Season's Greetings: The Chinese Medicine Way
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), human health has long been considered to be closely tied to nature. The natural world is thought of as a holistic entity in itself, and man’s health is determined both by his inner balance as well as in relation to the surrounding environment. Since ancient times, Chinese medicine practitioners have studied and developed complicated parallels between nature and health. In fact, the Yin Yang and Five Element Theories in Chinese medicine are two examples of entire medical philosophies that are based on the holistic elements of nature as related to wellbeing.
As organic creatures, it stands to reason that humans are affected, directly and indirectly, by the natural environment. Humans can be affected by a variety of natural changes including those related to the weather, climate, or duration of daylight. For example, in TCM, a change of season causes the rate, rhythm, volume, and tension of a person’s pulse to vary. In Chinese medicine, there are specific corresponding changes that a person can make with each new season in order to improve health.
One of the first known documentations of Chinese medicine’s thoughts on nature and health is the Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine (Huang Di Nei Jing). This ancient text is comparable in importance to Chinese medicine as the Hippocratic Corpus is to Greek and western medicine. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine dates back to 240 B.C., and is actually a dialogue between the legendary Huang Di Neijing, known as the Yellow Emperor, and six of his ministers. One such minister involved in the dialogue was Qi Bo, the emperor’s acupuncturist.
It was Huang Di and Qi Bo who first pointed out in this text, “In the old days the sages treated disease by preventing illness before it began, just as a good government or emperor was able to take the necessary steps to avert war….If someone digs a well only when thirsty, or forges weapons only after becoming engaged in battle, one cannot help but ask: Aren’t these actions too late?” By making the appropriate dietary and lifestyle changes advised according to the seasons, it’s possible to prevent illness.
Winter is one of the two most extreme seasons. With the cold weather, hibernation of animals, decrease in plant life, and few daylight hours, winter was the toughest season to maintain health in the ancient world. As Huang Di explains, “During the winter months all things in nature wither, hide, return home, and enter a resting period…. Therefore, one should refrain from overusing the yang energy. Retire early and get up with the sunrise, which is later in winter.” Some of this advice for winter focuses on humans’ natural circadian rhythms, a biological process noted in almost all living organisms that displays a change over a 24 hour period.
The circadian rhythm relates to the sleep cycle. With the change in daylight in winter, and fewer daylight hours, it’s important to alter the time of waking and bedtime in accordance with the sun. This will help a person to feel his most energetic during the day. Huang Di elaborates, “Desires and mental activity should be kept quiet and subdued, as if keeping a happy secret. Stay warm, avoid the cold, and keep the skin covered.” However, while the Yellow Emperor advises of staying warm during winter, this doesn’t mean exerting the body with physical activity in order to get warm.
It is advised to avoid sweating during the coldest months, as this is thought to cause injury to the kidney qi, or energy, an internal energy people should strive to preserve in winter. According to Huang Di, sweating will “cause weakness, shrinking of muscles, and coldness, and the body may lose its ability to open up and move in the spring.” It is important to conserve energy in winter so that it can be put into action in spring.
As Chinese herbalist Dragana Vilinac writes in his article, Healing with the Seasons, “winter is marked by the qualities of the element of Water.” Water is an element capable of stillness or momentum. In winter, it is advisable to mimic the quieter qualities of water. Vilinac writes, it is a time to “…simply be still and quiet, to contain our energy within ourselves is to stand in the energy of the Water element. Meditation, yoga, qi gong, contemplation are all great tools that help us to be present to the deep inner strength.” Consequently, each of these meditation and gentle exercise activities can also improve symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a disorder that arises during winter for many people and can cause seasonal depression.
In addition to these suggested lifestyle changes and light exercise suggestions, certain foods should be consumed in winter. Chinese medicine strongly believes that it’s always best to eat seasonally—produce that is currently in season is often the food that best addresses seasonal complaints. In winter, root vegetables such as turnips, rutabaga, and carrots are ideal (and also taste great in hot stews during cold weather). It’s important to eat tonic foods during winter because these are what will help preserve the kidney qi mentioned earlier.
Fu Zheng is a strategy of traditional Chinese medicine. "Fu Zheng” means “support the right [qi]", which breaks down to a fundamental belief in Chinese medicine—that the road to health lies in strengthening what is already correct in the body. By “tonifying” or strengthening kidney qi, it’s possible to prevent colds, flus, and other illnesses, as well as to preserve and enhance a person’s energy. Tonifying foods to try this winter to facilitate strong kidney qi include cinnamon, fennel seeds, walnuts, raspberries, and adzuki beans.
If a patient abides by the Yellow Emperor’s proclamation that “winter is dominated by storage of energy,” by the time spring arrives, it may find him in his best health yet.