Here in Minnesota, there are two types of people. Those who love winter, and those who think it basically sucks. I’m one of the latter, but working hard to make my peace with the cold, dark days of January. I have new snowshoes to get me outside to play, really warm and fuzzy long underwear, every color of fleece imaginable, and some great looking boots. All of these things help, but I will never be a winter-lover.
Whether you love winter or not, it’s possible to stay healthy and flourish during this time of year. Chinese medicine is built on observation of the natural world and the idea that your body mirrors many of nature’s patterns. Within the framework of Chinese medicine, there are certain qualities of winter that you can use to benefit your health. For example, winter is considered the most Yin time of the year, in that it is cold, dark, and quiet. The cold dark qualities of winter mean it’s considered a time of rejuvenation; we’re supposed to hole up, stay warm, and emerge from winter healthy, energized, and ready for spring.
So according to Chinese medicine, how do you honor this season, stay healthy, and even thrive when you’re freezing your butt off? Here are a few suggestions:
- Do like the animals do. Slow down, gain a pound or two, and hibernate. The fact that the days are short and the nights are long is no accident. It’s nature’s way of telling us we should take it easy, get a little more rest, and pamper ourselves a little bit.
- Eat winter foods. This includes beans of all kinds, lentils, split peas, root vegetables, nuts, and seeds. In Chinese medicine, the color black is associated with this time of year (conveniently a lot like darkness), so black and darkly colored foods are considered most nourishing. Foods like black beans, black sesame seeds, black lentils, dark seaweeds, and darkly colored vegetables are also good.
- Eat foods that keep you warm. Energetically warm foods are those that are cooked the longest, as well as those that actually warm you up, such as ginger, cinnamon, cayenne, chili powder, lamb, trout, leeks, onions, garlic, horseradish, and winter squash. Also, soups and stews are hearty and warming.
- Bundle up. This may seem like a no-brainer, but your body uses precious energy trying to stay warm. Conserve that energy by dressing in layers and wearing a hat and gloves (or mittens).
- Protect your immune system. Wonder why doctors don’t seem to get sick? They wash their hands about a hundred times a day. Try it yourself to decrease your chances of catching a winter cold or flu.
- Stay (moderately) active. While this may sound counter-intuitive to the season, you need to keep moving during the winter so you don’t seize up. Stretching, yoga, Tai Qi, walking, or whatever feels fun is beneficial as long as you don’t overdo it. Remember, you need some of that energy to stay warm.
- Get some sunlight. Even a short stint out in the sun can help your mood, enhance your sleep, and help you feel like you don’t live in a cave. If you struggle with seasonal depression (Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD) get a full spectrum light and spend some time in front of it.
- Supplement Vitamin D. This sunshine vitamin can help with everything from depression to immunity, and is synthesized in your body through sunlight on your skin. That is pretty much not happening here in the northern climes during the winter. In addition, many people are deficient in Vitamin D, even when they spend time out in the sun. Look to supplement in the form of Vitamin D3.
- Warm your core. If you’re feeling physically cold, even when you’re bundled up, try warming yourself with a heating pad or a heated rice bag. Place the heat on your lower abdomen or at the small of your back. By doing so, you’re warming your Chinese Kidney, the organ system that is the source of all your vital substances–Yin, Yang, and Essence–and stoking your body’s pilot light.
- Take good care of yourself. While it may seem like winter is endless, it will eventually merge into spring. In the meantime, build into your life some things to look forward to, find some activities that feel fun, and remember that winter is a time of rejuvenation.