In Traditional Chinese Medicine, winter is the season of the Kidneys and the Water Element. By understanding the Kidney organ system more and how to support it, we can stay well during the winter and live more harmoniously with the season.
Winter is the most yin season of the year. It is the best season to slow down and conserve our energy. While we do not get the cold winters of the mainland here in Hawaii, we still experience cooler temperatures and a milder version of the season and cycle of nature. It is a time for consolidating Qi, taking time to rest, reflect, and replenish after the active and more outgoing time of the Summer and Autumn. The energy of winter is deep and potent - much is going on at an internal level as our Yin replenishes. In nature, the coldness invites a calm and stillness, less activity. It is a much needed time for moving inward, as our bodies and spirits renew and reserve the energy needed to emerge into Spring - the season of growth and new beginnings. While some feel this collective slow down as a relief and opportunity to pause and rest, the nature of winter can also contribute to depression, sense of loneliness, or seasonal affect disorder. Winter is a time when we are invited to connect and make peace with our own darkness and shadows - a time for internal work, integrating our lessons and cultivating wisdom. It is the perfect season to cozy up with a blanket and warming tea, pull out your journal, meditate, or even go on a silent retreat.
Water makes up 71% of the surface of the Earth. It is absolutely essential for life, and on our planet, it is where life sprang forth. Our bodies are made up of approximately 60% water as well. The nature of water is to flow, protect, and transport. Water moves effortlessly, and takes on the form of whatever contains it.
When the water element is balanced, one experiences a sense of flow and ease, a sense of alignment to one’s purpose and destiny. Feeling strength, courage, and willpower come easily. Interestingly, the emotion of water is both fear and willpower. An appropriate amount of fear is healthy for survival- allowing us to have the wisdom to get through dangerous situations with care and caution. However, when the water element is out of balance, one may feel easily anxious, lack of motivation or will, or overwhelmed by fears that are out of place with reality. During the winter season, it is easy to knock your water element out of balance, depleting it with over-work and lack of sleep.
In Chinese Medicine, there are six yin organs and six yang organs. The yin organs store vital substances (such as Qi, Blood, Jing), whereas the yang organs are more active and have a function of constantly filling and emptying. The Kidney and Urinary Bladder Organ systems are a yin and yang pair. Together, they help to regulate water metabolism and excretion of wastes through urine.
The Kidneys are the root of all yin and yang in our bodies - the deepest of all organ systems. They are known as the Gate of Vitality. Their main function in TCM is to store the deepest energetic foundation of our body - the Ming Men Fire - which warms and stimulates all our metabolic functions, and the Jing, or Essence. Jing is the energy that determines one’s vitality, influences growth, reproduction, and how we move through the cycles of life. It is the Jing that ultimately decides both the length and quality of one’s lifespan. Metaphorically, we often refer to the Kidneys as an internal bank, holding our energy accounts that we have on reserve. The savings account is your Jing, with our initial deposit coming from the Jing of our parents. Having a good, secure storage of Jing means having a sturdy constitution and enjoying vitality throughout all of the stages of life - while having not enough or weak Jing means that one may experience chronic health problems, developmental problems, and early aging. The Jing in TCM is considered absolutely precious and should be protected, nourished, and preserved. Stress, imbalanced lifestyles, poor sleep, over-strenuous exercise, trauma, and living life constantly on-the-go are all the ways we end up using up our Jing.
The adrenals sit on top of the Kidneys and are in charge of a slew of hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, aldosterone, androgens, and glucocorticoids which control broad and fundamental systemic functions in the body. Since the emotion associated with the Kidneys is fear (adrenaline, fight or flight), the balanced power of the Kidneys is survival and resilience; being able to discern when to fight, flee or bide your time.
In addition, the Kidneys perform and influence the following:
The Urinary Bladder’s main function is to collect and release water, like a reservoir. Its acupuncture meridian is the longest of the body: starting at the eyes, it runs over the head to the back of the neck, down both sides of the spine to the sacrum, diving down to the backs of the knees, calves, to the ankles, ending at the outside of the little toe. When the Urinary Bladder is out of balance, symptoms of back pain, bladder pain, vertigo and headaches, vision issues, and urinary incontinence may pop up. Due to this organs’ job of “holding on” to urine, an imbalanced Urinary Bladder may cause one to stay “holding on” to fear, grudges and jealousy, and other emotional baggage.
The most common symptoms of Kidney imbalance that we see in our clinic are low back pain, weak knees, exhaustion, mental fog and/or memory loss, frequent urination, low libido, menstrual, and fertility issues. Other signs of imbalance include: autoimmune flare ups, lack of motivation, excessive fear and anxiety, and skeletal disorders.
Want to know what the ancients had to say about how to keep healthy in the winter? Chinese Medicine’s classical texts are still pertinent to this day. The Huang Di Nei Jing ("The Inner Classic of the Yellow Emperor"), which is over 2,200 years old, contains some of the oldest wisdom recorded -
“During the Winter months all things in nature wither, hide, return home, and enter a resting period, just as lakes and rivers freeze and snow falls. This is a time when yin dominates yang. Therefore one should refrain from overusing the yang energy. Retire early and get up with the sunrise, which is later in Winter. Desires and mental activity should be kept quiet and subdued, as if keeping a happy secret. Stay warm, avoid the cold, and keep the skin covered. Avoid sweating. The theory of the Winter season is one of conservation and storage. Without such practice the result will be injury to the Kidney energy. This will cause weakness, shrinking of muscles, and coldness; then the body loses its ability to open and move about in the Spring.”
Aiming for an appropriate balance between activity and rest is crucial to the health of the Kidneys. In addition to the sage advice from the classic texts, here are some self-care tips to follow for the winter months ahead:
- Eat Kidney nourishing foods:Dark colored foods nourish the Kidneys - black mushrooms, black tahini, beets, black beans, adzuki beans, black and dark colored berries, black sesame, black rice, black garlic, to name a few. Salty tasting foods, in moderation, are also good for the Kidneys, drawing the energy inward - make sure to use healthy salt, such as Hawaiian or Himalayan sea salt. Examples include: miso, roasted nuts, seeds, legumes, shellfish, salt water fish, seaweed. Kidneys love warm and cooked foods that are nourishing on a deep level - such as root vegetables, nourishing grains like amaranth, millet, quinoa and hearty stews and soups. In the winter, it is great to support the Kidneys and warm the spirit with spices like garlic, ginger, cinnamon and cardamom.
- Proper hydration:One must drink enough pure water to keep the Kidneys healthy. The commonly known rule of eight glasses per day is about right - if you sweat a lot, you will need more. We suggest adding a pinch of Hawaiian or Himalayan salt to one of your glasses per day to give you electrolytes and additional support for your Kidneys. Cold water is never preferred and can actually injure the Kidneys if it is made a habit. Make sure to drink warm to hot water, especially in the winter, to help relax your mood and muscles, promote more efficient detoxification, blood and Qi circulation, and boost your Kidney health.
- Adaptogenic herbs strengthen the Kidneys, Jing, and adrenals, support immunity, increase resilience to stress, and can help lift depression and ease anxiety. Chaga, Ashwagandha, Schisandra Berries, Astragalus, Rhodiola, Reishi, and Cordyceps are all wonderful herbs that can be taken as supplements, tea, or expertly blended in one of our custom formulas. At Olanani, we can help you customize your herbal wellness regimen for the winter with any of these adaptogenic herbs.
- Do not underestimate the value of keeping your feet warm. The Kidney channel starts at the little toe, crosses the soles of the feet, circles the inner ankle, and goes up the medial side of the leg, connects with the coccyx, threads its way into the spine, and plunges inward to connect to the Kidneys and Bladder on its way upward. Therefore, whatever happens with your feet can directly affect your Kidneys. In general, it is important to cover up and keep warm in the winter and avoid exposing your body to the cold. It is especially important to keep your feet warm with some cozy socks and supportive slippers or shoes, in order to protect the Kidneys and low back. Having warmer feet opens up the blood vessels in them to allow more efficient blood flow back to the Kidneys and redistribution of heat. If you have menstrual or low back pain, feel generally cold and have low energy, doing this simple thing can make a key difference.
- Choose gentle, flowing forms of exercise. Just as the nature of water is to flow, exercises and movement that flow are great for the winter. Qigong, taichi, and yoga are all wonderful in the winter as they are based on deep internal work. Conserving energy in the winter, even in exercise is the way to go. Exercise for the sake of moving energy and keeping things flowing, but do not overspend your energy reserves.
- Get to Bed On Time:Good sleep is essential for Kidney health and maintaining a balance of yin and yang. In Chinese Medicine, 10pm is the best time to be asleep by - as the Qi cycles through the organ systems to do repair work. Shortened sleep and fragmented sleep can lead to faster Kidney decline, causing one to age quicker and become more susceptible to chronic illnesses.
- Tend to Your Womb: The winter is a time of delving into the powerful and deep spaces of the body to remove any areas of stagnation or stuck energy. For those of us with female reproductive organs, this is the time to put extra special attention and care into the womb. The Qi of the Kidneys govern the reproductive organs, and the female womb is the dark space in which the Jing produces a powerful new life force. If you experience menstrual issues such as PMS, pain, fibroids, irregular cycles, fertility concerns, winter is the time to dive in to that deep space to do some internal work. Freeing up stuck traumas and emotions, utilizing herbs and nutrition can bring much needed relief. A series of yoni steam rituals can be highly supportive, as the steaming herbs help to bring circulation, flow, and balance to the reproductive organs. Check out our calendar for Yoni Steams available at Olanani, provided by Punani Steam.
- Go Internal:Make more time to love up on yourself and support your own spiritual development through reflective activities. Meditation, yoga, journaling, dreamwork, and breathwork are great winter exercises. These activities can also help to work through anxiety and depression, and get you ready for the more outgoing expansion of the next season - Spring.