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Seasonal Attunement- Winter

December 18th, 2021

Shifting into seasonal rhythms cultivates an appreciation for each time of the year. Learn about dietary and lifestyle TCM recommendations for this seasonal transition.

The impulse frequently arises in me to squeeze another this or another that into this moment. Just this phone call, just stopping off here on my way there…

I’ve learned to identify this impulse … I work hard at saying no to it. It would have me eat breakfast with my eyes riveted to the cereal box, reading for the hundredth time the dietary contents of the contents … This impulse doesn’t care what it feeds on … It … conspires with my mind to keep me unconscious, … just enough to fill or overfill my belly while I actually miss breakfast. It has me unavailable to others at those times, missing the play of the light on the table, the smells in the room, the energies of the moment …

I like to practice voluntary simplicity to counter such impulses and make sure nourishment comes at a deep level. It involves intentionally doing only one thing at a time and making sure I am here for it … means going fewer places in one day rather than more, seeing less so I can see more, doing less so I can do more, acquiring less so I can have more. … choosing simplicity whenever possible adds to life an element of deepest freedom which so easily eludes us, and many opportunities to discover that less may actually be more.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Where you go there you are, Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, 1994, p.69-70

This paragraph from Jon Kabat-Zinn encapsulates what we can aim to strive for during the winter months- LESS! Winter is the utmost Yin time of the year according to the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) cycle as it is the coldest, darkest and most dormant time of the year. Yin states of Being are reflected as stillness, reflection, and meditation, as opposed to Yang (Summer is utmost Yang) states of Being such as activity, doing, and socializing.

How do we incorporate this sage advice into our modern daily lives? We don’t really experience that much more darkness thanks to electricity and indoor lighting. If we work out in a gym, we don’t experience a change in environment from season to season. Indoor heating keeps us warm and toasty. Why should we bother to adjust our routines just because the temperature outside is dropping?

The simple answer is that if you begin to harmonize your diet, lifestyle, and routines to reflect the seasons, you will notice an improvement in your well-being. I have witnessed this in my own health and in the health of my clients. In ancient times, without modern-day grocery stores full of goods from around the world, people were forced to eat what was local. Nature makes no mistakes and what grows locally is what is most beneficial for us in that region at that time of the year.

Understanding the TCM nature of foods makes this concept crystal clear; a tropical banana is very cold and creates fluid and moisture in the body- perfect for a hot day when you are sweating profusely. Eat bananas regularly in the winter in our Canadian climate, and you may notice that you have trouble warming up, retain more water, and/or feel stiffness in your joints. On the other hand, root vegetables are abundant in the winter and store well for long periods. The majority of root vegetables are neutral to warming; for example, Brussel sprouts are warming and disperse cold, parsnips are warming and help to clear wind and dampness, and kohlrabi are neutral in temperature and help to resolve dampness and water retention. As our windows and homes show us in the winter, dampness definitely needs to be cleared, rather than added to!

If you begin to harmonize your diet, lifestyle and routines to reflect the seasons, you will notice an improvement in your well-being.

Some of the issues that people may start to experience starting in autumn into winter are:

  • Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)- severe sadness, depression, lethargy, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness
  • The “winter blues”, a milder version of SAD
  • Frequent colds and flus
  • A flare up of arthritis symptoms
  • Stiffness and pain

Shifting into seasonal rhythms cultivates an appreciation for each time of the year and I have personally found I delightedly anticipate certain aspects: butternut squash soups, digging out my thermal socks and hiking pants, waiting for the first snowflakes of the season, and feasting on roasted vegetables that have caramelized into their natural sweetness all top my list!

TCM recommendations for winter

If you dread this time of year, experience SAD or have any health issues that arise through the colder, darker months of the year, or just want to maintain optimal health, please try incorporating the TCM recommendations as listed below. They are not listed in any particular order of importance.

  1. Most of our meals should be cooked and warm and liquids should be room temperature or heated. Roasting and slow cooking help to impart lots of warmth into our food. This also means not eating foods right out of the refrigerator or freezer (i.e. ice cream!).
  2. As winter is associated with the Water Element which represents the Kidneys and Bladder, the salty flavour is indicated. This doesn’t mean gorging on potato chips (sorry!) but means to include foods that have a natural salty flavour and an affinity for the Kidneys. Miso soup, millet, seaweed, bone broths, saltwater fish and oysters are all examples.
  3. Too much salt will weaken the Kidneys by causing a larger intake of water. Staying hydrated is important, but all that liquid means more work for the Kidneys. 
  4. Bitter foods along with salty are also indicated in the winter as they promote a descending, centering quality which helps to cool the exterior of the body and bring heat deeper into the body. Examples of bitter foods are turnips, rye, oats, quinoa, amaranth, and chicory root (found in coffee substitutes)
  5. Include warming spices in meals or tea: cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, nutmeg, dried ginger, allspice, rosemary, cardamom, star anise, and cumin to name a few. Warming spices have anti-inflammatory properties, warm and aid the digestive system, improve blood circulation and increase the Yang energy in the body to balance the Yin in the environment.
  6. Winter is a time to build up reserves for the upcoming year; getting enough rest and making sure not to overexercise are both important. In the winter, if you run yourself down, you are more likely to get sick, feel achy and stiff in your joints, tendons and muscles, plus you may feel exhausted.
  7. Vitamin D supplementation through the fall and winter when the UV levels from the sun are much, much lower. This recommendation comes from modern findings and research. It is interesting to note that northern climates have access to oily, fatty fish through the winter months. These fish, like salmon, tuna, trout and mackerel have the best dietary sources of vitamin D. This is another example of how the local environment provides for us in the best way!
  8. Get outside into the fresh air every day even when it’s dark, rainy and cold! “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing” is a well-known Norweigan saying. Investing in a good headlamp can help to keep you walking trails in the darkness. If you don’t already do this, try it for a few weeks- I guarantee you will feel better for it.
  9. Reframe your views on winter- think like a Norweigan! A study done in northern Norway (where the sun never climbs above the hoizon from late November to late January) found that a positive mindset about winter was linked to high levels of life satisfaction and overall mental health benefits. [efn_note] Leibowitz, K., & Vittersø, J.(2020). Winter is coming: Wintertime mindset and wellbeing in Norway. International Journal of Wellbeing, 10(4), 35-54. [/efn_note] The coziness of being bundled in a warm blanket by a roaring fire, the smell of crisp, cold air, the beauty of snowflakes slowly drifting from the sky, lighting candles, and catching up on books are all ways to think positively about this time of the year.

“Therefore one should refrain from overusing the yang energy. … Stay warm, avoid the cold, and keep the pores closed.” Trans. Ni, Maoshing, The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine (circa 2000-3000-year-old text), 1995.