Monday, November 28, 2011

Six Lifestyle Tips for Winter Health

“During the winter months all things in nature wither, hide, return home, and enter a resting period... this is a time when yin dominates yang. Therefore one should refrain from overusing yang energy. Retire early and get up with sunrise, which is later in winter. Desires and mental activity should be kept quiet and subdued.”

---The Yellow Emperor's Classic of Medicine, circa 2nd century BCE

In winter, plants become dormant and pull their energy deep down into their roots. Rivers and lakes freeze and the ground hardens. Even here in California, where we have agriculture all year around, growth slows substantially. Birds migrate to the south. Many mammals go into hibernation. Our surroundings become cold, slow, damp and still.

The days become shorter and the hours of darkness longer until December 21st, the longest night of the year.

In terms of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) philosophy, Winter is the time when Yin predominates in our environment, and in our bodies. Just as the energy of plants goes deep into the roots at this time of year, the Yang Qi of our bodies draws inward and exists in a concentrated form deep inside of us, burning like a small ember, warming our internal organs. These same internal organs are, in Chinese Medicine theory, responsible for both physical vitality and emotional well-being. As Yang is pulled deep inside, the Yin Qi of our natural surroundings is drawn in to pervade and nourish the whole body, supporting our immunity by helping our bodies adjust to the cold winter environment.

What does the predominance of Yin mean for us 21st century urban dwellers?

Many of us spend this time of year busily preparing for winter traditions which anticipate and celebrate the return of light. Moreover, central heating and electric lights enable us to keep our busy routines despite the cold and darkness. Our winter celebrations are wonderful, and it is true that the even the dormant plants are at work, deep in the ground, preparing for their reemergence in spring. However, the signals of our natural environment, and the teachings of Chinese Medicine, suggest that we benefit mentally, spiritually and emotionally by honoring the dark, inward, Yin quality of this time of year.

Here are five simple tips for honoring winter and darkness in our lives:

1. Dress Warmly

As the weather becomes colder, we easily lose energy to our environment. Be sure to bundle up. In terms of TCM, the energy of the Kidneys and Urinary Bladder predominate in winter. Some people wear an extra layer wrapped around their low back and lower abdomen, to protect their kidney energy. A scarf around the neck and a hat on the head are highly recommended to protect the back of the neck and head, domain of the Bladder meridian, where colds are thought to enter the body. The feet are also the domain of the Kidney and Bladder meridians, so be sure to wear warm socks and shoes.

Don't be deceived by the occasional 70-degree December weather in the Bay Area! Though it's tempting to shed layers & catch some rays, it is important NOT to expose yourself too much to the elements on the. Keep yourself dressed warmly. Temperatures change quickly in the late afternoon. Adjusting to these radical daily temperature fluctuations is very hard on our bodies. Our physiology is prone to lose energy to the environment at this time of year. You're much more likely to catch a chill or a bad cold from dressing lightly at this time of year than your are in July.

2. Eat Earlier in the Day and Don't Overeat

Our bodies crave deep nourishment from food at this time of year, but because the days are colder and shorter, our digestive energies are rather sluggish and active for fewer hours during the day. In Chinese Medicine theory, our digestive energy is said to be abundant at dawn, empowered at noon and sluggish in the evening. This means that you should eat a large breakfast, a moderate lunch, and a light dinner. (Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a peasant.) Dinner should consist largely of savory liquids (soups, broths) which are easy to digest and assimilate. A little fermented food with each meal also helps digestion. A large dinner can remain half-digested and interfere with sleep at night.

Because we crave nutrients at this time of year, there is a tendency for us to overeat. Overeating impairs our vital energy by injuring our Spleen (digestive system) as well as our deeper Kidney energy. It is important to be meticulous and consistent about eat nourishing food daily. Eat moderate amounts and learn to stop when satisfied, especially at the evening meal.

(Please stay tuned for an upcoming blog on great foods and food preparation tips for winter!)

3. Stick to Routine

The Kidney thrives on routine and is harmed by erratic schedules and lifestyle patterns. Keeping routines is hard in December if we're attending holiday events and visiting family and friends, but it is important during this time of the year when the Kidney is already vulnerable to overexertion. Try to maintain a regular sleep schedule, going to bed at the same time each night. Especially important is keeping a regular schedule of meals. It's great if you can eat regular staple foods at each meal. A grain like rice, quinoa, millet, or rice, along with some protein and vegetables is ideal.

4. Rest

It is perfectly normal to feel tired at this Yin time of the year. It is healthy to honor this by going to bed early and sleeping longer. Rest more. Simplifying our daily routines and scheduling less activities allows us more time for resting.

4a. Rest Instead of Stimulants

At this tired time of year, stimulants like coffee, sugar and chocolate become more tempting. In terms of Chinese Medicine, these stimulants pull our Yang energy to the surface of our bodies, giving us a short-term artificial burst of energy. The trouble with this is that instead of warming our internal organs, our Yang energy becomes lost to the cold surrounding atmosphere, depleting our immunity both in the short term and the long term.

Tea is a much healthier source of stimulation than coffee, as tea has anti-anxiety and anti-stress properties as well as immune-enhancing antioxidants and enzymes. Darker, more robust teas like oolong, pu-ehr, and black teas are great in winter as they pull heat into the center of the body, rather than dispersing it.

5. Reflect

Summer is a great time for being active and getting things done. By contrast, winter is a time for reflection and evaluation. As nature draws its energy inward and downward, we should also focus our energies inward. Simplifying our routines to the bare essentials gives us more time for reflection.

Sleep. Relax. Take quiet walks. Pay more attention to dreams. Meditate. Practice qi gong or taiji daily. Wonder. Write poetry. Look deeply within.

A teacher of mine says, in winter, instead of taking the trip, watch the movie.

Now, as a mom of a small kid, I know that time for resting and reflection can be hard to come if you have family members to care for. Kids can be part of our daily practice of quiet reflection. Enjoy simple, unscheduled time with them. Listen to them. Watch. Learn from them.

The sense organ corresponding to winter in Chinese Medicine is the ear. I think this implies that this is a time of year to be receptive, to be quiet, to listen deeply.

This is the time to reevaluate what we've accomplished in the previous year, how we've spent our time, who our real friends and family are. This is a time to lay bare and reexamine our most fundamental values. These will help guide us as we become more active again during the spring of the coming year. Quiet periods of reflection are part of how we grow as human beings.

6. Spend Time with Family and Friends

As I mentioned above, in winter, our Yang Qi is pulled deeply inside of us to warm our internal organs. Spending joyful times with family and friends is like this. We share rituals. We light candles. We enjoying music or movies and eat delicious meals. All of these things warm our hearts and nourish our bodies and souls from deep inside at this cold time of year.

Happy Winter!