Chinese Medicine Concepts of Food, Energy & Seasonal Living

Winter is the season of retreat and rest, when the yin (night, female, cold) is now dominant and yang (day, male, hot) energy moves inward. The trees have lost their leaves; the animals hibernate through the long, dark winter days. Winter is a time of stillness and quiet, amplifying any sound there is.

The ability to listen clearly at this time of year is sharpest… not only listening through conversation, but listening to your own body and comprehending its needs, as well as having a deeper understanding of yourself and your interactions with others

Winter is a time of gentle celebration where nutritious and warming food and family connection is promoted. Hence, many cultures have their biggest family/food festival of the year in this season – cozy gatherings promoting interaction with friends and family with plenty of warming, comforting foods and moderate amounts of warming liqueur.

On stormy or windy days, stay indoors when possible. The body qi needs to be conserved by keeping warm but not hot. Take care not to sit too close to the fire or by avoiding sweating when taking a hot showers or baths as the pores of the skin open and yang qi is easily lost. Keeping life simple and avoiding excessive lifestyles in winter is emphasized in Chinese medicine by this saying:

“Staying seventy percent warm, seventy percent satisfied with food, eating lots of root vegetables and cabbage will make you strong and healthy”

Chinese countryside proverb

How to Dress in Winter
Exercise in Winter

Warming foods help maintain the qi and nourish yang, including cabbage, carrots, red beans, potatoes, cereals, walnuts and chestnuts. One glass of good quality wine or a tot of whiskey each day after the evening meal helps the circulation of yang within the body and helps drive out the cold energy.

Cold

The cold from winter can easily leech into our bodies. Cold causes things to slow down and contract, which can make us even colder. This can typically show up in winter as poor circulation, aches and pains, asthma, arthritis or colitis.

Winter pain in the knees, whether it is arthritic or not, can often be eased by foods that support the Kidneys, since the Kidney’s are related to the knees. 

Foods for 'cold' Abdominal Pain in Winter

The Organs of Winter

Winter is the season related to the water element and the organs associated are the Kidneys and Bladder, both of which are sensitive to cold. The Kidneys are considered to be the gate of life, storing our essence, regulating reproduction and development, fluid distribution and our longevity is directly related to the health of our Kidneys. It seems impossible to be too good to the Kidneys in Chinese medicine and supporting them becomes increasingly important as we get older.

In our lives, the health of our Kidneys can be seen in our hair and experienced through the sense of our hearing. Hair loss, premature graying or split-ends all signal Kidneys that could do with a boost. Bone marrow is linked with the Kidneys as are problems with the knees, lower back and teeth. Many ear problems can be linked to the Kidneys and the health of our Kidneys directly impacts on reproduction and sex drive.

Pork Kidney is often used to treat old age deafness

The Bitter & Salty Flavour

This gets a little confusing in Chinese medicine, as the winter season is clearly related with the Kidney’s and the water phase, which is associated with the salty flavor. However, at this time of year, we are in encouraged to be moderate with salty foods and increase bitter flavors.

One should nourish heart qi by decreasing salty foods and increasing bitter ones

More on the Salty Flavor and Winter
What is the Action of Bitter & Examples of Bitter Foods

Deficient Kidney Yin & Blood

Winter is the season of regeneration and repair, so it is the perfect time to tone the yin. A general yin deficiency, which is akin to not enough fluids in the body to balance the yang activity or bodily functions, shows up as a reddish tongue, often with a line or crack down the center. Other symptoms of general yin deficiency include, hypoglycemia, diabetes, a tendency to thinness, dryness, insomnia, irritability, worry, excess thoughts and night sweats.

Kidney yin reduces heat and sedates the body. It supports, moistens, stabilizes and builds tissue. It is the Kidney yin that controls the fluids of the body. For example, it is balanced Kidney yin that provides enough water for the Heart to guard against Heart fire, or inflammation of the Heart. In winter, pork can tone Kidney yin. Try oysters too! 

What is Kidney Yin Deficiency?
Foods To Build Kidney Yin

Deficient Kidney Yang

Symptoms of yang deficiency may include cold hands and feet, pale face, mental exhaustion, and low spirits, weak knees and lower back pain, low or no sex drive, infertility, irregular periods, sterility, urinary problems, edema, asthma, lack of will power and direction and a large pale tongue.

If Kidney yang is weak, you won’t be able to breathe in deeply

Foods To Increase Kidney Yang

Walnuts are good for Kidney yang, and can ease lumbago. Bake in honey and store in a glass jar. Eat just one, once a day! 

So, What To Eat In Winter?

In winter we need to eat foods to create warmth, support the Kidney yin and yang and encourage the energy down and in. We also need to eat foods that benefit the heart and shen (spirit), guarding against the winter doldrums. Finally, lets not forget the winter specialties, congee (porridge) and liqueurs.

Eat warming foods in winter, probably exactly what you feel like…soups and stews. Energetically warm foods include anchovies, bay leaves, chestnuts, chicken, coriander, fennel, leek, mussels, mutton, nutmeg, pine nuts, rosemary, spring onions, sweet potatoes and walnuts. Preparation of food can also add to the warming nature like stewing and slow cooking. We can use this knowledge to prepare cooler foods like tofu, which for example can be fried to take off the cold edge in winter.

Foods That Benefit The Kidneys

“To improve concentration for studying, eat warm simple meals with only a couple of ingredients. To enhance sociability, eat light meals with more ingredients.”

Professor Lun Wong

Foods That Support The Spleen and Reduce Dampness in Winter
Warming Herbs To Reduce Cold in Winter
Foods to Move Stagnant Qi and Prepare the Liver For Spring
Winter is the Season For Congee or Porridge
Alcohol & Medicinal Liqueur

Other than that, dress appropriately, get a little more sleep, stay active, eat well and enjoy the winter!

By Alex Tan – Wellness Consultant & Acupuncturist

Here are some extra notes for those that would like to delve deeper!

Notes on why The capital ‘K’ is used for the 'Kidney' and other organs

“The health of the body is important, not just for its own sake, but because of the interconnectedness of the body with the mind and the spirit. Anything done to the body has equal consequence for the mind and spirit also. If you feel good physically, you will be more balanced emotionally, mentally and spiritually”

For references to this article as well as book resources on Chinese Dietary Therapy see the Straight Bamboo Literature Guide – click here

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander K Tan is a licensed Acupuncturist.  After completing his degree in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Alex lived and practiced Chinese Medicine for 10-years in Beijing, China.  A native-born Australian, the son of his Australian mother and Chinese father, Alex’s bi-cultural heritage helps him skillfully bridge Eastern and Western health perspectives.  He believes the true power of Chinese medicine lies in a balanced approach towards prevention and treatment. Rooted in Chinese Medicine observation based theory & methodology over millenniums, Alex’s talent lies in delivering these Eastern healing modalities to his modern Western clients.