Slowing Down & Filling Up: Winter & The Water Element in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Once the joyful frenzy of the holidays dies down and you’ve rung in the new year, there is a settling down, a stillness and quiet that set in at the start of the winter season. Rather than dread these slower, quieter months, consider thinking of winter as a time to look inward and reflect, to rest and relax and re-gather your strength for the exuberance of the warm seasons to come. Winter is the most “yin” season–yin is the dark, cold, slow energy as opposed to summer’s light, quick and sparkling yang energy. It is associated with the water element, the most yin of the elements in Chinese medicine, which manifests most visibly as the snow and moisture that present during this time of year, but also as the cool, tranquil and deep quality of the season.

Many people find winter hard to deal with: in my practice this time of year, I treat more depression, lack of motivation, sluggish energy, sweet cravings, low back pain, colds, and sinus issues. That is why it is so important to focus on yin-supporting activities in the winter. This doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy all the many wonderful winter activities–skiing, snowboarding, sledding, ice skating!–but it’s important to allow yourself time to regroup, to be alone and to connect with your inner being, surrendering to the inward, yin energy of the season. We need to slow down this time of year, rest more, eat warm foods. As adults with careers, family and lots of day-to-day responsibilities, I know that it can be hard to let yourself slow down–especially in New York City. There is a powerful current of fomo in the city and in the culture at large: a feeling that we always have to be doing, doing, doing, otherwise we won’t amount to anything.

But, what would happen if you surrendered?

Below I discuss more of winter’s classifications in Traditional Chinese Medicine, as well as ways that you can embrace the energy of the season.

Water: The Institute of Classical Five-Element Acupuncture characterizes the “wisdom of water” as “the effortless response to its environment by taking the exact shape of whatever contains it, filling every hollow, and yielding to every protrusion. “Instead of trying to pack every moment of your life with activity and striving and exertion, water demands that you cool down and fill up the space that you are already in.”

Kidney and Bladder: The kidney (yin), also known as the Spiritual Storehouse, and bladder (yang) are the two organs associated with the water element, and thus, with winter. The kidney vitalizes the entire system and separates the pure aspects of water from the impure, sending the impure aspects to the bladder, which either stores or eliminates them. The kidney then recirculates the pure parts of the water into the body, reinvigorating the rest of the body with energy, moisture and willpower. The kidney is also thought to be responsible for healthy teeth, bones and bone marrow. In a more abstract sense, the kidney is in charge of all of your body’s qi, and it distributes it to different depleted organ systems throughout your body.

Ear: The ear is directly linked with the kidney (if you think about it, ears actually look like little kidneys!). Whenever there is an issue with the ears–tinnitus, ear infections, loss of hearing–this means there may be an issue with the kidney energy. Make sure to keep your ears warm during the winter–wear a hat! And also practice massaging your ears until they are hot. While it may sound weird, this simple action can ease health issues and relieve stress.

Fear: Fear is the emotion associated with water and with winter. Fear is not always a bad thing. In fact, fear is necessary for our survival, alerting us to danger and cuing our body’s response system. However, too much fear is a bad thing, preventing us from taking risks, keeping us in a constant state of anxiety and restlessness and high adrenaline, and generally paralyzing us from moving forward with our lives. When you are living in balance with the yin energy of winter, you will be able to face your fears without over-exerting yourself.

If you have a water imbalance you may experience urinary tract problems (difficult urination, leaky bladder, e.g.), water retention or edema, exhaustion, weakness, depression, hearing loss or tinnitus, digestive/absorption issues, high blood pressure, anxiety or excessive fear, low libido or sexual dysfunction and feeling excessively cold.

So how can you support your water element this winter?

Acupuncture: A licensed acupuncturist will be able to diagnose your own unique imbalance, whether that be a water imbalance or other meridians that need re-balancing. By listening to you and how you are feeling, feeling your pulses for energy imbalances and analyzing your tongue, an acupuncturist will pick acupuncture points and herbal medicine just right for you, which will guide your energy back into balance. Acupuncture is extremely relaxing and most of my patients enjoy the 25-30 minutes to rest with needles in as the perfect opportunity to nap during the day!

Meditate: Meditation allows us to tune into ourselves and come into our bodies and to hopefully (if even for just a few fleeting moments in between the cycles of our monkey minds) tune out distractions. Have you been over-exerting yourself, not allowing yourself enough rest? Have you been shying away from certain projects or opportunities that scare you? Take the time to reflect on these questions and others that speak to you and you will no doubt get clarity on your needs.

Rest! Skunks, bees, snakes, bears, groundhogs, and bats are just a few of the animals that hibernate during the cold winter months. Even trees go through a period of “dormancy.” in which everything inside them slows down–their metabolism, energy consumption, growth. This is what allows them to survive the winters and then to burst forth with energy and new life in the spring. While of course I’m not suggesting you start hibernating, it is important to get enough rest during the winter. Instead of staying out late and burning the candle at both ends, embrace hygge and go to sleep early!

Eat warming foods: Just like in fall, it is important to eat foods that will help warm your body, and avoid cold foods like salads, smoothies, and iced drinks. Try warm oatmeal in the mornings, bone broth, soups and stews during the day, and dishes with roasted or stewed vegetables like squash, sweet potato, carrots and garlic in the evenings. You can literally feel these foods nourishing you, keeping your qi strong and helping your body fight those winter colds!