Bones are the tissue of the Kidneys, so ‘eating’ bones via bone broth is one of the optimal ways to strengthen the Kidneys in Chinese medicine. Bone broth absorbs minerals and nutrients from the bones and any vegetable matter that you add to your broth. These nutrients are easily absorbed and digested by your gastrointestinal tract. Bone broth is considered a vital part of a winter diet. Besides nourishing your kidney vitality, bone broth can be exceptionally helpful for individuals struggling with various gastrointestinal disorders, as it provides easy to digest nutrients.
Below is an excellent recipe based on the book :Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon.
Honor the Urge to Hibernate — AKA Rest:
Winter is historically a time to rest and rejuvenate. The nights are longer. It gets dark earlier and stays dark later. If we lived without the modern conveniences of electricity and artificial light, we would naturally be sleeping more in the winter.
Besides getting adequate sleep, winter is a time of both internal withdraw and reflection. It is a great time to continue or start a meditation practice or to spend time reflecting in general. It is also an exceptional season to set aside time to ponder your goals, both big and small. Do you have goals? Where are you in the process of achieving those goals? Are there new goals that should replace or join previous goals?
It is important to acknowledge if you feel healthy in your body, and consider adding goals for health, if your health has taken a back seat recently. We often put health on the back burner, but if our health fails, it becomes incredibly difficult to achieve any of your other goals in life.
Reflection also does not have to be all about goals. It can be a time to remember the important relationships, memories, and interactions that you have had in your life. Mentally honoring roll models and loved ones who have passed will continue to inform how you currently live.
All of this takes time, rest, and relaxation. I encourage you to create the restful space this winter to allow for reflection that nourishes you. You may even notice your back pain start to fade away.
Ultimately, the goal of nourishing the Kidneys in winter requires a break from a fast-paced, stressful life. When you give ourselves a season to rest, we can sustain more activity during seasons that are more appropriate for high levels of action, such as the spring and summer.