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Winter: Honoring the Water Element Within

Under heaven, nothing is more soft and yielding than water. 

Yet, for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better.

It has no equal. The weak can overcome the strong;

The supple can overcome the stiff.

Under heaven, everyone knows this.

Yet, no one puts it into practice.

—Tao Te Ching, Ch. 78

As we begin the new year, we have officially cycled into the water element! In contrast to the fire, warmth, and yang energy of summer, this is the most yin time of the year. Darkness, stillness and cold temperatures prevail. Within the snowy folds of winter is an invitation to rest, nourish and consolidate resources. Through exploring the organs and acupuncture channels associated with the water element, we can find ways to live harmoniously with the season, and better prepare our bodies for the coming year.

Supporting the Kidneys

Winter self-care starts with honoring the kidneys. The kidneys are of particular importance in Chinese medicine as they are the root of all yin and yang, substance and energy, within our bodies. They are the battery that keeps us going throughout the days, weeks and years. During the winter season it is beneficial to give back to our kidneys by recharging and indulging in rest.

One only needs to look outside for ways to live in balance with the water element. The sun goes down earlier, providing more darkness and opportunity for sleep. The yang energy of the earth moves deep as seedlings lie dormant and animals surrender to hibernation. Even the water itself slows down, as rivers trickle and ponds freeze over in their wait for the coming spring.

Throughout the year I speak with patients who want to improve their energy levels. A common complaint is that they hit an afternoon wall, usually between the hours of 3:00 to 5:00 pm.

Coincidentally, this is just a few hours before the time when the Qi of the body is moving through the kidney meridian. This is also when many people reach for that afternoon cup of coffee or sweet snack to help them get through the day.

While this might seem like a temporary quick fix, this is taxing to both the kidney yin and yang. An ideal solution is to hydrate and recline to help our batteries recharge. Just 20–30 minutes of rest during this time can be very beneficial. Miso soup or bone broth are excellent alternatives to caffeine or sugar, and the salty flavor guides the fluids down to the kidneys.

With the holidays behind us, this is a good time of year to give the digestive system a break. Eating nutrient dense foods in smaller portions throughout the day is ideal for maintaining balanced blood sugar and steady energy levels.

Specific foods that nourish the kidneys include walnuts, black sesame seeds and seaweeds. It’s a good time to include thoroughly cooked meals such as stews, soups, and root vegetables, with warming spices and healthy fats, such as coconut oil or ghee. Garlic, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, ginger, black pepper, cardamom, and clove are some examples of spices that help to support the kidney yang energy and aid in digestion. If you are a meat eater, consuming lamb, beef, venison, and bison are excellent sources of protein, which also nourish the kidney yin and help to build blood.

On the contrary, dairy, iced drinks, smoothies, refined sugar, and raw foods should be avoided during colder months. The cold and dampening nature of these foods challenges the digestive system and kidney yang energy, and can result in disharmony in the months ahead.

Acupuncture and Chinese herbs are excellent allies in the restorative process. I work with quite a few patients during the winter season to help strengthen the lungs, kidneys and digestive system. Getting an acupuncture treatment is a great way to offer yourself some TLC, while taking an hour out of your busy day to relax.

There are a plethora of Chinese herbal tonic formulas, which can help the body to build vital resources such as Qi, blood, yin and yang. Many patients can attest to the benefits of preventative and restorative care from one season to the next.

The Role of the Urinary Bladder Channel

While winter can be a time of great renewal for some, it can be challenging and fraught with seasonal illnesses for others. Factors such as traveling, overeating, over working, smoking, excessive alcohol, and stress can challenge our valuable immune systems, leaving the body more susceptible to colds and flus.

The urinary bladder channel is often the body’s first line of defense when fighting off an illness. The urinary bladder is the yang-paired organ to the kidneys, and its acupuncture channel traverses the head, neck, back and legs. Also known as the Tai Yang channel, it circulates warming, defensive qi to the exterior body region in an effort to keep pathogens out.

As colds and flus take residence within our communities, it’s important to dress properly for the weather. Protecting the Tai Yang channel by keeping the entire back and neck regions warm and covered from the wind and cold is essential.

If you have ever caught a cold you probably know the first cardinal symptoms can present as fatigue, a stiff upper back and neck, chills, fever, sore throat, etc. These symptoms are the body’s response to an external pathogen trying to penetrate our defense system. Many times the body will respond by sweating or increasing urination to release pathogens.

Adequate fluids are vital in supporting immunity. Sipping warm or room temperature water throughout the day is ideal for staying hydrated. Hot lemon and honey water in the morning can help to temper caffeine cravings and doesn’t dehydrate the system like coffee.

I often give my patients trace minerals to include in their daily routine, since they play such an important role in many physiological processes, such as detoxification. They help the body to hold onto water and distribute fluids and nutrients where they are needed most.

At the first sign of a cold, acupuncture and Chinese herbs can prevent illnesses from moving deeper into the body. There are formulas that contain herbs that have antibiotic and antiviral properties, and can be tailored to fit each patient’s specific needs. Other therapies, such as gua sha and cupping, can be included in treatments as well, and help to clear congestion and relieve sore muscles.

Reflecting on Water

As this new year begins and we stay busy with winter leisure activities, work, and planning for the months ahead, remember to find time to relax and nourish your water element. Water is the source if life from which we all draw upon. How are you willing to give back to yourself this year?

Article originally published in January 2018 Natural Life News.