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Eating for the Season: TCM and Winter

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View this season through the lens of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and discover how to adapt your diet and lifestyle to enjoy each season in optimal health. TCM considers your health within the broad context of all the factors that affect your life, including the changing seasons.

Winter is a time for hibernation and internal reflection

Winter is the end of a natural cycle. Many may equate winter with death. However, even within nature, there is an emphasis on yin. During Winter, aspects of receptiveness, introspection, and storage become dominant. Cold and darkness drive one to seek warmth, and there is a quality of quiet restfulness. Work is still getting done, just not to the same extent as is typical in other seasons.

Humans, like most animals, tend to slow down during the colder months, and in the process pack on a few pounds. This is ok. Winter is the time to rest, meditate, strengthen your spirituality, and store physical energy (aka weight gain). Although this is the time for slowing down, it is still important to keep the body moving. Yoga or Tai Chi are excellent forms of exercise this time of year to keep the body flexible. 

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Winter

The ancient Chinese lived and worked in harmony with the rhythms of nature, concepts that carry through in TCM’s modern-day approach to maintaining health.

According to TCM and the theory of Five Elements, every season relates to one of the Five Elements, along with other qualities or characteristics that are important to health in that season.  For Winter, these correspondences are:

  • Season — Winter
  • Element — Water
  • Yin Organ system — Kidney
  • Yang Organ system — Bladder
  • Developments — Storage
  • Color — Black
  • Sounds — Groaning
  • Emotions — Fear
  • Taste — Salty
  • Tissue — Bones
  • Sense organ — Ears
  • Climate — Cold

Importance of the Kidney organ system in Winter

Remember that in TCM, what’s being referenced is an energetic system relating to the organs, not just the organs. The Kidneys govern water metabolism and control the Bladder. They are seen as the root and foundation of the body, and are responsible for reproduction and maturation.

Kidneys are related to the taste of salt. You will notice the salty flavor of many of the recommended foods for Kidney deficiency.

Common symptoms associated with Kidney deficiency are:

  • All bone problems
  • Poor growth and development of mind and body
  • Infertility
  • Hearing loss
  • Hair loss / premature graying
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Fear and insecurity

TCM advice for Winter

Activities for a healthier Winter

  • Keep the body moving – whether it’s gentle indoor exercises like Tai Chi, or winter activities like ice skating or skiing
  • Slow down and conserve energy
  • Engage in spiritual practices
  • Gather with friends and family
  • Be open to new possibilities 

Food for Winter

During Winter it is best to consume cooked or lightly blanched foods. Consume foods that are acrid and sweet in flavor to help to build up and move qi, and protect against cold stagnation. Warm meats supplement qi, yang and blood.

Recommended foods

  • Lamb
  • Venison
  • Game
  • Beef
  • Poultry
  • Duck
  • Stews with legumes and meat
  • Grapes & wine
  • Acrid spices (aniseed, clove, fennel)
  • Leek
  • Walnuts
  • Chestnuts
  • Black sesame
  • Oyster

Foods to avoid

Avoid an excess amount of energetically hot, warm, and acrid foods (like crushed red peppers and jalapenos) because they could dry up body fluids and weaken yin. A symptom example: hot flashes or constipation.

Word of caution: All good things in moderation. Always consult your doctor and herbalist prior to starting any new diet or herbal supplementation.

Links to additional information and recipes for Winter

References

  • Kastner, J. (2004). Chinese Nutritional Therapy. Georg Thieme Verlag.
  • Pitchford, P (2002). Healing with Whole Foods 3rd edition. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books
  • Hyunbae,K. (2007). Handbook of Oriental Medicine 3rd edition. Harmony & Balance Press.
  • Deadman, P., Al-Khafaji, M., Baker. K. (2005). A Manual of Acupuncture. East Sussex: Journal of Chinese Medicine Publications
  • Maciocia, G. Xin Ming, S. (2005). The Foundations of Chinese Medicine: A Comprehensive Text for Acupuncturists and Herbalists. London: Churchill Livingstone.
  • Wiseman, N. [editor, translator], Ellis, A. [translator] (1996). Fundamentals of Chinese Medicine. [Rev. ed.] Brookline, MA: Paradigm Publications

About the author

Teri Calandra

Teri Calandra Dipl.Acu, MSTOM, L.Ac., LMT, RMT

Teri began her studies in energy medicine as part of her own personal development journey, and continues to to learn and integrate that knowledge into her practice. Teri is the founding practitioner of Calandra Center for Health & Wellness in Schaumburg, Illinois. She is licensed by the State of Illinois in acupuncture (L.Ac.), and board certified through the National Certification Commission for Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine (NCCAOM).

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