Living with the Seasons Winter
by Eyton Shalom
One of the hallmarks of Chinese medical thinking is the understanding that we human beings are a microcosm of the universe that surrounds us. In simpler terms, our body-mind-soul-spirit beings are as much subject to or affected by the forces of nature as the other sentient beings that dwell in and are part of nature. In contrast to the Occidental world view that speaks of man's "dominion over nature," the philosophy that governs Chinese medicine imagines ourselves as part of one interdependent wholeness, what quantum mechanics calls the "unified field."
The basic force and substance that animates and inhabits this interdependent oneness, this process of life, is called qi by the Chinese (pronounced "chee" in Chinese languages and "kee" in Japanese). The Chinese philosophers and physicians of long ago observed that the quality and force of qi is in constant flux; it ebbs and flows, rises and falls, and is transformed by complicated interactions of natural forces.
For example, if you speak to any emergency room nurse or psychiatric worker, they will report to you that there are more ER admissions and more difficult psychiatric cases when there is a full moon. This is not superstitious hocus pocus, but a relatively simple natural event. In Chinese medicine we are cautioned against needling acupuncture points on the head during the full moon. This is because just as the moon, through its force of gravity, affects the ocean and seas causing high tides at the moon's apex, so too the physical and psychic energies of the body (which is about 70 percent water) rise and expand in the head at this time of month. As too much qi in one place can be pathological, Chinese medicine, in its striving for balance, will try to ground the qi during the full moon by tonifying the center, and needling points on or near the feet, to open the body's qi to the grounding qi of the earth.
The Chinese doctors and thinkers observed further that the constant changes in the energy and nature of qi are predictable; it flows and is transformed in cycles that can be observed, charted, and mapped. All the Oriental sciences and arts, from Feng Shui and Astrology to Kung Fu and Acupuncture are based on these observations. If we develop our sensitivity to qi, we can observe and be prepared for the changes in energy that will occur around and within us. This concept is even being adopted in the business world in the west, and is very useful in human relations. It is about "going with the flow," meeting someone hard and aggressive by stepping back and allowing them to exhaust their qi. Then, depending on who they are and what is the situation, you either meet them with empathy and compassion, or with a strong kick to the midsection.
One of the chief cycles of natural force that human beings, animals, and plants are subject to and a part of are the changes occurring on our home as it hurdles its way through space in its yearly trek around the sun. The cosmic forces at play here, the energies of the sun, and the earth's relative location in its orbit, create changes in the qi on earth. We call these changes the seasons, and while there are large variations in their manifestation depending on latitude and ecosystem, there are general principles of change that human beings have named winter, spring, summer and autumn. So powerful are these four changes (to which one might add the transition between summer and autumn called Late Summer in Chinese medicine and Indian Summer in America), that they have become part of the collective unconscious and entered into the symbolic language of art and poetry. We speak of someone blossoming in adulthood as in the "summer of his years." We describe a couple of uneven age as a "spring/autumn relationship."
Chinese medicine long ago studied the changes of these seasons and developed excellent guidelines for daily living that are based on being in harmony with these rhythms of change. The concept of the physician in traditional Chinese medicine is of one who plans ahead. The true physician teaches how to live; he cultivates wellness like a gardener builds good soil. He knows that illness is opportunistic; it hovers and strikes when there is a weak link, when the person's energies are imbalanced and consequently weakened. One of the ways to remain in balance over the year is to eat and sleep in harmony with the seasons, to respect and learn from what is going on in the natural world, to go with rather than against it.
Now we are in winter, the time when the body's qi, like the qi of our natural surroundings, recedes into the deep Yin layers. winter's nature is Yin; it is quiescent, cold, and damp. It is a time for introspection, rest, and consolidation of your body's physical and emotional qi in order to get through the long cool darkness of Winter and prepare for the outburst of new life that is spring.
Unlike autumn, when the external factor to protect from is dryness, in winter we must guard against dampness combined with cold, which can harm the joints and sap our body's yang or warming qi. The Nei Ching, an ancient Chinese classic, advised people to go to sleep early and rise late, after the sun's rays have warmed the atmosphere a bit. This preserves your own Yang qi for the task of warming in the face of cold. If you ignore this advice you will unnecessarily tax your body's Yang, which is at a premium in the winter months. In contrast, in the summer, when the days are long and the expansive warm Yang energy is everywhere in abundance, we can afford to stay up a bit later and rise early.
Winter is an excellent time to include more root vegetables in your diet, that portion of the plant whose qi moves downwards into the Yin earth, which is what you want to be doing now. Turnips, rutabagas, beets, carrots, burdock, daikon, and parsnip are all excellent in miso soup. Miso, from Japan, is fermented soy bean paste, and is a delicious soup base that can be used to make many different soups that are hearty, healthy, and warming. There are many different types of miso depending on how long the soybeans have been fermented and what grains or legumes they are combined with. The art of miso making is a craft, like beer and wine making. Miso is an alkalinizing food and its fermentation assists the body's digestion and metabolism. Vegetarians who cannot drink chicken soup can enjoy miso soup with lots of onions and garlic, known for their antibiotic effect. In winter, I like to use mellow white miso, combined with a little darker miso, like red or barley miso. Making miso soup is so easy: boil water, add miso, simmer, and eat. Life should be so simple!
In winter it is excellent to add some thermogenic or warming herbs along with vegetables to your soup. Boil the vegetables and herbs first, then add the miso, simmer, and serve. Onions, scallion, garlic, and ginger root will all stimulate digestion and prevent colds. Mild spices like turmeric, fenugreek, coriander, fennel, cumin, white and black pepper, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg all can be used for their culinary and medicinal properties.
Another excellent addition to the winter diet are sea vegetables. They are rich in vitamins A and E, and especially rich in calcium, phosphorus, potassium, iron, iodine, and trace minerals. They are good for the skin, hair, and nails, and nourish the thyroid and adrenal glands, according to Elson Haas, M.D. Winter corresponds to the water element in Chinese medicine. The water element in turn relates to the salty flavor and the kidney qi which must be nourished and protected in Winter. The correct amount of salty flavor (for example, miso soup with seaweed, as opposed to potato chips in excess) regulates the kidney qi which is responsible for growth, development, and reproduction. Sea vegetables, like ocean fish, embody the energy of the sea of winter and the water element. Medicinally, their Yang energy empowers them to break up lymph swellings and phlegm. Sea vegetables excellent in miso soup are kombu and wakame, cooked in with the vegetables, and nori, toasted and crumbled on top.
Of course those with sodium-restricted diets need to be judicious in their consumption of miso and sea vegetables, but I have yet to hear of anyone experiencing adverse side effects from wakame and nori.
Eyton Shalom, M.T.O.M., L.Ac., has been working in the holistic health field since 1973, including two and one-half years teaching and traveling in the Far East. He began his study of Chinese Medicine in 1983 in the Acupuncture department at Colombo South General Hospital, Colombo, Sri Lanka. An herbal consultant to the California Acupuncture Licensing Exam, Eyton practices Acupuncture, Herbal, and Nutritional Medicine at Oriental Medical Associates just north of downtown San Diego, CA. He is available for consultation at 619-595-0709.
Part one in our continuing series: Tao of Health Chinese Herbal Medicine Cabinet (November 1998)