Asian Wisdom for Healing in the Darkest Season
“The four seasons were created for human beings to have the opportunity to capture the rapture of nature” – Dr. Raymond Hill Cameron
In nature, winter appears to be a time of lifelessness and lack of growth, while in reality, invisible energy is regenerating deep inside the roots of plants, under the surface of the earth. Similarly in humans, winter can seem to be a challenge to the spirit – however it is an optimal time for inner healing and nurturing, replenishing and rebuilding, rest and reflection, and warm times with family and friends.
According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, each season relates to a particular organ system. Winter and cold weather most affect our kidney and bladder energies, which also rule our adrenal glands, reproductive organs, ears, and blood. It is interesting to note that new body symptoms and challenges that appear between November and January are often kidney/bladder energy related.
Every season provides us with an opportunity to recharge various organ systems. Our kidney/bladder organ systems can be most effectively recharged and healed, and also most easily harmed, during this time of year.
To enhance kidney/bladder energies, practise deeply nurturing yourself, avoid pushing yourself overly hard and long in life, find balance in your sexual relationships, and stay warm and dry. Healthy kidney energy is reflected in wisdom, creativity, willpower, ambition, and adventurousness, and in a clean, clear complexion in the area underneath your eyes.
Weak (yin) kidneys show up in chronic fearfulness, over-cautiousness, lack of direction, lower back pain, urinary problems, and some types of reproductive issues. On the other hand, overly yang kidney energies show up in over-confidence and fearlessness and the tendency to take extreme risks. Under-eye areas that are discolored, baggy, puffy, unusually sunken, or blemished all reflect various kidney imbalances.
Foods That Nourish Kidney Energy
Kidney and bladder energies relate to the salty taste, liquids, and the colours dark blue, black, and dark colours in general. Specific strengthening foods for kidney/bladder energy include miso soup, aduki beans, black beans, buckwheat, soba noodles, burdock, black sesame seeds, sea vegetables, naturally made brine pickles. We each need to find how much or little salt is good for us. For those who benefit from salt, small amounts of good quality sea salt and/or traditionally made soy sauce (tamari) are good sources. One tablespoon of sea vegetable dishes, three times per week, is generally sufficient, as more than that can lead to sweets cravings. Sea vegetables are highly valuable – not only are they natural sources of iodine and trace minerals, they also help the body to flush out radiation. Paradoxically, the ocean waters where they grow are now subject to more radiation than ever before, so it is wise to select the best quality sea vegetables. Some companies now test to ensure their products are free of radiation. There are also companies growing sea vegetables in North America. You can also pre-boil them briefly and discard the water.
Although fruits, being sweet, are not specifically recommended to strengthen the kidneys, the best fruits to choose in winter are those that were grown locally and could be stored successfully throughout the season, such as apples and pears, as well as homemade preserves. Although out of season in Ontario, blueberries and blackberries are the fruits related to kidney/bladder energies. In winter, fruits will be more balanced when cooked.
Foods that weaken the kidneys include those with a sweet taste, all sugars, cold foods and drinks, coffee, chemicals, recreational drugs, and too much liquid in general. Typically it is best to drink when thirsty, and to drink smaller amounts at a time that the body can absorb. Warm and room temperature beverages are recommended over cold ones. Different body types are warmer and cooler and each of us needs to find our own balance, however generally in winter it is best to keep yourself warm and consume more well-cooked and less raw foods. Should you notice you are craving more sweets, reduce the amount of sea salt, tamari, and sea vegetables in your diet. Pressed salads and parboiled salads are beneficial ways to refresh yourself when you crave sweets, cooling foods, and cold drinks.
To avoid creating excessive thirst, cook sea salt, tamari, etc., into your foods instead of sprinkling them on at the table. An alternative is to use “gomashio” sesame salt as a table seasoning. Toasting sesame seeds and crushing them together with sea salt coats the salt with oil so it is digested slowly in the stomach instead of immediately on the tongue. Gomashio can be store bought, or made at home using a special ridged grinding bowl available in some natural food stores.
Regenerative Winter Living
KEEP YOURSELF WARM – with warm clothing and regular exercise. Most traditional peoples kept their midsection well covered to protect the belly and kidney areas. This is especially important in cold weather. Exercise regularly to stimulate circulation, and stretch daily to loosen tight muscles. A tight stiff, inactive body is much harder to warm up. Start your day with a hot towel scrub – fill your sink with hot water and using a hot washcloth, scrub your body all over until it glows, avoiding sensitive areas. Don’t miss your fingers and toes! You can also help your kidneys by placing a hot water bottle over them for 10 -20 minutes at bedtime three or four times per week. Any more than this can create cravings for sweets.
GET MORE REST: Animals know how to balance themselves with the seasons, and they naturally sleep more in winter. Be active during the day, and get a good sleep at night. Be asleep before 11:00 pm. The sleep you get before 11:00 pm is much more regenerative than the sleep that begins later at night, no matter how late you sleep in. Do this and feel the difference.
CULTIVATE YANG: Winter is the most yin (cold dark, inactive) time of the year. Cultivate the yang (warm, bright, active) side of your nature. Make your home and workplace happy and bright. The traditional winter solstice holidays with bright lights, candles, and warm foods were designed to add brightness to the darkest time of the year. Stay warm, listen to happy music, and create joyful events with family and friends. Keep your holidays happy by not having unrealistic expectations of them. Limit your over-indulgences, or at least realize that sugar, chocolate, alcohol, overeating, and many other holiday foods can physiologically create depression. If you choose to indulge, be responsible for cause and effect, and remember that these feelings are a temporary “illusion” you willingly created! Eat well and you’ll be happy again soon.
TRAVELLING SOUTH? Short vacations in a warm climate can make the rest of the winter easier or harder for you. Your return home may be much bleaker and colder if too many fruits, juices, tropical foods, etc., are enjoyed while away. Instead, continue to eat warming foods, get outside a lot (being in the ocean is especially helpful for kidneys), and stay active! You’ll come home more yang, and at the same time much more loosened up, so you’ll actually be warmer and happier for the rest of the winter.
Adjusting Your Diet for Winter
1) Include more warming (yang) foods such as hearty soups, stews, well-cooked whole grains, beans, root vegetables, and mochi (pounded sticky rice). Add ginger to your cooking several times a week to stimulate digestive fire. Should you choose to consume small amounts of animal protein, winter is the best season to do so.
2) Eat only as yang a diet as you can maintain without needing to eat or drink excessive amounts of cold drinks and/or sweet foods. (If you’re craving cold drinks or lots of desserts you need less yang and more yin factors in your diet and lifestyle.) Include some light, refreshing (yin) foods in your meals so you don’t create these cravings, ie. lightly cooked greens, colourful parboiled vegetables, pressed salads, sauerkraut, and other naturally made pickles, as well as chopped parsley, green onions, and other bright garnishes.
3) Eat mostly local, seasonal, and easily stored foods. Eating local foods in season is nature’s way to keep us in balance with the climate and season we live in. Kale is an excellent winter green – it can grow in your garden until January and actually tastes better after the first frost. We do need some adjustment, as we live in environments that are heated to warm temperatures year round.
4) Avoid overeating bread and baked goods, and too much food in general, to keep yourself from getting congested and frustrated – and ultimately less active and colder.
5) Remember that after the winter solstice has come and gone, the days start getting longer and the atmosphere slowly begins to brighten. In the Chinese calendar, spring begins around February 4th. Quietly tune in to the energy around you and inside you, and you’ll feel it happening. Ideally, lighten your diet at this time using less oil and baked foods and more greens, lemon, and lighter cooking methods to gradually prepare yourself for warmer weather.
Recipes for Winter
WARMING ROOT VEGETABLE STEW
Pre-soak kombu seaweed, cut into 1½” squares, and cover the bottom of a heavy pot with them. Put layers of large chunks of vegetables on top in order, ie. first onions, then burdock, then carrot, daikon, squash, etc. A few pre-soaked shiitake mushrooms are a delicious option.
Put ¼ to ½” of water in the bottom of the pot, using any soaking water from kombu or shiitake. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low, cover and simmer until vegetables are very soft. Season with tamari, if desired, five minutes before the end of cooking. Toss the pot, carefully holding the lid on, to mix the vegetables without breaking them. Garnish with chopped scallions or parsley.
REFRESHING PRESSED SALAD
All traditional cultures included fermented foods in their diet. This recipe can be infinitely varied to create many refreshing salads and quick pickles. Choose one or more vegetables, e.g. nappa cabbage, green or red cabbage, carrots, daikon, cucumber, red radishes, etc. Wash well. Slice or shred into thin slices. Mix together in a bowl with some sea salt. Squeeze the vegetables in your hands for a minute to begin to break them down. You will know you added enough salt when a little water begins to come out of them.
Put the vegetables under pressure between two glass bowls that nest together, putting something heavy in the upper one. Leave them under pressure from 30 minutes to several hours or more to taste. When you achieve the taste you want, remove the heavy object and store them in the fridge, in a sealed container, in the liquid that has come out of the vegetables. If too salty you can rinse them just before eating.
Variations: add lemon, ginger, onions, green onions, parsley, dill, etc.