Chinese medicine concepts of food and energy

By Alex Tan

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 TCM 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

Keeping the feet warm through winter is essential in order to nourish Kidney qi [1]. Less showers, more hot-water footbaths are recommended just before going to bed. If you need a hot water bottle, best to put it down by the feet. In Chinese medicine we believe the head should be relatively cool and the feet warm for proper fluid and energy movement in the body to take place. Just like the ancient Chinese landscape painting where at the top there is ice-capped mountain and below where the river runs down is a warm valley. In cold winters, good boots and thick pants most important. Think about the sayings in our own language about ‘hot-heads’ and getting ‘cold-feet’.

Winter is also a good time to get the qi moving with light physical exercise such as walking, jogging or biking to prevent stagnation. However, on stormy or windy days, it is important to rug up properly or to stay indoors where possible. The cold that surrounds us at this time of year can easily seep into our bodies and lower our immunity. Exercise until you are warm but stop before you sweat too much. Practice of qi gong or yoga is especially valuable 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.

For abdominal cold and pain try a leek and potato soup or a good old fashion mutton/lamb stew. Turtle beans (black beans) are yin-building and the most warming legume or you can add a warming herb such as rosemary to lentils or other beans. Pine nuts, anchovies, mussels, trout, walnuts and chestnuts are also warming. If you have cold-damp, you can encourage circulation and transformation with warming herbs such as ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, fennel and anise. These herbs and spices are extremely valuable and not only for taste and flavour but also for health and proper function of the body. This is most likely why the spice trade was so valuable to the Europeans and other civilizations.

Aspirin and Vitamin C are both cold on the body and digestion, so in winter you may want to try an alternative to aspirin for pain and get your Vitamin C from food sources such as pumpkin soup or warm fruit compote.

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.

The salty flavour

The salty flavour is associated with the Kidneys and the water element. Salty flavour is yin and cooling and moves energy down and in. It has a grounding effect and moistens dryness, softens hardness (such as muscle knots and cataracts), enhances digestion, eases constipation and abdominal swelling, increases appetite, is calming and improves concentration.

A little salt is good, but more is not necessarily better. Salt slows the circulation of the blood, which is bad for people with heart problems or high blood pressure, and increases fluid retention and appetite, which makes it hard to shed extra weight. It is important not to stress the Kidneys with too much salt in winter because little salt is lost through sweating when the weather is cold. The best salty foods for people with damp are seaweeds as they do not dry the body and can be very beneficial. This is probably the primary motivation for the Japanese to find as many ways as possible to include more seaweed in their diet.

Age-old preservation methods such as salting and souring bring the energies of food into the core and are suitable for winter. Make the most of pickles and sauerkraut in winter.

Salty foods include crab, crayfish, clams, oysters, mussels, sardines, pork, pork kidney, flake, squid, miso, soy sauce, seaweeds, millet, barley or anything with salt added.

Deficient kidney yin and 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.

Yin deficiency can more specifically effect a number of organ systems in TCM and the most common is called Kidney yin deficiency with symptoms of dizziness, ringing in the ears, dry throat and mouth, low back pain, weak legs, spontaneous sweating, a very red tongue. Kidney yin deficiency can easily lead to Kidney yang deficiency and impotence and lack of sex drive. Insufficient Kidney yin also has emotional symptoms, the effects are insecurity and fear, the personality is not rooted or grounded and has a tendency to move from one issue to the next without getting to the cause of the problems. Menopause is a time in a woman’s life when the Kidney yin is insufficient and the body no longer has extra blood to run the fertility cycle. Fluids that stabilize the Kidney and relax the liver become deficient with hot flushes and sweating in the upper part of the body common when the Kidney yin is no longer strong enough to anchor the heat in the lower part of the body.

To build yin we recommend eating animal products such as oyster, flake, sardine, crab, clams, eggs, pork, cheese or duck. It is important to eat these rich foods only in small amounts so that the yin is built up gradually rather than creating mucus and blockages in the body that could further deplete yin. To build yin more gradually stick with rice, as you preferred carbohydrate. Foods in winter that build yin include beef, barley, turtle beans, millet, mung beans, beetroot, kidney beans, wheat germ, seaweed, black sesame seeds, molasses, spinach, sweet potato and potatoes. Congees, stews and soups, bone-soups (stock) in particular, naturally support yin.

If you are run-down, feel like you have sluggish circulation, anemia, vertigo, tendency to faint, nervousness, easily skip periods, lower back pain you may not be producing enough Blood. Be gentle on the digestion by choosing warm, well-cooked foods. In winter foods that nourish and strengthen the Blood include pumpkin, beetroot, pork, rice, longan, lotus root, kidney beans, coconut milk and chestnuts.

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.

Foods that specifically target Kidney yang include cloves, fennel seeds, black pepper, ginger, walnuts, turtle beans, onions, leeks, shallots, chives, chicken, lamb, trout and salmon.

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 in winter include sweet potatoes, kidney beans, squid, millet, sesame seeds and lamb. In general, grains, seeds and nuts have an inward moving energy and are good for winter. However, for children it is important not to overdo grain intake, especially if not cooked very well. This can easily cause phlegm in the system showing up as runny nose, colds, earache and respiratory problems. Especially for the younger children, emphasize vegetables or rice congee rather than grains or meat, which are harder to digest. Both children and adults should remember to always chew nuts very well and try to choose the fresh roasted varieties, otherwise they can be hard on the digestive system.

“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

As always, it is essential to eat foods that support the Spleen and Stomach. Foods such as cabbage, pumpkin, potatoes, yams, sweet potato, carrots and outs help the Stomach and Spleen work together. For general digestive support try a pumpkin or sweet potato soup made with chicken stock. If there are few signs of heat in the body you can add ginger, cardamom, cinnamon or nutmeg. Winter foods that drain damp include barley, kidney beans, anchovies, chestnuts, chicken, jobs tears barley, kidney beans, parsnip, tuna, prawns and turnip.

In winter, warm pungent herbs such as rosemary, shallots, garlic, onions, cinnamon cloves, black pepper, ginger, fennel, anise, dill and horseradish all help to remove cold.

To remove stagnant qi and prepare the Liver for the approaching spring try pate, mussels, horseradish, fennel, cabbage, turnip, beetroot, bay leaf, taro, cauliflower, broccoli, ginger, kohlrabi. Bitter and sour foods will reduce Liver excess. Try dandelion root or grapefruit. The best foods to cool and detoxify the Liver in winter are rhubarb, daikon radish, beetroot and cabbage. Foods to reduce Liver wind symptoms in winter include fennel, ginger and oats.

Eating liver builds yin and blood, and helps prepare the body for spring. Whenever you cook liver, cook it lightly so it doesn’t become tough.

Winter is the perfect season for time-honoured tradition of congee (zhou or porridge). One part rice, five parts water added to a ceramic pot or slow cooker and cooked for a few hours best. Fast version, soak overnight and cook for 40 minutes or until grains are broken. Porridge for breakfast is an important aspect of Chinese preventative health and one that resonates with many other civilizations. In the north of China, it is traditionally millet (xiao mi) as rice could not be grown in this climate. When using millet, mix one-third white rice to give better texture to the porridge. In Russia, barley porridge is the tradition. In Europe, Oat porridge was the stable breakfast. In South America, corn gruel… Central America beans and rice is the base. In the pacific islands it is taro root porridge. Porridge is the meal whether you are sick or well. It is easy to digest, nutritious and the perfect food for healing when you are sick or not feeling well. Many ingredients can be added to vary the actions of the porridge so that it acts like a medicine to help treat your condition in TCM. With porridge as the base you can mix in lots of other ingredients for effect, flavour and enjoyment. The longer it cooks, the more thoroughly the ingredients blend with the rice, which ensures the healing properties can be fully ingested.

Adzuki beans – remove damp and ease swelling

Celery – calms the liver and treats high blood pressure

Chestnut – strengthens kidneys, lower back and knees

Fennel – eases flatulence and removes clotting during menstruation

Kidney – strengthens kidneys and helps with lower back pain and sexual problems

Leek – warms the body and counteracts diarrhoea

Liver – nourishes blood and treats Liver deficiency

Mung beans – cools summer heat and reduces fever

Pine nuts – builds the yin of the heart and lungs

Radish – cools heat from the digestive system

Sesame seeds – moisten the intestines and treats arthritis

Spinach – acts as a sedative and eases burping and acid reflux

Winter is the time to enjoy an alcoholic beverage in moderation. Wine is pungent and bitter and sweet and enlivens the spleen, warms the digestive system, expels wind and cold, promotes circulation of qi and blood, improves appetite and dispels fatigue. It is dry and warm or hot and can be used to dispel dampness and cold. Its yang nature enables these positive effects to reach everywhere in the body including the head, skin, and extremities. It’s particularly useful when the weather is windy, cold, raining and damp. In moderation, alcohol is a great tonic, particularly as we get older. And a little wine can add good times with friends – which is important.

Alcohol is also poisonous – so only drink amounts your particular body is comfortable with. Drinking too much will impair the mind, blood, stomach and increase production of phlegm-fire. The legendary Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) physician and herbalist, Li Shi-zhen wrote:

‘Wine, a beauty bestowed by heaven – drinking a small amount harmonizes the blood and moves the qi, strengthens the spirit and wards off cold, disperses worry and dispels moodiness. Drinking an extreme amount damages the spirit and consumes the blood, causes detriment to the stomach and death to the essence, engenders phlegm and stirs fire… Addiction to wine and getting drunk on a regular basis leads to disease and decay at best and to humiliation of one’s nation, ruination of one’s family, and loss of one’s life at worst’

The yang nature of alcohol means that if you go to sleep immediately after drinking or when drunk, too much heat is trapped in the body. This heat is harmful to the eyes and heart – hence red eyes. The bad mood and headache are linked to the Liver. People suffering from diseases of the gallbladder, liver, kidney, or from fever should completely avoid alcohol.

Winter is the season of medical liqueur. Alcohol speeds up the actions of any herb it is mixed with. Delivered with herbs, the alcohol delivers a fast acting pick me up. You’ll need to create your medicinal liqueurs up to a month in advance to allow time for the herbs to soak in the alcohol sufficiently. Typically, high percentage (above 40%) alcohol is required to extract the medicinal ingredients so rice-wine or vodka is the best alcohol to use as a base because it is neutral.

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



[1] The capital ‘K’ is used here to indicate that in this case the Kidney in TCM represents not only the physical organ but also the functions as described by TCM, the channel of the Kidney system, and also the emotional and spiritual energies of the Kidney.