A Chinese Medicine Guide to Winter

Winter is a season of stillness. The drop in temperature and reduction of light is nature’s way of nudging us to slow down, too. Winter is Yin in nature; it is subdued, introspective, slow. Flowers and leaves disappear, days become shorter, animals hibernate—all signs that we’re entering an inward time of rest. What seeds can we sow now in anticipation of spring? How we choose to utilise this cold and dark period will lay the groundwork for the remainder of the year.

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), winter is associated with the kidneys, which store Qi (energy) in the body so that it can be drawn upon when we need it most most in times of stress, change, or illness. Rest is essential in revitalising the kidneys, so winter is a time to consolidate and conserve our Qi.

TCM has it that we are at our best physically, mentally and spiritually when we live in alignment with the seasons. Below, our guide to optimal health as winter begins.

Food

When it’s cold and dark outside, winter offers the perfect opportunity to spend time at home cooking warming meals to savour on your own or share with loved ones. TCM recommends a moderate amount of alcohol in the evenings, too; a glass of wine or dash of liquor with hot water keeps the blood warm and flowing.

Opt for foods that are slow cooked at low temperates: hearty soups, rich stews, strengthening broths, comforting congee. Salt is the flavour associated with winter, so add a pinch of sea salt flakes to season. Steer clear of raw foods as much as possible in winter as they cool the body and can hinder digestion during this time. Likewise, reach for warming drinks like hot ginger tea or chai over cold/chilled beverages.

Vegetables: pumpkin, potatoes, root vegetables, winter greens, carrots, cabbage, mushrooms, dark leafy greens
Fruits: apples, pears, persimmons, quinces, rhubarb
Legumes and nuts: black beans, kidney beans, walnuts, chestnuts, black sesame seeds
Herbs: basil, chives, coriander, dill, fennel, parsley, rosemary
Spices: garlic, ginger, cinnamon, cumin, anise, cloves, black pepper

Fitness

Winter is about striking a balance between downtime and movement. It can be tempting to forgo exercise altogether in winter, but our bodies need some level of activity to stimulate Qi. Avoid intense exercise; it’s thought that profuse sweating can open the pores and cause energy to leak from the body, when it should ideally be conserved in winter. Incorporate long, slow movements such as yin yoga, gentle stretching, light walks, cycling, jogging or dancing and cardio workouts that strengthen the lower body like lunges and squats. Try to take it outdoors where possible to soak in sunlight and crisp air.

Self-Care

Just as the natural world around us is still, winter invites us to look into our depths, not shying away from our dark side and instead sitting with it. Due to this introspective tone, winter can be a good time to begin therapy or self-healing. Turning your attention inwards to self, engage in quiet and contemplative self-care practices like writing, meditating, reading and keeping a journal. Support yourself by remaining physically warm; sit by a fire, snuggle up in bed, and pay extra attention to keep the soles of the feet warm as this is where the kidney meridian begins.

Relationships

Ears are the sensory organ related to the kidney so, unsurprisingly, we can take this as a cue for deep listening in our relationships during winter. We are often quick to fill in silences or provide our own point of view and counterargument in conversation, but winter is an ideal time to practice active listening and let others talk at their own pace, coming to their own conclusions without interruption. In winter it’s important not to feel guilty in prioritising me-time over socialising. The end goal is preserving your energy.

Sleep

Rest is imperative in winter, so sleep is essential. Get more than usual in winter to reap the healing benefits of a good night’s sleep. To help preserve your Qi, it’s recommended to go to bed an hour or so earlier than usual and to sleep in a bit later, rising after the sun has had time to warm up your surroundings. Keep the body warm and cosy in bed, surrounding yourself with soft textures like throw rugs and duvets.

Cheat Sheet

  • Season: Winter
  • Element: Water
  • Yin Organ: Kidney
  • Yang Organ: Bladder
  • Emotion: Fear
  • Sound: Groaning
  • Colour: Blue and Black
  • Healing Sound: Wooo
  • Mantra: Surrender to stillness

Photo by Andy Goldsworthy (Ice Spiral Tree Soul, 1987) and words by Really Well

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