Whether you live in balmy, tropical Hawaii, or sub-zero, frosty Minnesota, the energy of winter is the same: storage. At this time winter’s cold drives your life fires deeply inward, collecting itself like a hibernating bear for the coming Spring. The Chinese believe that the water element rules winter, which is associated with the Kidneys, Adrenals and Bladder. These regulate fluid metabolism, bone health, reproduction, and the endocrine system. They also store the deep inherited constitutional energies of the body. Thus, strengthening the Kidneys helps to maintain and protect a healthy body.
Winter gives cues to follow: the sun sets earlier and rises later than it does in any other season. With less sunlight and colder weather we normally tend to spend more time indoors. This naturally enables you to stoke your inner fires, to rest, nourish and replenish your deep energies spent throughout the prior year. Exhaustion at this time of year is more harmful than during any other season. In fact, continuing to over-expend your energies and not store them results in consequences that may not be felt until later in the year when the energy you expect to have just isn’t there. When Kidney energy is low, the emotion of the Kidneys, fear, can become a year-round problem which then intensifies in winter.
While these imbalances can occur at any time of year, they are usually aggravated in winter.
- lowered immunity
- colds and flu
- frequent urination
- urinary continence
- low back pain
- joint aches and pains
- digestive problems
- low libido
- cold hands and feet
- poor hearing
- eyesight and/or poor memory
People who feel worse when winter arrives often fear the cold. Usually they have chilly hands and feet, sit hunched over, experience lower back pain, urinate frequently, have a groaning and gravelly voice, and look pale with dark circles under their eyes. They may even experience a sense of insufficiency or fearfulness, and lack the will or determination to follow anything through.
Winter Herbs for Balance
Herbs which are internally warming and strengthening and move blood circulation are specifically indicated in winter. As well, include immune tonics such as astragalus or reishi. Many of the “winter” herbs can be cooked with soups, an excellent way to increase nutrition and strengthen the body’s reserves. They may also be decocted as teas, using 1 ounce dried herb to 1 pint of water, drinking 2 cups a day. Tinctures, especially those made with red wine, are most appropriate in winter because alcohol has a heating energy. Take 1-2 dropperfuls 3 times/day.
Cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum cassia)
A very warming herb, cinnamon bark fortifies the Kidneys and raises metabolism. It is specific for coldness in the body and treats poor circulation, cold limbs, feelings of coldness, chronic diarrhea, impotence, weakness and coldness in the lower back and/or knees, reduced appetite, poor digestion, frequent urination, and abdominal or low back pain. The branches of the cinnamon tree are used by the Chinese to warm the hands, feet and muscles, and to treat colds and flu with strong chills and low fever.
How to Use: Simmer 3 ‘curls’ of cinnamon bark with 1 pint water in a covered pot for 10 minutes and drink 1-2 cups daily for the above symptoms. Cinnamon powder may be added to foods or made into a nutritive tonic milk: use 1 tsp. cinnamon powder per cup milk. Scald, add a little honey to prevent mucus formation and drink 1 cup per day. Cinnamon bark and powder are easily found in any grocery store. They keep up to 6 months in a covered container stored in a cool, dry, dark place. Cinnamon branches may be purchased where Chinese herbs are sold. Store and keep the same as the bark.
Cautions: hypertension, infections, night sweats, thirst, feeling hot
Deer Antler (Cornu Cervi parvum)
Deer antler is a powerful tonic that strengthens the Kidneys and Adrenals, warms and strengthens the bones. It treats feelings of coldness, impotence, fatigue, tinnitus, weakness or aching of the lower back and extremities, frequent urination, infertility, and chronic vaginal discharge.
How to Use: It may be taken daily, but begin with a small dosage of 1/2 cup tea (simmer 1 ounce/pint for 20 minutes covered); or 1 “0” sized capsule or 1 tablet in the morning and gradually build up to 2-3 cups tea or 2 to 6 “0” sized capsules or 1 tablet two times a day. It is found where Chinese herbs are sold and keeps several years when stored in a sealed container in a dark, dry and cool place.
Cautions: If taken in excess it can cause hypertension with dizziness and red eyes, or hemorrhage. Limit use with hypertension, infections, night sweats, thirst, feeling hot.
Fenugreek seeds (Trigonellae foeni-graeci)
This herb warms the Kidneys, Adrenals and metabolism. It also treats “burnout” syndrome with debility, anemia and nervous exhaustion, digestive disorders, abdominal pain, cold and painful lower back, fevers, mucus in the lungs, asthma and emphysema, and promotes hair growth.
How to Use: Use 1 ounce/pint and simmer covered 15 minutes, drinking 1-3 cups tea daily. The seeds may also be added to soups, stir-fries or eaten as a condiment. Fenugreek is easily obtained in health food or herb stores, and keeps up to a year when stored in a sealed container in a cool, dark, dry place.
Cautions: infections, pregnancy, thirst with a feeling of heat.
Dried Ginger root (Zingiberis officinale)
While fresh ginger treats colds, dried ginger warms the interior body and strongly stimulates metabolism. It treats poor circulation, cold hands, feet and legs, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or loose stools, poor appetite, abdominal pain and cough with white mucus.
How to Use: Take 1 “00” sized capsule or 1 tablet 3 times a day; or add 1 tsp. to a cup of boiling water or scalded milk and drink 1 cup 1-2 times a day. Ginger powder is easily purchased at grocery stores and keeps up to 6 months when stored in a sealed container in a cool, dry, dark place.
Cautions: pregnancy, bleeding, night sweats, infections, thirst with a feeling of heat
Ginseng Root (Panax ginseng; ren shen)
Now is the time to take ginseng root. The “king” of tonics, ginseng is revered because it nourishes all deficiencies. It strengthens the Lungs, treating wheezing, shortness of breath, and breathing difficulties. It strengthens the Spleen and Stomach for weak digestion, lethargy, lack of appetite, abdominal distention, chronic diarrhea, and prolapse of the stomach, uterus or rectum. It also treats coldness, weakness, and impotence.
How to Use: Take 1 “00” sized capsule or 1 tablet 3 times a day; or add 1 tsp. to a cup. Taking a high dose of a high-quality ginseng root daily prolongs life for those at death’s door. Emperors of old saved the best quality ginseng and took it on their deathbed so they could await relatives traveling from long distances to bid their last farewells, even if nearly comatose.
How to Use: Take 1 tablet or 20-60 drops tincture 3 times a day, or simmer 1 ounce/pint water for 25 minutes and drink 1 cup 2 times a day.
Cautions: feelings of heat or being hot, bleeding in cases of feeling heat or hot, absence of signs of deficiency or weakness, hypertension, parasites, infections, colds or flu. Taking green or black tea, citrus, strong spices, cabbage family vegetables, turnips, and radishes the same day as ginseng neutralizes its effects.
Overdose symptoms: tightness of the chest, spasms, rashes, vertigo, fever, bleeding, headache, palpitations, insomnia, and elevated blood pressure. The antidote is mung bean soup.
Other Herbs Good for Winter
- Teas of elder flowers and berries
- prickly ash root
- bayberry root
- galangal root
- celery seeds
- saw palmetto
- spices such as dill, cloves and cardamom
Solutions for Common Winter Complaints
Feeling cold all the time, fear of the cold, frequent urination, cold and sore lower back, low sex drive, night-time urination, weakness, tiredness, lowered immunity with frequent colds and flu.
Cause: Continued eating of cold foods (iced and cold drinks, ice cream and other frozen treats, juices, raw foods, salads, soy milk, tofu, insufficient protein) in the winter not only impairs your digestive metabolic fires, but also introduces coldness into the system. This in turn engages the immune system to continuously maintain body warmth: extra work means a taxed system and therefore, the body becomes more susceptible to illness.
Solutions: Cook all food so it is easier to digest, freeing energy to maintain vigor and immunity. Include plenty of protein and foods which warm the body and strengthen the Kidneys, Blood and energy, such as lamb cooked with dang gui and ginger, pork, beef and eggs, leafy green vegetables, adzuki and black beans, roasted buckwheat, shiitake mushrooms, most root vegetables, winter squash and walnuts. Instead of juices, eat small amounts of cooked fruits, adding cardamom, ginger and/or cinnamon for digestion, or drink hot apple cider with cinnamon. Cook with warming spices such as onions, garlic, cardamom, ginger, cumin, fennel, basil, parsley, and cinnamon.
Dress warmly to maintain body heat: wear plenty of clothes, cover your head outdoors, don scarves and warm socks. Be sure to keep your low back warm, too, as the waist is the site of the Kidneys and your life fires. Jackets and clothing should be long enough to cover this area completely. Alternatively, wear a haramake, a type of vest or band traditionally worn by the Japanese around the waist to cover this area. Use moxibustion over your abdomen and low back, and put a hot water bottle over these areas while asleep.
Exhaustion, tiredness, weakness, “burnout”, all possibly with night sweats, dry mouth at night, and restless sleep.
Cause: Our modern conveniences of indoor lighting, computers, entertainment equipment and so on pull us out of winter’s quiet, inward energy and creates imbalance. Whether you work late at night, frequently jog in the icy dark or get caught in the holiday whirl, you withdraw a lot of energy from your constitutional “trust fund,” ultimately causing burnout when you most need to replenish. Drinking coffee to push through tiredness depletes the trust fund reserves even further, as does alcohol. If you indulged in excessive activity the previous summer and fall you may also experience these symptoms now even though you may be resting more.
Solutions: Early to bed, late to rise is the key to winter: slow down and replenish your energy. Use the extra quiet time to reflect, get plenty of rest, dream, share stories around the fire, stay warm and cozy, reflect, meditate, write in your journal, take naps. Use grain drinks instead of coffee, and warming teas in place of alcohol. Include more protein in your diet (this also helps reduce any sugar cravings). Continue at a slower pace throughout the year to follow, including summer, so that next winter your trust fund is stronger and you won’t experience the same exhaustion.
Depression, irritation, “cabin fever”
Cause: While rest is essential in winter, guard against lethargy as this causes your body’s energy to become stagnant or stuck. We then seek stimulation, which most of us interpret as hunger. Turning to food rather than exercise causes unnecessary weight gain and further stagnation, which then results in more of the above symptoms.
Solutions: Exercise regularly, including seasonal activities such as skating, skiing and sledding, or indoor movement such as yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, dancing and weight lifting. Use full-spectrum light and keep indoor temperatures low. These not only prevent lethargy and depression, but also keep immunity strong. When you go from the hot indoors to the cold outside, your body is shocked, and immunity weakened. As well, creative outlets and appropriate emotional release help prevent and treat the above symptoms.
More Tips to Beat the Cold
Put on a pair of thin socks. Then sprinkle cayenne pepper into another pair of socks and put on over the thin inner socks (this way the cayenne won’t irritate your skin). This technique keeps your feet quite warm in winter!
A special type of underclothing traditionally worn as a wide band around the waist by the Japanese, a haramake protects the vital constitutional energy and metabolic fires of the body. It is worn during cold weather or for symptoms of low back pain, frequent and/or copious urination, night time urination, poor circulation, coldness, low energy and vitality, poor appetite and digestion, gas, bloating, frequent colds and flu, hair loss, bone and disc problems, lowered immunity and for a general state of debility. Those with winter imbalances benefit most by wearing the haramake throughout the day and at night.
Since haramakes are difficult to obtain outside of Japan, wear a long silk form-fitting tank top under clothes and/or put a long wool vest on over clothes. Make sure either is long enough to cover your hips. Although this will help, it is not as warming as a regular haramake. Alternatively, make your own by sewing a tube of stretchy material long and tight enough to cover your hips and waist.
Tip for Vegetarians
Vegetarians especially need to guard against the cold energies of Winter, as vegetarian diets tend to create coldness in the body. To prevent and counteract this, increase your protein intake, only eat cooked foods and liberally use spices in cooking, such as onions, garlic, cumin, mustard seeds, cardamom, fennel, fenugreek and ginger.
Ayurvedic medicine uses a simple kitchen formula, called Trikatu, for treating upper respiratory ailments with mucus and to warm the body up. If taken in winter, it also treats spring and summer allergies caused by a build up of mucus in the body. To make: mix equal parts of powdered black pepper, longan pepper (anise seed may be substituted) and ginger with just enough honey (which is also warming and clears mucus) to form a paste. Eat teaspoon doses 2-3 times/day.
A Bit of Salt
A little salt and herbs high in mineral salts, such as seaweed and nettle, can be added to teas, vegetables and soups to strengthen the Kidneys. A salt craving often indicates weak Kidneys/Adrenals and/or impending adrenal exhaustion.
Caution: Hot Tubs and Saunas
Excessive use of hot tubs and saunas to warm up in winter can actually cause more internal coldness because you lose valuable inner heat through sweating. Guard against further heat loss by taking cool showers, going into the cold plunge or rolling in the snow after hot tubs and saunas. This pushes the heat back into the body and you will actually feel more vitalized and warm afterwards.
Two Perfect Winter Brews
There are two common winter drinks containing warming and tonifying roots or spices that are perfect for this season: the macrobiotic “Mu Tea” and the East Indian chai.