Winter Health Tips for the New Year
By: Dr. Isaac Eliaz, MD
Happy New Year! The holiday excitement is over and now we can move into the stillness of the winter season. It’s a perfect time to become more introspective, set new goals, and nourish your entire being according to the principles of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). TCM is rooted in the philosophy that people should live in harmony with their environment – so during winter, this means slowing down in the colder months, deeply nourishing yourself, and keeping warm and well rested in order to plant the seeds for renewed vitality in the new year. As nature slows down and hibernates during the winter, the process of new growth and regeneration for the spring has already begun internally.
Winter time is an excellent time for retrospection, meditation and exploration of deeper issues. To do this, we need to slow down. In fact, we are usually so busy that we are not even aware of how neurotic our thoughts and actions are. When we slow down through meditation, relaxation, or simply taking some time off, we may be overwhelmed by the recognition of how fast and full our lives really are. If we can take the time to truly relax and slow down, the winter season can provide a profound opportunity for internal insight and deep introspection. This process may naturally give rise to “stuff” that is stuck under the surface of our mundane activities; issues, thoughts or patterns we may have been avoiding with our ongoing busyness. Simply allow these issues to arise, unfold and slip away as you calm your mind with simple meditation and breathing practices. Allowing this process to unfold during the winter season can have a much different quality than the peeling process that we engage in during our spring and fall cleanse. The end result may be similar but different organ systems, emotions and patterns are involved. This level of mind/heart medicine is an integral part of true integrative health and the winter season is an excellent time to experience meditation’s holistic benefits.
According to the principles of TCM, winter is associated with the element of water and influences the health of the kidneys, bladder, adrenal glands, bones (including bone marrow) and teeth. In TCM, the kidneys are the primary source of vitality, energy and heat as well as vital essence. Energy is drawn from this source during times of stress and anxiety or when the body requires healing. During the coldness of winter, it is critical to maintain healthy kidneys and adrenal glands through proper diet and supplementation, good hydration, as well as energetic practices such as yoga and Tai Chi, which help keep your core warm and well nourished.
According to TCM, winter is inactive, cold and damp in nature, relating to feelings such as fear and depression which tend to exert more influence during this season. In Western medicine, many people are diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a particular form of depression/anxiety that occurs during the darker months primarily due to lack of sunshine exposure. Women often experience this condition more than men and it results in poor mood, lack of energy, irritability, weight gain due to overeating and fatigue. 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 and blood flow. Meditation practices which help to calm the mind and heart are also extremely valuable during the winter season.
Warming, Nourishing Foods
In icy winter months, people tend to exercise less, remain more sedentary and crave calorie-dense comfort foods. It’s important however to pay close attention to the amount and type of food you eat during this time, in order to avoid unhealthy weight gain. According to TCM, it is also important to avoid too many raw foods during winter because they tend to cool the body and can deplete our digestive “fire” which is the ability to assimilate food efficiently. I recommend eating warming foods, while cooking them longer and at lower temperatures with less water. Emphasize soups and stews, root vegetables, plenty of dark leafy greens, kidney and black beans, walnuts, black sesame seeds, whole grains, and seaweeds. These specific foods help to fortify the kidneys, uplift the emotions, nourish the body, keep you warm and help you to conserve energy.
Botanicals and nutrients which promote immune health during the winter are important adjuncts for surviving cold and flu season. High quality medicinal mushrooms are potent immune modulators, along with vitamin C, zinc and vitamin D-3. Other powerful immune supplements include Modified Citrus Pectin and a Tibetan Herbal Formula with over 3 decades of clinical research. Purified Honokiol (magnolia bark extract) can help with mood support and a comprehensive digestive formula can keep digestion strong and support nutrient absorption for optimal nourishment. Other herbs emphasized by TCM in the winter include tonifying root herbs, for their warming, grounding and strengthening properties.
People are more susceptible to colds and flu during the winter season, as the cold weather challenges the immune system. The main treatment modalities in TCM are acupuncture and moxabustion (the burning of Moxa herb, mugwort, around specific acupuncture points), Qi Gong (precise exercises to enhance the flow of vital energy), specific dietary recommendations, as well an extensive pharmacopeia of herbal medicine. All of these therapies have great value during the winter, as they help to relieve stagnant energy caused by a lack of activity and the cold weather. Practitioners of TCM also advise resting as much as possible during the winter, which helps replenish the kidneys and restore essential energy. Getting to bed early and rising after the sun has risen will help you 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 seeds and intentions can develop internally before they blossom into the spring. So stay warm, hydrated and nourished and try to give yourself the extra time and space to slow down, rest and meditate in this profound season of stillness.
Best Wishes for a Healthy New Year,
Dr. Isaac Eliaz