By Angela Ingendaay, MD
Winter—the season of longer nights and frosty weather…When it draws nigh, it’s time to winterize, not only our homes but ourselves as well. Some of us may grow weary of the winter’s health challenges, as colds and flus become more frequent and even turn into more serious infections.
As more of winter’s darkness encroaches, some may dive into the blues, or even outright depression. These serious concerns, though, can to some extent be relieved by recognizing the gifts of winter.
One of these great gifts is winter’s call for us to draw within ourselves, and it behooves us to honor this. It’s a time to find deeper rest, so that what we have gained throughout the year can ferment for a time. We need to stockpile not only our pantry, but also our energy reserves. This serves not only as a great preventative measure, but offers an added benefit as well: once spring arrives, we will have reserves to burst forth from.
This is “common sense, a sense not so common,” and is also one of the basic concepts of ancient Chinese medicine. The Chinese conceive of a year as the cyclical dynamics of Yin and Yang forces, the Yin being that which stores and sustains, and winter being the Yang that generates, motivates, and moves forward, peaking in the summer. To maintain health, we should follow that same movement and tend to our Yin nature in the winter. In our modern culture we tend to be “Yang-aholics,” always on the go with new goals to pursue and more adventures to have—forgetting to take that beautiful retreat into the deeply restful Yin place inside us.
The Chinese also hold that winter is closely connected with the kidneys, which store a lot of the body’s energy. In Western medicine, this correlates more with the adrenals and its regulation by the brain, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. By honoring winter and its invitation to draw in, we can avoid the tendency to accumulate stress and develop adrenal fatigue.
If you feel worn out and unable to find a deeply restful place inside you, make sure to ask your doctor to check out your adrenals, preferably before the winter begins.
- Ask for an adrenal stress profile, a salivary test that checks for cortisol levels throughout the day.
- Have a test for your DHEA, which is a precursor to adrenal hormones.
Any abnormalities found in any of these tests can be resolved using a naturopathic approach. Many adaptogenic herbs, as well as CBD oil, are well known for the support they offer the adrenals.
But let’s return to the wisdom of ancient Chinese medicine on how to relax, retreat, and savor the winter.
Ancient Tip #1: Sleep In!
Our bodies naturally want to sleep more in the winter to safeguard our body’s energy. It’s good to go with the program! Minimizing the year-end rush, reducing daily stress, and practicing meditation are also great ways to preserve energy. You may also need extra sleep aids in the form of herbs and supplements. Think “Rest and rejuvenate.”
Ancient Tip #2: Stews
Foods have energetic qualities, and in the winter it’s a good rule of thumb to have warming foods that are cooked at low temperatures over a longer period of time, such as stews, soups, and slow-baked foods. It’s time to bring out the crock-pot and the clay pot.
Ancient Tip # 3: Roots, Meats, and Beans
Root vegetables, especially the yellow and orange ones, are warming in nature. Kale, spinach, collards, and chard are among the leafy greens that engender Yin energy. Meat in the form of roasts and stews make excellent winter choices. Avoid braising and barbequing, which is definitely better done in the summer. Bone broth! Preferably beef. Bone marrow is considered the deepest tissue of the body and contains the essence of the being. It deeply nourishes the kidneys and the adrenals. All of these foods have documented healing properties, as well as potent anti-aging, regenerative properties.
Ancient Tip #4: Herbs to Support the Yin
There are many excellent Chinese herbs that offer great support for our Yin. These include adaptogens such as rhodiola, astragalus, schisandra, gingko biloba, and ginseng in its many forms. Some formulas, though, may support our Yang more than our Yin. This provides a more immediate energy that in the end tends to deplete us, especially in winter. It’s best to seek knowledgeable advice in this regard. Western herbs that serve this same purpose would be in the category of “restoring nerves and the adrenals.” Sage is one of the foremost of these, along with rosemary and thyme. And yes, you can use parsley, but use parsley root! Milky oat seed, aka avena sativa, is also a favorite.
In many ways our more modern way of thinking is not all that different. A modern naturopathic doctor would give the following tips.
Modern Tip #1
Strengthen the immune system. This is particularly important for those who tend to get frequent upper respiratory infections. Reishi and shiitake mushrooms are particularly effective. Echinacea for 10 days out of 20 is excellent for the mucous membranes. Mineral supplementation that includes zinc, copper, and selenium is also essential.
Modern Tip # 2
Nip that cold in the bud by taking herbs and supplements that combat viruses immediately at the onset of symptoms. My favorite combination is garlic (time-honored and available in non-odorous capsule form, though fresh is obviously best), olive leaf extract, echinacea, zinc, and vitamin C. The virus won’t stand a chance!
Modern Tip #3
Load up on antioxidants to help combat the higher risk of infections, such as reservatrol, green tea extract, CoQ10, and alpha lipoic acid.
Modern Tip #4
Enjoy your holiday baking! Many common spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove have great medicinal properties that invigorate the body in winter. Use honey rather than sugar if possible. Makuna honey has amplified medicinal/antibiotic properties. Chocolate, pecans, and all berries are also very high in anti-oxidants.
Modern Tip #5
Follow all ancient tips!
And last but certainly not least, CELEBRATE—around the hearth, with lots of candlelight, and plenty of music and song. The warm glow of joy, love, and friendship are equally essential to nourish us throughout the winter. Avoid the holiday rush as much as possible, plan your giving and feasting way ahead of time, and delight in the anticipation!