Winter Wellness for Cold Season
Winter is the season of year most often associated with both cold weather and seasonal colds. Instead of fighting against the elements, we can flow with them and attune our bodies to the natural rhythms of nature. Traditional medicine offers a wealth of wisdom on seasonal cycles, and implementing simple energetic concepts helps to boost health and resiliency so we can stay well all winter long.
Winter is considered the most Yin of all seasons, meaning it is the coldest, darkest and most still: a time for rest, reflection, and ultimately giving back to ourselves. While summer is marked by its ‘yang’ or expansive, active energy, the opposing season is best for storing what we’ve sowed throughout the year so we can begin a new cycle in the spring with refreshed and rejuvenated spirits.
The end of a chapter, the closing of a calendar, winter falls as a natural finale that ushers in cooler days and marks the completion of a season of growth. In this time of absent ‘yang’ to keep us warm, we must seek alternate sources of warmth. Inward reflection, journaling and meditation are the perfect winter activities.
Traditional Chinese Medicine associates winter with the Kidney organ, which are considered the seat of our longevity, vitality, and energy storage. The Kidneys also have a special connection with the bones, hair on the head, and ears; symptoms in these areas (such as weak bones, hair loss or hearing loss) are more common as we age but also if the body is being overtaxed.
WINTER WELLNESS IN ACTION
Keep your body warm. Maintaining our internal temperature up is also vital for protecting against illnesses, since just a slight dip make the body much more hospitable to invading microbes. Keep your abdomen & limbs covered, and apply Blue Moon Balm or a warming body oil (like Olive oil infused with Ginger) to the belly and extremities for healthy circulation. Exercise and bathing in hot water also helps boost blood flow & body heat when the weather outside is frightful.
Wear a scarf at the ‘Wind Gate’ — around your neck. In Chinese Medicine, 'Wind' is a metaphor for contagious pathogens, and we exceptionally vulnerable to it in the back of the neck. This area being known as the Wind Gate, is also happens to be very close to our thermal regulation center in the brain. Protect yourself from both physical and metaphorical Wind by keeping your neck warm with a cozy scarf on cold days. You can also use a scarf to cover your nose and mouth in congested areas like airplanes.
Drink plenty of water — warm water. Traditional Chinese Medicine thinks of our digestive system like a burner: a steaming pot of rice over a fire, to be more precise. When we eat and drink cold foods and beverages, our stomach has to put extra energy into warming these substances before we can break them down. During hotter times of year, cold or raw foods can keep our bodies cool, but when our surrounding temperatures are at their most frigid we want to help our bodies stay warm. Instead of an iced drink, reach for a hot one instead!
Soup, soup, soup. Winter is considered the season of the water element, and it’s especially important to nourish the water in your own body. Soups can serve as a panacea in a pot, allowing you flexibility in cooking and exceptional nourishment. Choose soup ingredients that are local and in season, and incorporate Water and Kidney supporting foods like seaweeds and black beans.
Incorporate warming herbs into your diet. Cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, clove, nutmeg, and pepper are all warm or hot-natured herbs, meaning they improve blood flow and increase metabolism. By working these herbs into teas and cooking, you can help avoid sluggishness of energy, digestion and circulation. In this time of absent ‘yang’ to keep us warm, we must find other sources of heat for our bodies and souls. You can also make your own Fire Cider, a warming vinegar infusion, to sip and cook with ~ feel free to work with herbs you already have on hand, but check out these recipes from the Herbal Academy and Mountain Rose Herbs for inspiration!
SUPPORT YOUR NATURAL LINE OF DEFENSE
Wash your hands frequently — with good soap. Public bathrooms often use antibacterial soaps, which can actually weaken the effectiveness prescription antibiotics when we need them most. Instead, keep a travel sized bottle of castile soap in your bag to use when you're out of the house.
Help your nose breathe clean air. Long flights, freezing temps and artificial heating all dry out the nasal passages, which prevent them from optimally filtering out disease-harboring microbes. Soothe dryness simply by applying a thin layer of mild herbal salve with a clean fingertip into each nostril, and reapply as needed. I especially recommend this at the start of and throughout your time up in the air to avoid picking up airplane germs! The Solve All Salve, Savior Salve & Breathe Relief Balm all work wonders for this specific purpose.
Clear the sinuses with an herbal steam. If you've been in a crowded area or are feeling run down, add a few sprigs of fresh or dry aromatic herbs or 3-5 drops of essential oil to a cup of boiling water. Cover your head with a towel and inhale the steam through your nose and mouth for 5-10 minutes. Any combination of Oregano, Mint, Thyme, Basil, Lavender, Rosemary or Tea Tree will help ~ just use whatever you have on hand.
SWEAT OUT THE FIRST SIGNS OF SICKNESS
If you do start to feel slightly under the weather, don’t push through or ignore it! By catching and addressing your symptoms in the earliest stage of illness, you can actually induce a ‘sweat’ and raise your body temperature to fight viruses before they can lodge deeper in the body.
The sweat method is actually a part of every healing tradition I’ve studied: Western Herbalism, TCM and Hawaiian healing all incorporate the practice. Even my Armenian grandmother remembers effectively sweating out colds in her youth! Chinese Medicine has an entire category of herbs called ‘Release the Exterior,’ which is dedicated to formulas that help you sweat when you first get sick. This method most likely works by inducing a mock fever, creating an inhospitable environment for viruses.
The key to the method is employing the following steps at the very first signs of a cold or flu. The slight tickle in your throat, sluggish energy or a runny nose are all signifiers that you’re headed for sick days ahead. But once a virus has you in its throes, it is likely too late — which is why you need to do the following on day one of feeling ill, and not any later.
To start, brew up some tea with whatever warming pungent herbs you have in your kitchen: ginger, garlic, chilis, and onions are all good options, so use whatever you’ve got. Boil some water and pour over a generous serving of herbs, and steep covered for a few minutes while you dress yourself in layers of the warmest clothes in your closet. I’m talking a winter hat, thick socks, sweatpants and a scarf. Then grab your tea and wrap yourself in warm blankets.
Once you’re exceptionally warm and bundled, start slowly sipping on your hot tea. The goal is to get uncomfortably hot, and then to fully break a sweat. You can use a thermometer to make sure your temperature doesn't go up by more than one degree. Once you have sufficiently perspired (so that your skin is damp to the touch), follow up immediately with a hot shower. The whole sweating process should last about 15 to 25 minutes maximum as you don’t want to over do it.
Take it easy until you've returned to full health. Get plenty of rest and drink warm fluids to replenish the ones you lost and follow the advice in this journal post until you're back to 100%.
Healing with Whole Foods by Paul Pitchford
The Five Elements Cookbook by Zoey Xinyi Gong
Asian American Herbalism by Erin Masako Wilkins