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Acclimating to Winter ęDeborah Barr --Reprint from Aromatherapy Thymes Magazine

Have you noticed the relationship between the seasons and your personal health? Your mental outlook, emotional state and physical health flow with the cycles of nature. Learning to flow your energy as nature does through the seasons can insure vibrant health and emotional harmony. How well you transition through the seasons is a good indicator of how balanced your health is.

Winter is the end of all seasons with wetter, shorter days, and colder temperatures. Nature is hiding in her roots; its energy is descending and contracting.  Our awareness naturally follows the same patterns of change within nature. We experience the cyclical changes of nature internally within us. Even though some climates experience less dramatic climactic changes, it is still important to adopt nutritional and lifestyle patterns that are in harmony with the season.

It’s time to shift to the quiet, inward, descending energy of winter. It is the season of rest, storage and preparation, and for protecting the reserves gathered in the harvest. Over the winter months, we draw on those reserves to prepare for the rapid growth of spring.

 The Chinese health philosophy and its theory of the Five Elements provide a good understanding of how nature and your body mirror each other. According to this wisdom, each season relates to specific organs in the body and corresponding emotions. Smooth seasonal transitions are crucial to your wellness and tend to be times when many experience more intensity in chronic health conditions, greater stress, and physical difficulty.

Winter is related to the water element. The TCM corresponding organs to the winter season and those most affected are the kidneys and their complementary organ, the bladder. According to the Chinese Health Philosophy, the adrenal glands, which sit on top of the kidneys, are controlled by the kidneys. Adrenals contribute to the warmth, energy, and sexuality of the body.

 The kidneys regulate water balance in the body. They are the foundation of fluids, energy, and heat for all of the organs. Any imbalance in blood chemistry has a strong effect on the kidneys since one of their functions is the filtering of toxic or potentially toxic substances for excretion. An overconsumption of fluid taxes the capacity of the kidneys to filter.

 The kidneys govern the health of the bones, bone marrow, knees, lower back, teeth, head hair, hearing, urinary tract, sexual organs, and reproductive functions.

Common symptoms of Kidney and Water Element Imbalances include:

  • Metabolic imbalances
  • Low thyroid function
  • Poor circulation
  • Anemia
  • Certain types of arthritis pain
  • Hearing loss
  • Ear infections
  • Head hair problems—hair loss, premature graying,
  • Urinary tract problems
  • Sexual and reproductive problems
  • Bone problems including osteoporosis
  • Teeth problems
  • Lower back and knee problems
  • Fear, phobias, paranoia, insecurity, negativity

 These health disharmonies worsen during the winter months if you are not eating and living in harmony with the season.

 Winter Nutrition

 Following nutritional practices that improve the health of these organs will help you experience more balance and harmony in the winter months.

 The kidneys are especially vulnerable to abuse through consumption of cold foods and drinks such as ice cream, cold soda, and cold alcoholic beverages, especially when the cold food has a high concentration of sugar. Use of raw food should be minimized or eliminated, depending on one’s condition. Raw foods are cooling and are best eaten to balance the heat of warmer months.

Toxic diets, chemical additives, and heavy meat eating cause the kidneys to become contracted.  This results in faulty cleansing by the kidneys which increases fluid in the body putting stress on the heart. Excessive meat and food additives clog the vascular system and contribute to high blood pressure and weakening of the heart.

 Cooking food helps to maintain digestive balance and provide warmth. In winter it’s best to incorporate longer cooking times at lower heat. Roasting, baking, pressure cooking, and broiling create more heat in the food and are more suitable for the winter months.

 The diet should be warming and include more substantial foods such as hearty soups and stews, baked root vegetables; and stews made from good quality beef, poultry or fish. Kidney beans, mung beans, black beans, and adzuki beans all benefit the kidneys and related organs and should be eaten regularly in the winter. Emphasize root vegetables such as turnips, parsnips, carrots, potatoes, yams, burdock, rutabaga, and onion. Winter squashes such as butternut, acorn, and pumpkin are health-supportive additions to the winter diet.

Use whole, unprocessed grains, especially oats, sweet brown rice, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, barley and brown rice as staples. They will provide you with consistent energy, harmonious emotions, balanced blood sugars, and good colon health.

 Warming cooking herbs and spices are beneficial during the winter. Include ginger, garlic, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, horseradish, cloves, cardamom, mustard seeds, rosemary and spearmint.

To improve immunity, use chlorophyll-rich foods including all dark leafy green vegetables such as kale, bok choy, collard greens, watercress, mustard greens and turnip greens. These contain immune-enhancing, anti-inflammatory properties. 

Incorporate medicinal mushrooms in your cooking. Dried shiitake mushrooms increase resistance to infections caused by certain bacteria, viruses and parasites, and improve immunity.  Dried Maitake mushrooms possess immune-boosting substances and retard the progression and spread of tumors. Although these mushrooms are available in supplement form, I prefer to use them in cooking. The dried varieties are more concentrated in therapeutic properties. You can use shiitake and/or maitake in soups, stews, vegetable dishes, or cooked with whole grains.

 Salt is the flavor of the season

The system of flavors, developed by traditional Chinese healers, assigns specific flavors to organs and their related season. The salty flavor is associated with the water element, and enters the kidneys.  Salt moves energy downward and inward and attunes us to the colder seasons.

This important mineral is vital to human life. Too much of it causes water retention, high blood pressure and kidney and heart problems. According to Chinese Physiology, proper use of salt will strengthen the health of the kidneys, urinary tract, adrenals, bones, bone marrow, teeth, fluid metabolism, hair, and sex organs.  

Salt is grounding and centering in nature. The right amount and quality can strengthen energy; build healthy bones, improve digestion; moisten dryness; detoxify poisons from poor quality foods; and enhance your ability to focus more clearly. However, there is great potential for its misuse.  Poor quality salt and too much of it creates the opposite effect.

Most commercial salt is the highly refined chemical variety that is 99.5% or more sodium chloride, with additions of anti-caking chemicals, potassium iodide, and sugar to stabilize the iodine. Common table salt is refined through heat processing, bleached with chemicals to make it white, then aluminum stearate, another chemical, is added so the salt doesn’t clump. Most salt is denatured as are most foods in the modern diet..

Even common refined sea salt has been stripped of nearly all of its sixty trace minerals. Salt labeled sea salt is typically the refined pure white variety.  You can buy good quality unrefined sea salt in which sunshine alone has been used to extract it. Check your local natural foods store.

Whole natural sea salt is in larger crystals, granules, or a powder. Whole salt from the sea has a mineral profile similar to that of your blood, and when used properly, helps to maintain good health.

Salt Alternatives

Eating small amounts of sea vegetables on a regular basis is a balanced way to include the salty flavor in your diet. Sea Vegetables are the most nutrient dense group of foods available. If you are not accustomed to using them, start by adding a small piece of Kombu to beans, soups, stews or grains. Wakame is another common variety that goes well with vegetables and soups.

There are many varieties of sea vegetables, each with a distinctive nutrient profile. Some general common properties they exhibit include:  detoxifying, diuretic, remove residues of radiation in the body; act as lymphatic cleansers; alkalize the blood; benefit the thyroid; improve water metabolism, moisten dryness, and resolve phlegm.

Miso is an extremely nutritious and health-supportive food and an effective way to include the salty flavor in your diet. Miso is a fermented soybean paste made by combining soybeans, a culture, salt and various grains, then fermenting for 3 months to 3 years. It is most commonly used as a seasoning in soup.

Miso contains lactic acid, bacteria and enzymes which aid digestion and assimilation. It is rich in amino acids, B12, and minerals, including calcium and iron. It helps protect the body against radiation and heavy metal poisoning. Miso reduces the risk of coronary heart disease; protects cells from free radicals and aging. The lactobacillus fermentation increases the quantity, availability, digestibility and assimilability of nutrients. 

Miso breaks down and discharges cholesterol, reduces chronic pain, neutralizes the effects of smoking and environmental pollution, cleanses, strengthens, and alkalizes the blood; cleanses the lymphatic system; prevents radiation sickness; and neutralizes the effects of chemicals, medicines, and a poor diet. Miso contains lactic acid bacteria and enzymes which aid digestion and food assimilation. It is an excellent food for keeping the kidneys and their related organs healthy, especially during the winter months.

Miso may be used instead of salt or soy sauce as a seasoning and it’s best to buy unpasteurized miso.  It is a live food and prolonged cooking destroys the beneficial organisms. Add unpasteurized miso to preparations just before removing from heat.

Emphasizing these foods will harmonize your blood quality and correct health imbalances related to the water element and the winter season. They will keep your immune system strong and increase your resistance to disease. Of course, it’s equally important to minimize fatty, heavy, congesting foods, and to eliminate intoxicants and chemicals.

 Lifting Winter Blues

Within the Five Transformation Cycle of TCM, certain psychological and emotional tendencies result from imbalances in the organs. The kidneys rule the emotions fear, insecurity, and paranoia, and these emotions will dominate during the winter in those with poor kidney health.

Do you experience phobias, anxiety about life, paranoia or negativity in general?  Are you always expecting the worst and consumed by worry?  Are you withdrawn or lacking in confidence?  Do you move from one problem, place or relationship to the next without ever getting to the root issues? These are all aspects of kidney imbalances resulting, in large part, from under use or misuse of salt and other minerals, and from poor quality, denatured foods and inappropriate foods for the season. When the kidneys are overstressed or too cold, your emotions will suffer the consequences.

When this element is strong and healthy, you feel confident, stable, courageous, curious, adventurous, and optimistic. Your will is strong, you experience right timing in life, a healthy sex drive, are independent, and have a healthy imagination and the ability to actualize what you imagine for you life. You can accomplish a great deal without stress, are active, yet calm, and understand the importance of balancing action with nurturing.

All physical, mental and emotional problems are, to some extent, rooted in the foods you consume.  Balanced intake of good quality salt and other minerals from food will improve kidney health and related emotional disharmonies. What you eat directly affects the way you think and perceive, and your emotional state. Conversely, negative mental and emotional states weaken physical health. Taking special care to nurture the kidneys will help to resolve many emotional issues, including Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Winter encourages introspection, and it is a good time to work on creating an emotionally safe foundation and a sense of security from within. It may be helpful to embark on Attitudinal Healing or other types of counseling with a professional.

Practices for Winter Radiance

  • Buoy your spirit with a meditation practice or engaging in anything that uplifts and inspires you.
  • Find a personal, emotional and spiritual support system.
  • Believe in yourself.  Select clearly defined projects which you know can be successfully accomplish and pursue them to completion.
  •  Cultivate friendships with those who are warm and compassionate.

  •  Work and play at a creative project.

  •  Go to bed early and get plenty of sleep.  You need more in the winter.

  •  Keep warm.

  •  Get deep massage or other therapies for releasing subconscious, hidden emotions.

  •  Slow down; relax and reflect.

  • Learn and practice deep, diaphragmatic breathing.
  • Don’t let your exercise habits hibernate. Yoga and Tai Chi are excellent forms of exercise that encourage deep breathing.
  • Brisk walking is beneficial in every season and helps circulation and joint health.
  • Balance giving and receiving; doing and being.
  • Express your feelings, especially love and its many aspects including compassion, understanding and empathy.

 Your body, mind, emotions and the environment are not separate and are mimicking each other. Seasonal changes are an opportune time to strengthen your whole health. When the dark days of winter descend you don’t have to suffer. Take your cues from the natural environment. When you adapt yourself to winter transitions through an environmentally balanced diet and lifestyle, you will maintain good health at every level.

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Deborah Barr, 30-year Holistic Health and Nutrition Counselor/Coach, speaker, and author, has helped thousands of clients reverse health and weight issues; achieve emotional harmony, radiant health, passion, peaceful living, work-life balance, and a life they love.  In 1985 she founded Whole Health Resources, the premier Holistic Health Center in Pittsburgh.  WHR’s mission is to promote the healing and development of body, mind and spirit, and to teach an understanding of the relationship between diet, attitudes, lifestyle and wellness. She offers free help through 2 e-newsletters, Holistic Weight Loss, and Whole Health Matters, and free articles.   Subscribe to newsletters

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