Winter can be a stunning time of year. Many find this season a nurturing time for nesting and rest, but for others, winter is a challenging period that aggravates and intensifies their health conditions. If you are one of those unlucky people, I’m happy to share that there are a range of simple remedies that can help manage health concerns and normalise your internal temperature to better cope with the colder weather.
Those who have an aversion to the winter season, or to cold in general, can feel the cold right through to the bone; they may be unable to get warm, find their pain is worsened (arthritis, in particular), and see other health issues escalate.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine, winter is related closely to the kidney system, cold, and water and is seen as a time to reflect and rejuvenate. Some of the issues that may present in colder weather include:
- flare-up of arthritic conditions
- lower back or knee pain
- tiredness and fatigue
- memory issues
- menstrual pain
- lowered libido
- poor circulation
- fearful emotions (anxiety and phobias)
- urinary disorders
What can be done to make life more agreeable during this time?
According to ancient texts, winter is the season to slow down and concentrate on conserving energy for spring. We can see this idea demonstrated to us in nature through the many animals who venture into hibernation during the winter so that they are rested and replenished ready for springtime.
From a lifestyle perspective, it is recommended to focus inward. Suggestions to help achieve this are to head to bed early and then awake at sunrise. Gentle movement such as tai chi is an excellent form of exercise to strongly move ‘qi’ (your energy). Focus within yourself and on your inner landscape during this time. Listen to your body, reflect on self-acceptance, and what that looks like for you. Meditation is a wonderful way to work on resting your soul and supporting your focus on rejuvenation. All you need is a quiet space where you can concentrate on your breathing. If quiet is too hard to find, use headphones to block out external noise and use a mindfulness meditation app to step you through the breathing. Start with a few minutes and gradually work upwards.
While these actions will help warm your soul for the coming season, they are less likely to warm your physical body. Rest assured, there are also many techniques to assist you to warm up physically.
Wear Warm Clothes
Keeping covered up is an essential step to ensure you prevent the wind and cold from entering your body. Layering can help so that you are prepared for temperature changes in different environments. Winter is associated with the kidneys, cold, and water. The kidney channel starts in the sole of the foot, so if you suffer from the cold, we recommend that during this time you avoid walking barefoot on cold floors or outdoors as this will add further cold to the body.
A hot water foot bath before bed with added Epsom salt is an excellent way to not only keep you warm but also to warm the kidney channel. A further added benefit is that this can help with sleep.
Eat Warm foods
Diet is always an important part of any treatment and eating for the season provides a really good guideline for which foods should be included. Some of the foods and spices that are warming in nature are cloves, fenugreek, cinnamon, cumin, ginger, black beans, walnuts, chestnuts, miso, quinoa, chicken, lamb, trout, salmon, seafood, and any foods from the onion family.
During winter, warm soups, slow-cooked dishes, and roasted foods are really beneficial, and adding in some organic bone broth to your meals will give your body a boost to help warm you up from the inside out. Cooking slower and at reduced temperatures helps ensure nutrients are not lost. Always remember that while adding in these foods is important, moderation in serving size is also important.
One of the most consumed foods in Asian countries is congee. Congee is a thick, grain-based soup or porridge that is used to prevent illness and promote good health and strong digestion. It’s warming nature is perfect for people who really feel the cold. Congee can be made with a single type of grain such as brown rice, or using a combination of grains, beans, vegetables, and medicinal herbs. Incorporating these items into the daily diet will improve energy levels over time. Congee is prepared in a crock pot overnight, which fits in perfectly with the principles of slow cooking at lower temperatures. It is said that the longer the congee is cooked, the more powerful it becomes.
Hot drinks are also important. Drinking hot ginger or cinnamon tea – or, even better, chai tea – will warm your insides and help keep you toasty inside. A beautiful combination is cinnamon, ginger, and liquorice tea. It is important in general to keep up your fluid intake, but during winter, warm-up your water or drink it at room temperature.
During winter, it is best to minimise your consumption of foods straight from the fridge or foods that are considered cold natured. Cold natured foods include foods that are in season during summer such as cucumbers, citrus, melons, and tomatoes as these have the purpose of cooling us down to counter the summertime heat.
In conjunction with these steps of consuming the recommended foods, keeping yourself warmly clothed, and maintaining your focus on rejuvenation, Chinese medicine is a great adjunct to support your health journey.
After taking a full history into consideration, the practitioner will identify acupuncture points with the intention of clearing any blockages and warming the body. Acupuncture aims to move qi and adjust any imbalances in the body so that the system works more effectively. During an acupuncture treatment, if there are signs of cold in the body, a nurturing modality called moxibustion is often incorporated in treatment.
Moxibustion is one of the modalities used frequently in winter and a favourite of mine to support people who feel cold, are experiencing pain due to the cold, or find their body is not functioning properly. People with ongoing bowel issues, urinary difficulties, pain, and many other issues can often be experiencing their symptoms due to coldness in the body. If you identify with this, moxibustion may be a great way to assist you.
In Chinese medicine, cold is seen as constricting in nature, as it prevents the body working at its optimum. We need heat in the body to fire up the many process that enable us to function.
Moxibustion is an ancient Chinese medicine and heat therapy in which dried leaves (usually mugwort leaves) are bound together and burned on or very near the surface of the skin. The intention is to warm and invigorate the flow of qi in the body to boost the immunity, build energy, remove cold, and to promote vitality and even longevity.
In clinic, I use a lighted moxa stick that is held over specific areas, with the glowing end of the moxa stick held about an inch or two above the surface of the skin until the area reddens and becomes suffused with warmth. This warm invades the centre of the body and it is not uncommon for patients to report a sudden flooding of warmth that quickly radiates along a specific pathway away from the core warmth. Some people report they can feel the warming from the inside out.
If you feel the cold more than most and have health concerns that are aggravated during the cooler winter season, then don’t be disheartened. Follow these actionable and achievable recommendations and with small adjustments to lifestyle, diet, and possibly adjunct treatment with Michele, you can bring back your normal and maybe even find that you can love this winter!
Author: DR Michele Downes B.H. Sc (Chinese Medicine), Registered Acupuncturist and Chinese Herbal Medicine Practitioner, Registered member of AHPRA and AACMA