By Dr. Isaac Eliaz MD, MS, LAc
Most of us need extra immune support during the winter – this we know. But to reach optimal health this time of year, there are a number of additional steps we can take, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). Greater vitality and overall wellness can be reached by following time-honored practices that align us with nature to deeply nourish body, mind and spirit.
In the winter, this means slowing down, making efforts to nurture yourself, and keeping warm and well rested. In turn, we plant the seeds for regeneration in the spring. When nature slows down and hibernates during the winter, the processes of transformation and growth have already begun internally.
Winter Meditation for Long-Term Health
The stillness of winter offers an ideal time for retrospection, meditation and reflection. But to do this, we first need to slow down through mind-body practices, relaxation, or best of all, regular meditation. This slow-down process naturally gives rise to “stuff” that is often stuck under the surface of our daily activities: issues, thoughts or patterns we may have been avoiding with our chronic busyness. Allow these issues to arise, unfold and slip away as you calm your mind with relaxation, meditation and/or breathing practices.
Simple Meditation Instructions: One ancient method of meditation that is both simple and profound is called Shamatha, or “Calm Abiding”. Shamatha is a staple for both beginners and advanced practitioners of this style. Find a quiet place to sit, and pick a small object such as a rock to place on the ground in front of you, where is comfortable to set your gaze. Focus your eyes and your breathing on the rock, and as thoughts inevitably arise, simply acknowledge and then release them, letting them slip away with each out-breath. When your mind wanders off, gently bring your attention back to your breathing and the rock, visualizing each inhalation and exhalation going to and from the rock. Even just ten minutes a day of this style of meditation is shown to improve numerous markers of physical, mental and emotional health. This type of mind/heart medicine is an integral part of healing.
Winter’s Key Organs
Winter correlates to the element of water and influences the health of the kidneys, bladder, adrenal glands, bones (including bone marrow) and teeth, according to TCM. The kidneys are the primary source of vitality, energy and inner heat, and energy is drawn from this source during times of stress or when the body requires healing. During the cold seasons, it’s vital to maintain healthy kidneys and adrenal glands through an unprocessed food diet and targeted supplementation, good hydration, as well as energetic practices such as yoga and Tai Chi. These efforts help keep your core warm and well nourished.
Winter is an inactive, cold and damp season and in TCM it relates to feelings such as depression. In Western medicine, many people are diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a particular form of depression/anxiety that occurs during the darker months, mainly due to lack of sunshine and vitamin D-3. Women often experience this condition more than men and it results in poor mood, lack of energy and weight gain. In addition to supplementing with Vitamin D-3, I recommend opening your curtains during the day to allow any sunlight to come in and taking brisk walks (in the sunshine if possible) to improve circulation. Furthermore, simple meditation practices such as the one mentioned above are proven in clinical studies to work as well or better than pharmaceutical anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications.
Warm, Nourishing Foods
According to TCM, it is important to avoid too many raw foods during winter because they tend to cool the body and can deplete our digestive “fire” –our ability to assimilate food. Instead, emphasize “warming” foods, and cook them longer at lower temperatures. Goof examples of foods that help warm us internally are soups and stews, lamb and chicken, eggs, root vegetables, dark leafy greens, kidney and black beans, walnuts, black sesame seeds, whole grains and seaweeds. These specific foods help to fortify your kidneys, uplift emotions, nourish your body, keep you warm and help you to conserve energy. Dehydration is also an issue during the winter, since coldness draws away moisture – similar to freezer burn. Warm water is more hydrating than cold water – aim for 8-10 cups per day.
Botanicals and nutrients that promote immune health during the winter are important for avoiding the occasional cold and flu. *
One supplement in particular, Padma Basic®, is a unique Tibetan Herbal Formula with over 3 decades of clinical research behind it. Padma Basic® is shown to support healthy immune function, as well as cardiovascular and circulatory health – critical during the winter as we face colder weather and less physical activity.*
Other herbs emphasized by TCM in the winter include tonifying roots such as ginger, galangal and others, for their warming, grounding and strengthening properties.
Acupuncture, Qi Gong (precise exercises to enhance the flow of vital energy), specific dietary recommendations and targeted herbal formulas all have great value during the winter. They help to relieve stagnant energy caused by a lack of activity and the cold weather, while supporting immunity and boosting vitality. Practitioners of TCM also advise sleeping as much as possible during the winter, which replenishes the kidneys and restores essential energy. Getting to bed early and rising after the sun will help preserve your warmth and vitality.
Traditional Chinese Medicine reflects an innate connection to nature, with each season presenting opportunities for transformation, healing and growth. The winter season allows for deeper introspection and nourishment, so that our inspiration and intentions can develop internally before blossoming in the spring. Stay warm, hydrated and nourished. Most of all, try to give yourself the extra time and space to slow down, rest and meditate in this beautiful season of stillness.