Welcome to Chinese Medicine Bristol's official blog! Here, Acupuncture and TCM pracitioner Sandra Arbelaez will share information about Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, how they work, and the latest research and developments related to TCM. You will also find knowledge and ideas on how to enjoy a full, healthy life that she has picked up over the course of 15 years of exploring the world of natural health

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Winter life-style

Seasonal changes affect all living beings
The cycle of the seasons does not just bring a variety of colours and temperatures; it represents a dynamic of changes that affects every living being. Thus, the growing energy of spring makes every form of life more likely to grow and expand towards the climax of summer, while the contracting and withdrawing energies of autumn make all life travel back to the stillness of winter. 

Even in the UK’s temperate Northern climate where neither summer or winter are as extreme as they could be, and despite the alteration in the seasons that we have been experiencing in the last two decades, these dynamic changes are still occurring and affecting not only the trees and the colours of the sky, but every animal on the land, including us. 

In traditional societies seasonal changes are naturally accompanied by a change in diet, activity, and sleep patterns that are intrinsic parts of the season itself: what crops can be harvested, the average temperature, the amount of daylight available, etc. This was also true in long-gone days in more developed societies where nowadays the often deceitful blessings of modern comforts make us unaware of the real impact of the seasons on the workings of the body.

Chinese Medicine, like the Chinese culture, observes seasonal changes and considers that adapting our diet and lifestyle to the seasons plays an important role in the maintenance of health and vitality.

The effects of winter

Nobody loves to feel cold and spend most of the day in darkness. Nevertheless, as nothing exists without its opposite, without the Yin of winter there would be no summer Yang. Here I can imagine the groans of my fellow UK dwellers but, even us who often think we get no summer to speak of, still experience the contrast between the warmer and longer days, and the abundance of local fruit and vegetables of summer with what we get in winter!

Despite our centrally heated homes and cars, and the availability of out of season produce in our supermarkets, our bodies change as a result of the cold, damp, and dark days of winter. Cold, dampness, and darkness are predominantly Yin in nature making winter the season in which Yin is harboured and Yang becomes weaker.
In terms of TCM, this means that we need to promote and protect our Yang energy while allowing the Yin energy to become naturally stronger. 

Cold has a tendency to contract and to make things slow and even immobile, while dampness is heavy and sticky making things sluggish and turbid. As a result of these two climatic factors, we may experience symptoms such as:
Susceptibility to cold: Although this is obvious, I often encounter people who come outside without covering up properly just because they are not going to be out for long. It is not a question of time but of temperature.
Winter makes us more sleepy
Feeling increasingly tired and sleepy: Cold slows us down because our body temperature needs to be kept at the level in which metabolic and bodily functions can occur, and keeping warm requires energy. As a result, lower outside temperatures put an extra burden on our energy requirements so we feel the need for more rest and less activity. If we fail to honour this, excessive tiredness and exhaustion may ensue.

Feeling hungrier than usual: As energy requirements increase, so do -or should- our appetites in order to provide enough fuel for body functioning and activity.

Low immunity: Good immunity results from strong Qi and Yang, and to some extent from plentiful Blood. In winter, when Yang energy is at its lowest, we may become more susceptible to infections particularly if we already have low energy or fail to get enough rest and proper nutrition.

Feeling weighed down or congested: Cold contracts, dampness makes things fuzzy and sluggish. This can affect us at any level giving us a feeling of sinking and withdrawal in our bodies, mind, and/or emotions. This also means that anyone experiencing chronic symptoms resulting from blockage, sluggish circulation, and accumulation may suffer a worsening of symptoms during winter. Examples of this include different types of pain, feelings of fullness in head, or chest, body aches, some skin conditions, etc.

Lack of motivation, sadness, or depression:
As the body naturally slows down in winter, our emotions may follow. If we feel tired and low in energy, this can be reflected in our emotions as well, so feeling low may also be showing us that we need for more rest.


In addition, certain TCM organs are more susceptible to imbalances in the winter:
The Kidneys can be easily injured by cold. Allowing exposure to cold on the lower back, lower abdomen, feet, and lower legs -all of which are associated with the Kidneys-, can result in Kidney deficiency symptoms such as frequent/copious urination, lower back ache, extreme cold not relieved by any amount of clothing, low libido, menstrual cramps, and exhaustion. Left untreated, this may lead to increasingly depleted Kidney Qi and Yang that then fail to support all other organs so this may create a vicious circle of deficient energies. 

The Spleen can be injured by Dampness which can clog up this organ resulting in sluggish digestion and a sensation of heaviness. This mostly happens if the Spleen is already deficient or our diet is heavy or not warming enough for the season. A weak and sluggish digestion can then lead to a host of problems including menstrual irregularities, malabsorption, and depression; and it can contribute to the accumulation of phlegm in the Lungs. 

The Lungs can also be easily injured by cold through breathing extremely cold air, this can affect breathing and the oxygenation of all cells, as well as impairing the Lung function of spreading the Defensive (Wei) Qi throughout the body leaving us more susceptible to respiratory disease.

Refer to my previous posts on the TCM Kidneys, Spleen, and Lungs to find out how they work and how to maintain their health.

TCM Treatment
Moxibustion warms the Yang energy
When Qi or Yang are already weak, or we are exposed to more extreme conditions, we may develop more severe symptoms that are not easily alleviated by rest or nourishment. Symptoms such as unremitting flu symptoms or chest infections, moderate to severe depression, acute painful conditions, and severe menstrual cramping respond well to TCM treatment. 

Acupuncture can relieve painful conditions, while moxibustion (the burning of the herb mugwort over specific points) is very effective to warm and restore the Yang energy and relieve pain, constraints and disease caused by internal cold. Specific Chinese herbal remedies can also be used to drive out pathogens and strengthen the deeper energies of the body. Treatment should always be accompanied by appropriate life-style so that symptoms do not reoccur.

What you can do

Keeping warm

We need to keep our bodies warm not just by being in warm places but by dressing appropriately and eating foods that warm us up from the inside. Apart from the normal, “sensible” ideas about winter clothing that we got from our mums, there are a couple of things to consider:
Dressing warmly is key for winter health
  • According to TCM, colds and flu can be caused by an “external invasion” of pathogenic factors such as Wind and Cold. These pathogens can readily invade the body through the head, ears and back of the neck. Given that we can be more susceptible to disease in winter, covering these parts of the body is important in order not to become easily sick. So if you think you look silly in that hat, remember that you will look sillier spending half of the winter coughing stuff up!
  • In order to protect the Kidneys from cold, try to keep the lower back, lower abdomen and the lower legs and feet warm at all times. If you are a cyclist, or a builder working outside you will need an extra layer over your lower back as these activities expose this area to the elements which may result in symptoms of disease ranging from back pain to urinary problems.
Warming up from inside
  Basic TCM dietary advice is already intended to support digestive fire and the Yang energy so eating following these principles is particularly relevant in Winter time. Some other considerations include:
Roasted root veggies- good winter food
  • In winter it is essential that cold and raw food and drink are avoided or kept to a minimum as the digestive fire needs to be protected. Soups and stews are still the best way of nourishing the digestive energy, although now heartier ingredients such as seasonal root vegetables become the staples.
  • While in summer it is not recommended to eat overly heating foods, in winter it is appropriate to do just that, provided you are not a person who easily overheats or suffers from digestive problems, suppurative skin rashes, chronic inflammatory illnesses or cannot tolerate warmer foods for other reasons. Adding moderate amounts of spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, anis seed, cloves, cumin, and ginger (fresh and dry) to meals can also help us keep our Yang strong. Cooking food for longer like when stewing and roasting is considered to make food energetically warmer and may be favoured over more cooling methods such as steaming and boiling.
  • Avoiding cold drinks and drinking warming teas and small amounts of alcohol except from beer and cider (which are cold and damp like winter itself) can also contribute to keeping the body warm. Bear in mind that alcohol is high in toxicity to the body so it’s best not to drink on a daily basis.
  • Lower energy  and feeling cold can make us crave sweets. Curb some of your cravings with sweet root vegetables which can provide the right kind of sugar to the body. For the extra sweetness, favour honey, molasses, and dried fruits such as apricots and dates over refined sugary products.
 Moving the body is always a good thing as it promotes the circulation of Qi and Blood, which in turn activates the organs and contribute to the production of more Qi and Blood. Exercise also benefits our sleep and improves our mood, which is particularly important in winter when lack of light may result in low moods. 

In winter however, when there is less energy available as the body works harder to keep warm and protected from disease, our exercise should be very moderate and in a way that does not make us feel cold. Although exercise makes us feel warm, as we sweat our pores open up and may give room for external pathogens to attack the body or at the very least undermine our Protective (Wei) Qi. Because of this, we need to make sure the parts that are most susceptible to cold are well protected if exercising outside. Indoor exercise does not have to be limited to the gym, dance classes or just regular dancing can provide good winter exertion and also lift the spirits.

Rest and sleep
In our culture of “busier is better”, proper rest and sleep are given little importance although they are necessary for good health. Our individual rest and sleep requirements change according to our age and physical condition, and they are also influenced by the seasons. The longer nights of winter and reduced supply of Yang energy naturally make us feel like sleeping more so if we feel the need, we are allowed to rest more!

 Conversely, sleeping much more than needed can make us sluggish and affect the functioning of every organ in the body. Unless you are unwell or otherwise have a real necessity to sleep a lot, sleeping more than 8 or 9 hours per night may actually make you more tired. The body needs a certain amount of activity in order for the production and circulation of Qi and Blood to be triggered (see “exercise” above). So try to strike a balance between your daily amount of rest and activity.

Enjoy quietness and stillness
Winter possesses the quality of stillness
 The energy of winter is all about withdrawing, gathering, and preparing for the change and growth of spring. While rest and warming foods can help us achieve this at a physical level, we also need to “gather” mentally and emotionally in preparation for the more outgoing and active seasons. 
We are culturally predisposed against being by ourselves and being still. When we are supposedly “relaxing” we are in fact getting bombarded by visual and other sensorial stimulation, never in fact achieving a relaxed state. This is a symptom of a societal imbalance that makes us restless, anxious, and unable to truly appreciate and enjoy life. The fact that being in silence by ourselves makes us feel so uncomfortable shows that we really need to learn to “be” with ourselves. Winter is an ideal time for contemplation and reflexion as it already possesses the quality of stillness. There are many ways to meditate and reflect: formal meditation classes and practices, deep prayer, and being in nature can all put us in a place in which we can look inside ourselves. Whichever way you choose, you will need to make the effort to quieten the mind. Not an easy task, but you will be rewarded with knowing yourself a little better and feeling mentally and emotionally stronger for it.

Just like every other living being, we are susceptible to deep changes brought on by the different seasons. Although this is overlooked by modern developed societies, understanding and honouring these changes is key in the maintenance of our good mental and physical health. The dreaded winter, with its cold and damp long nights, brings us an opportunity to restore ourselves and look within before the earth’s energies make us more active again. Taking advantage of this opportunity will not only create more balance in our life, but also result in a better understanding of our own needs, and a deeper connection with the life that goes on around us.