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The past months have delivered extremely cold arctic weather to much of the United States. With Groundhog Day behind us, experts forecast another six weeks of winter or more. In the face of this weather, bolstering immunity, protecting the heart and keeping spirits up are the main health concerns for most of us this time of year.
But there’s greater wellness, energy and vitality to be had during the winter, according to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). This elevated level of health can be reached by following time-honored practices that align us with nature, nourishing body, mind and spirit with the energies of each season.
In the winter, this means slowing down, deeply nourishing yourself and keeping warm and well rested. This allows us to plant the seeds for regeneration in the spring. While nature slows down and hibernates during the winter, the processes of transformation and growth have already begun internally.
The stillness of winter offers an ideal time for retrospection, meditation and reflection. But to do this we first need to slow down with the use of mind-body practices, relaxation or, best of all, regular meditation. This slowdown process naturally gives rise to hidden stuff that is often stuck under the surface of our daily activities: issues, thoughts or patterns we may have been avoiding with busyness. Simply allow these issues to arise, unfold and slip away as you calm your mind with relaxation, meditation and/or breathing practices.
Simple Meditation Instructions
One ancient method of meditation that is both simple and profound is called shamatha or “calm abiding.” Shamatha is a staple for both beginners and advanced meditators. Find a quiet place to sit and pick a small object such as a rock to place on the ground in front of you, where you can comfortably set your gaze. Focus your eyes and your breathing on the rock. As thoughts inevitably arise, simply acknowledge and then release them, letting them slip away with each out-breath. When your mind wanders off, gently bring your attention back to your breathing and the rock, visualizing each inhalation and exhalation going to and from the rock. Even just 10 minutes a day of this style of meditation has been shown to improve numerous markers of physical, mental and emotional health. This type of mind/heart medicine is an integral part of healing.
According to TCM, winter is associated with the element of water and influences the health of the kidneys, bladder, adrenal glands, bones (including bone marrow) and teeth. The kidneys are the primary source of vitality, energy and inner heat. Energy is drawn from this source during times of stress or when the body requires healing. During the cold seasons, it’s vital to maintain healthy kidneys and adrenal glands through proper diet, supplementation and good hydration, as well as energetic practices such as yoga and Tai Chi. These efforts help keep your core warm and well nourished.
Winter is an inactive, cold and damp season; in TCM it relates to feelings such as fear and depression. In Western medicine, many people are diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a particular form of depression/anxiety that occurs during the darker months and is linked to a lack of sunshine and vitamin D3. Women experience this condition more often than men, making them vulnerable to poor mood, lack of energy and weight gain.
In addition to supplementing with Vitamin D3, I recommend opening your curtains during the day to allow sunlight in. Take brisk walks (in the sunshine if possible) to improve circulation. Furthermore, simple meditation practices (such as the one discussed above) have been proven in clinical studies to work as well or better than pharmaceutical anti-anxiety or antidepressant medications.
Warm, Nourishing Foods
According to TCM, it is important to avoid too many raw foods during winter because they tend to cool the body and can deplete your digestive fire, the ability to assimilate food. Instead, emphasize warming foods cooked longer at lower temperatures.
Foods that help warm us internally include soups, stews, lamb, chicken, eggs, root vegetables, dark leafy greens, kidney beans, black beans, walnuts, black sesame seeds, whole grains and seaweeds. These foods help fortify your kidneys, uplift emotions, nourish your body, keep you warm and help you conserve energy. Dehydration is also an issue during the winter, since coldness draws away moisture (similar to freezer burn). Drink warm water; it is more hydrating than cold water. Aim for 8 to 10 cups per day.
Botanicals and nutrients that promote immune health during the winter are important for avoiding cold and flu. High quality medicinal mushrooms are potent immune modulators, along with vitamin C, zinc and vitamin D3. Other powerful immune supplements include Modified Citrus Pectin and a Tibetan Herbal Formula supported by more than three decades of clinical research. Purified Honokiol (magnolia bark extract) is excellent for mood and immune support, and a comprehensive digestive formula can keep digestion strong for optimal nourishment and warmth throughout the body. Other herbs emphasized by TCM in the winter include tonifying roots such as ginger and galangal for their warming, grounding and strengthening properties.
Acupuncture, Qi Gong (precise exercises to enhance the flow of vital energy), specific dietary recommendations and targeted herbal formulas all have great value during the winter. They help relieve stagnant energy caused by a lack of activity and cold weather, while enhancing immunity, increasing vitality and keeping your core warm. Practitioners of TCM also advise sleeping as much as possible during the winter to replenish the kidneys and restore essential energy. Getting to bed early and rising after the sun comes up helps preserve your warmth and vitality.
TCM reflects an innate connection to nature, with each season presenting opportunities for transformation, healing and growth. The winter season allows for deeper introspection and nourishment, so that our seeds and intentions can develop internally before they blossom in the spring. So stay warm, hydrated and nourished. Most of all, try to give yourself the extra time and space to slow down, rest and meditate in this beautiful season of stillness.
For more seasonal health information, visit www.dreliaz.org.