The Winter Season

The wisdom of ancient Chinese doctors tells us of the importance of living in accordance with the constant changes of the seasons and the current state of our environment.  They offer us insights on how to most efficiently use our energies so that we can keep ourselves vital and healthy.  As we enter the Winter months, let's examine the advice they have for us.

The idea is that as the seasons change we should alter our habits in order to stay healthy.  In Chinese medicine, lifestyle choices have always been a primary concern in order to not only prevent diseases from occurring, but also to foster a truly healthful and fully enlivened existence.  In chapter two of the classic Chinese medicine text, the Nei Jing Su Wen (The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Internal Medicine), the following wisdom is offered:

"The three months of winter, they denote securing and storing.
The water is frozen and the earth breaks open.
Do not disturb the Yang Qi.  Go to rest early and rise late.
You must wait for the sun to shine.
Let the mind enter a state as if hidden, as if you had secret intentions, as if you already had made gains.
Avoid cold and seek warmth and do not allow sweat to flow away from the skin.
This would cause the Qi to be carried away quickly.
This is correspondence with the Qi of Winter and it is the way of nourishing storage.
Opposing it harms the Kidneys.
In Spring this causes limpness with receding Qi, and there is little to support generation."

From this passage we can ascertain some guidelines for how to behave in the Winter months in order to foster health:

  1. Winter is a time of storage and securing, we should embody that principle and keep it in mind for all of the activities we engage in.
  2. 'Do not disturb the Yang Qi.'  This is one way of saying that we should take it easy, don't overdo it or go too hard.  Yang Qi is the ancient Chinese way of describing energetic movement, transformation, heat, excitability, and other similar qualities.  This is quite the opposite of the experience of Winter.  If we allow ourselves to act in this 'Yang' way, the cold of Winter will strongly deplete us of our warmth and energy.  Therefore, we should stay inside where it is warm, stay quiet and conserve our energies, keep things under wraps, and try not to engage in overly excessive physical activity so that we can conserve and secure ourselves.
  3. 'Avoid cold and seek warmth.'  This is a truism, but it bears repeating.  Beyond just simply staying in a warm place, it is also advisable that we should eat warm nourishing foods, and drink hot teas and drinks made from herbs with a warming quality to help us counteract the cold of the winter season.  As well, we should avoid foods and herbs which are cold by nature.
  4. Avoid sweating.  We usually sweat when we overexert ourselves.  In the winter, this can leave us vulnerable to getting sick.  When our pores open up, the harsh cold winds of Winter can enter the open portals of our skin and this can lead to us getting sick because a pathway has been made available for pathogens to enter.  We should keep ourselves covered up, especially in vulnerable areas like the neck.  So wear a scarf and a hat!
  5. Nourishing storage is essential to future growth.  By storing and securing our energy in the winter, we keep our root system strong so that we have a strong foundation from which to grow vigorously in the spring time.  A plant which does not have a developed or strong root cannot grow as fully as it should.  This is similar to what ancient Chinese doctors mean when they refer to our Kidneys.  To them, the Kidneys represent the deepest, most root-like aspect of ourselves.  It is essential, therefore, to keep that root intact and strong during the winter, when it is most vulnerable to depletion from the cold.  If we succeed in this, then when the spring comes around, there will be an even greater foundation for us to generate new growth even more powerfully.  We will have the inner resources we need for Spring.

Here is a short list of warming, nourishing foods which are useful during the winter months:

  • Warm, hearty soups and stews
  • Bone broths
  • Lamb, chicken, beef, and stocks
  • Root vegetables and well-cooked greens
  • Ginger, garlic, cinnamon; herbs and teas with a warming quality
  • Kidney beans and black beans
  • Nuts and seeds such as walnuts or black sesame

Acupuncture and moxibustion can also be extremely helpful during the winter.  Often the cold season makes our joints or muscles hurt because of the contraction and reduced blood flow to our extremities.  Acupuncture can help to relieve joint pain, muscle pain, help strengthen or regulate the immune system, and more.  Moxibustion is a therapy which strongly warms the body with direct thermal heat, targeting areas which are cold and deficient.  Both of these are powerful tools which we have at our disposal in order to make the winter months more bearable by eliminating pain, driving away colds, and fostering a nourishing storage attitude and lifestyle for continued growth.  Along with the lifestyle modifications above, regular acupuncture and moxibustion can help to build a strong Winter root, and act as a strong preventive medicine.

To quote the Nei Jing Su Wen one more time:

"To oppose one's root, is to attack one's basis and to destroy oneself."

Michael Keane, L.Ac.

Sources used and quoted from:
Paul Unschuld. Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen Volume 1.  2011.  University of California Press
Cover Photo by Simon Wa. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0.

Painful Joints

Almost everyone I know gets pain somewhere, sometimes, in varying degrees or ways. It seems to me after much observation that as humans, we tend to break most often at our joints, where our limbs meet and where our body's qi naturally congregates. We use our bodies all day doing hard work and dealing with stressful situations. There is a lot of pressure on our joints. Hopefully, we take the time to drink some water, eat some healthy food, and rest, but this is not always the case. The joints often take the most abuse, because that is where all of our muscles and tendons ultimately attach in our body. After a long time of use, all mechanical parts begin to break down. They need lubrication, maintenance, and some elbow grease, to keep performing at optimum efficiency. While the body is much more complex and miraculous than a machine, it does have some machine-like parts.

It turns out that acupuncture is great for helping to relieve joint pain in our bodies, even though joint pain arises from many different causes for many different people. This is because an acupuncturist is able to choose different points, and manipulate them in different ways, in order to have specifically different effects on the qi. When the causes of joint pain vary from person to person, the way we treat it also varies.

So for some people, where their joint pain is a result of inflammation for instance, I can use acupuncture to firstly release the heat at the site of the pain, but then needle points which have a nourishing, moistening, lubricating quality. This strategy treats the direct cause of pain (heat or inflammation) and then attempts to take steps to prevent future severity. For other people, their pain is worst when it is cold outside because it constricts their blood flow and makes their muscles and tendons tense up. Using a technique such as moxibustion, we can use warmth to open up the acupuncture meridians and stimulate a freer flow of qi and blood through the limbs and indeed the body as a whole. Some people have very physically demanding jobs, and though they are strong, their limbs and joints hurt at the end of a hard day's work. For them, acupuncture can provide a chance for their body to rest and to nourish itself, while simultaneously releasing trigger points in the muscles which develop after being overworked.

There are many different reasons someone could have joint pains, and acupuncture is an extremely flexible form of therapy. There are tools which are at our disposal to relieve pain and also to nourishing our deeper constitutional selves. As we treat our physical pains, we are also interacting with our mental, spiritual, and emotional realities, in whatever way these manifest for us personally. That we divide them up is one of the things which may cause us the most pain in the end.

Michael Keane, L.Ac.