Here comes Winter Solstice – the longest night of the year. I have some friends and patients who have a hard time with the cold and the darkness of winter. Winter is something that they endure but don’t enjoy. They feel a depression that doesn’t really go away until spring, when the days are visibly longer.
I have other friends who really love winter and the long, dark nights. For them, it’s time to slow down, to go inward, to stay indoors and be cozy, reading, watching movies, talking, or knitting. All quieter wintertime pursuits. At Thanksgiving, one friend talked about how every year she tries to get a bit cozier and quieter in winter.
I go back and forth myself in my attitude towards winter. I love the coziness, and I also can’t wait for the return of the light. On the Winter Solstice, I’m so happy that the days have finished getting shorter and now we are heading back to more daylight.
Winter is the season of the Water 水 element or phase in Chinese Medicine.
This article is part of a series that looks at some seasonal themes in classical Chinese medicine. In particular, we are looking at the season's associations with the five phase elements and how those can help us understand and take care of our bodies. You can read about spring, summer, late summer, fall – and continue below to learn more about winter.
There are three big themes for the water element: keeping reserves, flow, and cleansing.
Let's start with RESERVES.
In winter, the trees are bare. They may almost look dead, but they are really just dormant. The energy of the tree has left the branches and is down deep in the roots, underground, resting and regenerating for the coming year. In herbal medicine, we often harvest medicinal roots in the winter because they have greater potency.
The hibernating bear represents this as well. She is sleeping and saving her energy to get through the winter until it’s time to emerge from her cave in the spring. We can see these themes in the acorn seed as well. It lies dormant underground, waiting for spring to burst up and out into the above-ground world.
Traditionally, in winter, humans would slow down our pace and sleep more.
We would conserve food and fuel to make sure that we could get through to the spring and summer. These days, at least in the US, the majority have easy access to food, light and warmth in the winter, so we don’t really HAVE to slow down. Still, some part of our bodies are attuned to and respond to the rhythms of nature.
I know that if I keep pushing myself to work long hours or stay up late through the winter, I find myself exhausted in the spring. I don't give myself a chance to rest and restore in the winter. This robs my body and mind of the chance to heal, rebuild my reserves, and to be ready for the natural hurry and exuberance of spring.
Strangely, the past two pandemic winters have been good for me in this respect. I really slow down. I don’t leave the house much. I rest more and I’ve got more energy once spring comes.
Now, let's talk about FLOW.
There’s a part of the water element that has to do with a healthy relationship to the unknown, and going with the flow. The sea turtle is a wonderful example of this in nature. There’s trust in the unknown involved in laying one’s eggs in the sand and then going back into the ocean, not knowing what will happen to those eggs next, or how many will make it back to the water. Or swimming in the waves, where the ocean may bring food or danger or both.
The virtue of the Water phase is wisdom, which differs from knowledge.
Knowledge is about knowing information and facts. Wisdom is more about understanding how to use knowledge, often gained over time. It’s about understanding and accepting that sometimes you know and sometimes you don’t know, and sometimes you must act and sometimes wait. It’s all about being in the flow.
This brings to mind the water associated emotion of fear.
Fear can be really hard – it means to accept and flow with the unknown. Things could be great or terrible. Scary things can happen in the unknown, there’s nothing saying they won’t. Fear can be seen as Water all frozen up, no longer flowing and accepting.
Finally, let's address CLEANSING.
Water cleans, this is obvious. In Chinese medicine, the Kidney and the Bladder are the organ networks associated with the Water element, and in both Western and Chinese medicine they have important roles in cleansing the body of impurities and waste. A polluted stream doesn’t nourish anyone.
The Bladder and Kidney organ systems.
We each have two meridians/organ networks that belong to the Water element, those are the Bladder and the Kidney. We'll start off with discussing the Bladder. The Bladder network is in charge of storing water and disposing of waste products.
Water is life. About 60% of our bodies are water, and thus is it our most precious resource. Again, the Water phase element is all about our reserves, literally so in this case. When functioning well, the Bladder keeps more water when we are dehydrated and releases more water when we are retaining too much.
If the Bladder cannot do its job, there is often an imbalance in your body's water – dry & brittle or swollen and soggy!
There can also be urine retention, infection and organ damage. The Bladder meridian is the longest one in the body, running from the inner part of the eye, over the back of the head and neck, down the back, buttocks, hamstrings and calves, and then the outer ankle and foot to end at the littlest toe. Eye, back, and leg issues can be related to blockages in this meridian.
Mentally and emotionally, there can be issues with fear when the Bladder organ system isn’t healthy.
Either too much fear, especially fear of not having enough, or not enough fear with excessive risk taking. That fear of not having enough can lead to hoarding resources. When in balance, there is less fear of not having enough, and there can be more generosity and trust.
The Kidney organ system separates out impurities, overlapping some with the functions of the Bladder, though technically the Kidney separates and the Bladder expels. The Kidney system sends water to the whole body, in this way nourishing every organ and cell. It is also the storehouse of our Ancestral qi or energy reserves, the oomph that you came into the world with when you were born and that carries you through your life, gradually diminishing as you get older.
When you have used up your day-to-day energy from food and breath, you can draw on these reserves.
When you have to use your will to push and go further, either physically, mentally or emotionally, you are using Kidney energy. This energy can also be depleted by pushing too hard for too long—going with too little sleep, too much stress, too much work, not enough good food or water uses it up. Long-term use of drugs can also harm the Kidney.
The Kidney organ system is the creator of bone, marrow and the brain.
It also governs the ears (which even look a little like kidneys) and the reproductive organs. Kidney system health is an important part of fertility and reproductive health. The Kidney system also is involved with diseases and conditions that people are born with – congenital conditions.
Ways to Support Your Water phase element!
Rest and Sleep
In higher latitudes, winter used to be a time for working shorter hours, sleeping more, talking and dreaming about the year that passed and the year ahead, but not a time for action. Modern life has made it possible to work long hours, stay busy and sleep less in the winter, but your body still needs that time of slowing down and regenerating. Sleep more, pay attention to your dreams and rest.
Get Your Cozy On
What can you do to help yourself slow down and get cozy? Maybe it’s a fire in the fireplace or a wood stove. Or perhaps it’s your favorite blanket on the couch with a good book or TV series. For some it’s fuzzy slippers or a bathrobe. Anything that helps you slow down and enjoy this Water season is worth consideration!
Bone Broth, Soups and Stews
Soups and stews are great in the winter. They are a great way to stay warm and get lots of nutritious vegetables and protein. Plus, most soup recipes are great for leftovers throughout the week. This helps you spend less time cooking and more time resting. This winter I have been using my slow cooker and instant pot twice a week to make yummy, nutritious recipes.
Here’s the latest one I’ve tried (it was delicious): Three Sisters Butternut Squash Chili
If you eat animal protein, bone broth is another great thing to cook up.
As I've mentioned, the Kidney organ system and the Water phase rule our bones – it's a deep symbolic association in Chinese medicine. Bone broth is rich in minerals and collagen and is supportive to your gastrointestinal tract and joints. It can even help with sleep!
Here’s a recipe and more information on the benefits of bone broth. You can either use the broth in other recipes, or just drink four to eight ounces as a daily tonic.
Acupuncture and moxibustion
You may have heard of moxibustion before. It’s deeply warming and restorative, and I’ve found over the years that most people find it deeply comforting as well. It works well with acupuncture to build up depleted energy and soothe aching joints and muscles.
If it feels like your reserves are down or your flow is blocked, or if you are having a hard time with any of the other physical or emotional issues that I’ve discussed in this post, come in for some acupuncture or naturopathic care!
This article is part of a series that looks at some seasonal themes in classical Chinese medicine. In particular, we are looking at the season's associations with the five phase elements and how those can help us understand and take care of our bodies. You can read about spring, summer, fall and winter. Read below to learn about SPRING!
“It’s August, there’s always more to eat”, my dad announced as he came in from his garden with an armful of green beans, tomatoes, ears of corn, and cucumbers. I was at my parents’ home in Ellensburg, Washington for a few days to help my mom recover from knee surgery.
Usually I don’t make it over to their home in August, so I was getting a rare treat of the bounty of my dad’s garden.
My dad grew up farming, and though he eventually became an accountant, you can’t take the farm out of him. All my life he’s had a huge garden, now over a thousand square feet in size and a little orchard as well. Basically a small scale farm. This time of year he and my mom are busily canning green beans, pickles, and jams of multiple varieties, drying prunes, and freezing what can’t be canned or dried. And of course, eating as much of this delicious, fresh bounty as possible.
I was happy to help with the eating.
In the Chinese five phase element philosophy, late summer corresponds to the Earth.
Earth is all about nourishment, the abundance of nature at this time of year that generously gives us almost more than we can handle. It is the nurturing love of a good parent that provides for their child’s needs. It is about home and comfort, being grounded and supported in the place that you live.
It’s about the inner peace of knowing that Earth will provide for you, that you will have enough to eat and a good home, that your basic needs are taken care of so that you can have the energy to live a good life. Earth is also about hard work. When the fruits and vegetables of the garden come in, it is time to harvest. The Earth has its own timeline, and if you can’t keep up, this abundance of food will rot and become compost.
The Physical and Mental/Emotional Aspects of the Earth Element
Earth is a very physical element, and Chinese medicine theory indicates that it governs most of the digestive system. It governs how you take in food, process it into forms that your body can use, and then distribute that nourishment throughout the body. In this way, it acts like a good parent making sure all of the children are fed. When your Earth element is healthy, you have good energy and solid muscle mass. Emotionally, you have a sense of security.
When they have more than they need they are generous with others, like a parent, but they don’t give at the expense of their own well-being.
When a person’s Earth element is unhealthy, a person’s digestive system often doesn’t function well and they may have bloating, reflux, or an overproduction of mucus. They may be eating good food but the body isn’t able to properly make energy from it, so they are often fatigued. Emotionally, if the Earth element is impaired, a person may become needy or worried, because it feels like they don’t have enough.
Or they may become so used to not having enough that they can become hardened, and no longer can receive nurturing from others. The parenting aspect of the Earth element may go to extremes and they may become overbearing and controlling of others or may become self-sacrificing to the detriment of their own health.
Mentally the Earth element governs digestion of ideas
This includes being able to take in information, break it into usable chunks, remember it and use that digested information to think clearly and create new ideas. Rumination is a word that I use to refer to both physical digestion and mental digestion – it applies perfectly to the function of the Earth element. A healthy Earth element is essential to being able to learn.
When the Earth element is out of balance then you may begin to overthink and worry, just going over the same thoughts and not getting anywhere. Or you may have brain fog and difficulty thinking at all. You may find it difficult to take in new information. It’s easy to get confused and stuck if your Earth element isn’t healthy.
There are two acupuncture meridians or organ networks in the body that belong to the fire element, these are the Stomach and the Spleen.
I will start with the Stomach organ system.
The Stomach is in charge of rotting and ripening the food that that you eat, but this doesn’t mean that it’s a bowl that food merely sits in as it decomposes. It can be thought of as the master chef, taking in food and cooking it, processing it, breaking it down into usable, nutritious pieces of energy (nutritive qi) and blood so that all of the nourishment and abundance from Mother Earth can be taken in and really feed us. All of the nutritive qi and blood that the Stomach has prepared then goes out to feed all of the other organs and tissues of the body.
Stomach imbalance can cause a range of issues, but the most common include malnutrition. Even if you are eating good food in appropriate amounts, the body can’t properly use it in this situation. You can also experience nausea and vomiting, where food doesn’t stay down and move through the body but goes back up instead.
In the mental/emotional sphere you might experience difficulty with processing information that has been communicated to you. There can be a lot of worry and anxiety – rumination – in a Stomach imbalance.
Now, I will consider the spleen organ system.
The Spleen is in charge of transportation and distribution. This is the network that takes the nutritive qi and blood that the Stomach has prepared and delivers it to all the organs, tissues and cells of the body. The Spleen is much like a network of delivery trucks. The organs and tissues can’t go out and pick up the nutrition that they need on their own.
Think about the experience so many of us had during the pandemic. We relied on UPS, the postal system and folks delivering food from grocery stores and restaurants in order to get what we needed for daily life. In a similar way, human health relies on the complex delivery system of the Spleen network. It makes sure that all parts of the body, all the organs, the muscles, the limbs, have the nourishment that they need.
If the Spleen is not healthy and unable to do its work, then nutrition doesn’t always get all the way out to all parts of our bodies.
In a spleen deficiency, you might experience cold hands and feet, weakness in your muscles or persistent fatigue. Many symptoms of Spleen trouble emerge when the normal transportation and transformation movement stops. Everything gets thick, slow and sticky.
This can result in build up of mucus in the head, chest, or intestines. You might have decreased lymphatic movement, or pooling of blood or fluids in the extremities – resulting in varicosities or edema. In people with uteruses this might show up as menstrual irregularities including blood clots, or lack of periods or painful periods.
In the mental and emotional sphere, if the Spleen is unhealthy then mental and emotional movement is impaired. It is difficult to move information from our memory stores into our conscious mind. Movement in general becomes difficult and you may become mentally lethargic and slow. It can become difficult to move forward toward goals, or come up with new ideas. You can find yourself stuck in the same old thought patterns, worries and insecurities.
How to support a healthy Earth element
- Eat to be Nurtured: Eat foods that you love, and eat them mindfully, really enjoying the flavor, appreciating where they came from and how they are nourishing you.
- Nurture Your Microbiome: Eat fruits and vegetables that are in season, try to eat as many colors of the rainbow that you can each day, and try for 4-6 servings per day (a serving is generally 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup uncooked). This nourishes you and it nourishes your intestinal microbiome, feeding the whole world of beneficial bacteria that live inside you. In turn those beneficial bacteria help your digestive system, your immune system and your nervous system stay healthy.
- Take Care of Yourself: Be generous with your love and caretaking, but if you start to feel burnt out or overstretched, know that it’s okay to take time to rest and take care of yourself. You can’t give if you are empty.
- White and Red Chestnut Flower Essences: Use White and Red Chestnut flower essences if you are feel caught in unproductive cycles of worry and anxiety (the spinning hamster wheel of worry) and have a hard time thinking clearly because of it. White Chestnut is wonderful for calming and centering your thoughts when your are worrying about everything including yourself and the world. Red Chestnut helps when you can’t stop worrying about others.
- Get Acupuncture!: Acupuncture is a wonderful way to support your Earth element, help keep your digestion healthy, calm worry and help with clear thinking. I am taking new patients at Watershed Wellness, and would be very happy to meet you.
Thanks for reading! May you love and feel nurtured, may you eat delicious meals, and may you enjoy a calm, clear mind. Enjoy late summer, the season of the Earth element!
The five elemental phases, also known as the five elements, are a key theoretical structure of Chinese medicine.
This article is part of a series that looks at some seasonal themes in classical Chinese medicine. In particular, we are looking at the season's associations with the five phase elements and how those can help us understand and take care of our bodies. You can read about summer, late summer, fall and winter. Read below to learn about SPRING!
The five phases are:
- Water / 水 / Shui
- Wood / 木 / Mu
- Fire / 火 / Huo
- Earth /土 / Tu
- Metal /金 / Jin
The phases are not static, but flow in a cycle, one generating the next.
The Chinese correlated each of the phases to a season. The water phase element relates to winter. The wood phase element relates to spring. The fire phase element relates to summer. The earth phase element relates to late summer. The metal phase element relates to fall. At the time I am writing this article, we are at the end of winter moving into spring. This means we're experiencing the shift from the Water phase element into the Wood phase element.
In Winter there is Water.
A few years ago I was lucky to be in Hawaii for a class in February, and I spent a lot of time on the beach just sitting and looking at waves and listening to their rumble and crash and swish. For me it was an experience that was healing. The wordless time helped me to refuel after a depleting stretch of months. The water phase has this quality. In East Asian traditional medicine it is thought to be the original source, a deep well of energy that you are born with and draw on through your life.
It is dark, quiet, a womb, wordless, original and first.
It corresponds to winter, which in nature is the time of hibernation, sleep, the time of waiting and regeneration. Water is the mother of the next phase or element, wood, but we can’t rush that transition (as much as we might want to get to Spring sometimes) we have to give it it’s quiet time so that we can sleep, and heal, and regenerate. We need to go inward to the dark, to listen to our deepest quiet self, to give ourselves time to just be. All of nature in our latitudes needs this quiet time. If we try to skip it, try to push through we risk burning up and burning out.
Wood comes soon enough!
Water can also be compared to a seed. Buried underground and in some places under snow. Dormant. Waiting. But at some point, the seasons change. We start to move into Spring. There’s a different feeling in the air. Maybe it’s the little more sunlight that signals us. Spring starts to move, everywhere around us and in us as well.
The Wood element is all about that feeling of spring.
Wood refers to living plants. Its color is that bright, new green that you see in new leaves, just as they pop out. There’s a tremendous amount of energy in this new phase. Think of what it must take for a seed to go from this thing that almost looks like a little rock, to burst up and out and grow and grow and grow, as much as it can, as exuberantly as it can, until it reaches the potential of who it can be.
That drive to grow and change and be is incredibly powerful. People who have a lot of wood energy tend to have a voice that always sounds like a shout. Little kids tend to be more woody than adults—think of a playground and all the yelling and exuberance.
The emotion associated with the Wood phase is anger.
This can be a tough thing. Some of us (I’m thinking of myself) tend to avoid anger. And why? I’d say for myself I’m afraid of that anger that comes from frustration and lashes out indiscriminately. I don’t want to get hurt by that stuff! And I don’t want to hurt other people. And that can be what Wood anger is if it is repressed, or stifled, or misdirected.
But Wood anger can also be a virtuous thing. It can be thought of Constructiveness, or Heroism. Healthy Wood anger is seeing that things are unfair, to yourself but especially to others, and using that tremendous energy of Spring, of the growing plant, to speak up, do something to correct that unfairness. It’s Robin Hood and Joan of Arc and Martin Luther King Jr.
There are ways we can best stay in balance as we move into the Wood phase element.
- Like a growing plant, we need to move! Get your body moving with a walk, dancing, or other exercise every day. This will help with releasing stress and improving circulation, two aspects of a healthy wood element.
- Clean out the waste from winter so that you can use all that Spring-Wood energy! Drink lots of clean fresh water every day. The organs of Wood are the liver and gallbladder. Herbs such as Milk Thistle, Burdock, Oregon Grape and Nettles can be supportive to your liver and gallbladder health. Nettles are also great for spring allergies.
- Garden! Plant your own leafy greens, which are also great for liver health and feed healthy gut bugs.