The cold and darkness of winter urges us to slow down. This is the time of the year to reflect on our health, replenish our energy and conserve our strength. Winter is yin in nature, it is inactive, cold and damp. Rest and consolidate your qi through the season and prepare for the outburst of new life and energy in the spring. Winter is ruled by the water element, which is associated with the kidneys, bladder and adrenal glands. According to the philosophy of Chinese Medicine, the kidneys are considered the source of all energy within the body. They store all of the reserve qi in the body so that it can be used in times of stress and change, or to heal, prevent illness and age gracefully. During the winter months it is important to nurture and nourish our kidney qi. It is the time where this energy can be most easily depleted.
Winter in TCM
On stormy or windy days, rug up properly and stay indoors when possible, keep life simple and avoiding excessive lifestyles. Winter is also a good time to get the qi moving with light physical exercise such as walking, jogging or biking to prevent stagnation, yoga is especially valuable in winter.
The cold from winter can easily leach into our bodies. Cold causes things to slow down and contract, which can make us even colder. This can typically show up in winter as poor circulation, aches and pains, asthma, arthritis or colitis.
The organs of winter
Winter is the season related to the water element and the organs associated are the Kidneys and Bladder, both of which are sensitive to cold. The Kidneys are considered to be the gate of life, storing our essence, regulating reproduction and development, fluid distribution and our longevity is directly related to the health of our Kidneys. It seems impossible to be too good to the Kidneys in Chinese medicine and supporting them becomes increasingly important as we get older.
In our lives, the health of our Kidneys can be seen in our hair and experienced through the sense of our hearing. Hair loss, premature graying or split-ends all signal Kidneys that could do with a boost. Bone marrow is linked with the Kidneys as are problems with the knees, lower back and teeth. Many ear problems can be linked to the Kidneys and the health of our Kidneys directly impacts on reproduction and sex drive.
The salty flavour
The salty flavour is associated with the Kidneys and the water element. Salty flavour is yin and cooling and moves energy down and in. It has a grounding effect and moistens dryness, softens hardness (such as muscle knots and cataracts), enhances digestion, eases constipation and abdominal swelling, increases appetite, is calming and improves concentration.
A little salt is good, but more is not necessarily better. Salt slows the circulation of the blood, which is bad for people with heart problems or high blood pressure, and increases fluid retention and appetite, which makes it hard to shed extra weight. It is important not to stress the Kidneys with too much salt in winter because little salt is lost through sweating when the weather is cold. The best salty foods for people with damp are seaweeds as they do not dry the body and can be very beneficial. Age-old preservation methods such as salting and souring bring the energies of food into the core and are suitable for winter, make the most of pickles and sauerkraut in this season. Salty foods include crab, crayfish, clams, oysters, mussels, sardines, pork, pork kidney, flake, squid, miso, soy sauce, seaweeds, millet, barley or anything with salt added.
Deficient kidney yin and blood
Winter is the season of regeneration and repair, so it is the perfect time to tone the yin. A general yin deficiency, which is akin to not enough fluids in the body to balance the yang activity or bodily functions, shows up as a reddish tongue, often with a line or crack down the center. Other symptoms of general yin deficiency include, hypoglycemia, diabetes, a tendency to thinness, dryness, insomnia, irritability, worry, excess thoughts and night sweats.
Yin deficiency can more specifically affect a number of organ systems in TCM and the most common is called Kidney yin deficiency with symptoms of dizziness, ringing in the ears, dry throat and mouth, low back pain, weak legs, spontaneous sweating and a very red tongue. Insufficient Kidney yin also has emotional symptoms, the effects are insecurity and fear, the personality is not rooted or grounded and has a tendency to move from one issue to the next without getting to the cause of the problems. Menopause is a time in a woman’s life when the Kidney yin is insufficient and the body no longer has extra blood to run the fertility cycle. Fluids that stabilize the Kidney and relax the liver become deficient with hot flushes and sweating in the upper part of the body common when the Kidney yin is no longer strong enough to anchor the heat in the lower part of the body.
To build yin we recommend eating animal products such as oyster, flake, sardine, crab, clams, eggs, pork, cheese or duck. It is important to eat these rich foods only in small amounts so that the yin is built up gradually rather than creating mucus and blockages in the body that could further deplete yin. To build yin more gradually stick with rice, as your preferred carbohydrate. Foods in winter that build yin include beef, barley, millet, mung beans, beetroot, kidney beans, seaweed, black sesame seeds, spinach, sweet potato and potatoes. Congees, stews and soups, bone-soups (stock) in particular, naturally support yin.
If you are run-down, feel like you have sluggish circulation, anemia, vertigo, tendency to faint, nervousness, easily skip periods, lower back pain you may not be producing enough Blood. Be gentle on the digestion by choosing warm, well-cooked foods. In winter foods that nourish and strengthen the Blood include pumpkin, beetroot, pork, rice, kidney beans, and coconut milk.
Deficient kidney yang
Symptoms of yang deficiency may include cold hands and feet, pale face, mental exhaustion, low spirits, weak knees and lower back pain, low or no sex drive, infertility, irregular periods, urinary problems, fluid retention, asthma, lack of will power and direction and a large pale tongue.
Foods that specifically target Kidney yang include cloves, fennel seeds, black pepper, ginger, walnuts, onions, leeks, shallots, chives, chicken, lamb, trout and salmon.
So, what to eat in winter
In winter we need to eat foods to create warmth, support the Kidney yin and yang and encourage the energy down and in. Eat warming foods in winter, probably exactly what you feel like…soups and stews. Energetically warm foods include anchovies, bay leaves, chestnuts, chicken, coriander, fennel, leek, mussels, mutton, nutmeg, pine nuts, rosemary, spring onions, sweet potatoes and walnuts. Preparation of food can also add to the warming nature like stewing and slow cooking.
Foods that benefit the Kidneys in winter include sweet potatoes, kidney beans, squid, millet, sesame seeds and lamb. In general, grains, seeds and nuts have an inward moving energy and are good for winter. However, for children it is important not to overdo grain intake, especially if not cooked very well. This can easily cause phlegm in the system showing up as runny nose, colds, earache and respiratory problems. Especially for the younger children, emphasize vegetables or rice congee rather than grains or meat, which are harder to digest. Both children and adults should remember to always chew nuts very well and try to choose the fresh roasted varieties, otherwise they can be hard on the digestive system.
As always, it is essential to eat foods that support the Spleen and Stomach. Foods such as pumpkin, potatoes, sweet potato and carrots help the Stomach and Spleen work together. For general digestive support try a pumpkin or sweet potato soup made with chicken stock. If there are few signs of heat in the body you can add ginger, cardamom, cinnamon or nutmeg.
To remove stagnant qi and prepare the Liver for the approaching spring try pate, mussels, horseradish, fennel, cabbage, turnip, beetroot, bay leaf, cauliflower, broccoli and ginger. Bitter and sour foods will reduce Liver excess, try dandelion root or grapefruit. The best foods to cool and detoxify the Liver in winter are rhubarb, radish, beetroot and cabbage and foods to reduce Liver wind symptoms in winter include fennel, ginger and oats.
Winter is the perfect season for time-honoured tradition of congee (zhou or porridge). One part rice, five parts water added to a ceramic pot or slow cooker and cooked for a few hours best. Fast version, soak overnight and cook for 40 minutes or until grains are broken. Porridge for breakfast is an important aspect of Chinese preventative health and one that resonates with many other civilizations. In the north of China, it is traditionally millet (xiao mi) as rice could not be grown in this climate. When using millet, mix one-third white rice to give better texture to the porridge. In Russia, barley porridge is the tradition. In Europe, Oat porridge was the stable breakfast. In South America, corn gruel… Central America beans and rice is the base. In the pacific islands it is taro root porridge. Porridge is the meal whether you are sick or well. It is easy to digest, nutritious and the perfect food for healing when you are sick or not feeling well. Many ingredients can be added to vary the actions of the porridge so that it acts like a medicine to help treat your condition in TCM. With porridge as the base you can mix in lots of other ingredients for effect, flavour and enjoyment. The longer it cooks, the more thoroughly the ingredients blend with the rice, which ensures the healing properties can be fully ingested.
Beef, date and spinach tagine
- 1.2kg beef blade steak (beef shin, chuck steak or gravy beef) chopped coarsely
- 1/4 cup plain flour
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 red onion, chopped finely
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1 teas ground cinnamon
- 1 teas ground cumin
- 1/2 teas ground ginger
- 1/2 teas ground turmeric
- 1/4 teas saffron threads
- 1 cup beef stock
- 400g canned diced or crushed tomatoes
- 3/4 cup seeded dried dates
- 315g spinach, shredded coarsely
- 1 tbsp thinly sliced preserved lemon rind
- 1/3 cup coarsely chopped roasted unsalted pistachios
- Preheat oven to 160 degrees.
- Toss beef in the flour to coat, shake off excess. Heat half the oil in large flameproof casserole, cook beef in batches until browned. Remove from the casserole.
- Heat remaining oil in the same casserole, cook onion and garlic, stirring until fragrant. Add 1/2 cup of the stock and cook stirring until the mixture boils. Remove from the heat.
- Add the browned beef, remaining stock and tomatoes to the onion mixture and stir to combine.
- Place in the oven, covered and cook for about 2 hours or until the meat begins to break down and fall apart.
- Add dates, spinach and half of the preserved lemon and put back in the oven for about half an hour. Season to taste.
- Serve tagine with a sprinkle of nuts and the remaining lemon rind with a side of rice or couscous.
*** This recipe can be cooked in a slow cooker. At the end of step 4 place tagine in a slow cooker and cook on low for 8 hours. For step 6, turn slowcooker up to high and cook covered for about 10 minutes or until the spinach wilts.