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The energy of winter is still; there’s so little movement that even a snowfall feels quiet. Aligning ourselves with this energy can help boost our internal health and set the tone for year-round vitality. This concept is based on the notion of “flow” from East Asian Medicine — using the power of nature to fuel our internal rhythms, which promote harmonious energy flow. Aligning with the energy of winter means burrowing in, cozying up, and hibernating against the dark and the cold. It’s a time to take a respite from the hustle and bustle, using the season as an opportunity to go deep within ourselves, take stock, and reflect.
East Asian Medicine, also known as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), bases its practices in thousands of years of nature observations. It’s an empirical practice, and can guide us in our day-to-day activities. In this model of wellness, winter is associated with the water element, which aligns with the kidneys and urinary bladder. Water is all about flow; its easy movements change to accommodate the surrounding conditions. Water freezes or slows down in cold weather; it reflects the external environment and adjusts accordingly.
Kidneys and the Adrenal Glands
When the kidneys are strong, they can adapt and adjust to the changing conditions that produce stress. Stress happens when your body remains in a long-term state of flight, fight, or freeze. In other words, it’s a state with no time for rest and recovery.
Anatomically, our adrenal glands sit on top of the kidneys, so the two are closely connected in TCM. The adrenal cortex produces the hormones cortisol and aldosterone. Cortisol is a stress hormone that plays a major role in regulating metabolism, while aldosterone helps regulate blood pressure. When heavily taxed, the adrenals constantly produce surges of these hormones, in an attempt to regulate the body’s response to stress. Over time, if there isn’t relief for the adrenals, adrenal fatigue occurs. Adrenal fatigue arises with long-term stress, regardless of whether it’s physical, mental, or emotional.
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In the holistic model of TCM, physical and emotional concerns are connected. This means that the kidneys are associated with fear as well as water, given their proximity to and relationship with the adrenal glands. When the kidneys and adrenals are out of balance, fear becomes a predominant emotion. This turns into a vicious cycle: Chronic fear pushes the kidneys and adrenals out of balance, resulting in a chronic imbalance. The sustained imbalance increases fearfulness. A constant fear state signals repeated and instinctual responses to fight, flee, or freeze. A fear state activates the sympathetic nervous system. This reaction is appropriate if you’re in immediate, physical danger, but the same fear state happens when there are never-ending deadlines, overwhelming obligations, and no respite from stress.
By addressing fear, we can help the kidneys improve their response to stress and help heal the adrenals. Here are a few common fears that can upset a healthy balance in these organs.
- Expectations. It’s easy to feel like the world will fall apart if you don’t meet personal or others’ expectations. A common expectation that produces stress stems from the belief that everyone is depending on you. Many people fear that everything will fall apart if they don’t meet the expectations they feel others hold for them. Often these are personal beliefs, when in reality, others don’t expect what we think they do.
- Trauma. Our bodies remember trauma and store the response to it in body tissue, like a hand pressed into wet cement. Trauma has an element of fear, and it can heavily tax the kidneys and adrenals, affecting us long after the initial event. Trauma teaches us to be on guard, to be vigilant, and to take measures to protect ourselves. This traps our bodies in a feedback loop of fight, flight, or freeze. We need to gently unwind ourselves from past trauma, and remind our bodies there’s an off-ramp in the present for fears from the past, to help us find balance and heal.
- Responsibility. Financial burdens, working in high-stress environments, and raising a family are all common external circumstances that make for powerful stress triggers. By implementing certain self-care tools, we can help modulate bodily responses to these stressful stimuli.
Practice these restful and healing activities in winter to help repair and replenish the deep energy stores of the kidneys and adrenals when they’re at their most vulnerable.
Remember to rest and digest, as these are positive ways to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system’s fight or flight response).
- Sleep. Sleep is the time for your body to repair itself. It’s the ultimate example of flow. Take advantage of the lack of light in winter, and allow your body extra time to rest. Start by going to bed 15 minutes earlier each night, until you’re getting an extra hour of sleep. Aim for a full eight hours. If you’re having trouble sleeping, listen to specialized sleep-inducing music to help your brain quickly fall into a rhythm of rest.
- Stay in. Stay at home and do an activity that’ll help you unwind. Read a book. Lay on the sofa and look out the window with a cup of herbal tea. Nap. Use nature as your inspiration to help you find ways to slow down and relax.
- Say “no.” A simple but firm “no, thank you” can be a powerful tool in recharging. Taking time for yourself is key for a restful winter. Understand that you don’t need to say “no” every time, and that this phase won’t last forever, but it’s a good strategy to help replenish your energy reserves.
- Take a spa day. Take a long bath with Epsom salts, and then bundle yourself up afterward for a power nap. Be intentional about getting rest and replenishment. This actively recharges the body and helps rebuild your reserves, so you have a more resilient response to stress.
- Practice self-care. Self-care is an act of loving-kindness, not just for yourself, but also for your loved ones. By modeling this healthy behavior, you demonstrate that replenishment is an important part of the cycle of life. This can inspire everyone to live in a more balanced and relaxed state, while you tend to your own needs.
- Unplug. Technology signals our brains and adrenals that there’s “just one more thing” to check out, to learn, to do, etc. By unplugging, you give your nervous system and adrenals a respite from constant stimuli, and therefore an opportunity for recovery. Try adding a four-hour block without your phone to each weekend. Or, unplug one hour before bedtime to help promote restful sleep.
Eating with Intention
Eating foods that have a resonance with the kidneys helps enhance their daily functions. These foods have even more of an impact during the winter months. Foods that help nourish kidney energy include:
- Condiments and seasonings: Salt, soy sauce, seaweed or kelp, sesame seeds, walnuts and cashews, and spices such as clove and dried ginger.
- Fish and eggs: Fish and shellfish, eggs whites from duck eggs, and chicken eggs.
- Fruits and vegetables: Cranberries, blueberries, apples, spinach, cauliflower, cabbage, and asparagus.
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Eat these foods warm or cooked to promote easy digestion and extraction of energy. Eat with mindfulness; look at your food, taste it, savor it, and chew it slowly. Feeding yourself is an act of deep nourishment, and taking time to relish a meal helps your body digest more efficiently and get more energy from the food you consume.
Supplements for Adrenal Fatigue
- Adaptogenic herbs help balance the kidneys and promote a healthy stress response. A national board-certified Chinese herbalist can help identify exactly which adaptogens or herbal combinations are right for you and your unique constitution. By working with an acupuncturist who’s also certified in Chinese herbology, you can more efficiently and effectively address your kidney and adrenal issues.
- Rhodiola helps heal impaired metabolism, and relieves deep fatigue.
- Siberian Ginseng, or eleuthero, boosts energy, improves metabolism, and treats mild depression.
- Jin Gui Shen Qi Wan and Liu Wei Di Huang Wan are two Chinese herbal formulas that help balance the kidney system. Jin Gui Shen Qi Wan boosts the internal Ming Men fire, while improving fluid metabolism and motivation. Liu Wei Di Huang Wan relieves nervous system exhaustion. Both formulas contain rehmannia root, which helps the kidneys stabilize blood sugar levels.
- Fish oil reduces systemic inflammation, thereby reducing the body’s overreaction to stress.
Rhodiola grows in the mountainous regions of Europe and Asia.
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Signs of Adrenal Fatigue:
- Deep, long-lasting exhaustion
- Water retention
- Weight gain or weight loss
- Lack of motivation
- Brain fog
- Temperature dysregulation
- Chronic stress
Qi gong is a moving meditation designed to help boost energy and regulate the flow of our internal energy. The practice helps our bodies emotionally digest the experiences of the day, and convert stress into more helpful energy. Here are three simple and effective qi gong moves to de-stress, energize, or calm down.
- Shaking Qi Gong. Stand with your feet hips-width apart, and bounce up and down, gently shaking your arms and bobbing your neck in a rhythmic motion. Inhale through your nose, then exhale through your mouth. Do this for 2 to 3 minutes, and then stand still and feel your energy flowing more easily through your body.
- Knocking on the Door of Life. Stand with your feet hips-width apart. Bend your knees slightly and feel yourself drop into your pelvis. Move your arms out to your sides at a 45-degree angle. Gently rotate from side to side, swinging one arm across the front of your body, level with your belly button, and the other across the space directly behind your belly button on your back. As you turn, rotate your body slightly and look over your shoulder. Keep your feet and legs rooted and still; focus on rotating only your core and upper body. Alternate arms, creating a rhythmic flow, back and forth. Allow your arms to be heavy and gain momentum. They’ll naturally begin to knock against your belly and lower back. Practicing this for 3 to 5 minutes a day will revitalize your energy resources and give you energy when you feel spent.
- Water Waves. Water waves is a calming, grounding counterpoint to Knocking on the Door of Life. Your feet and hips remain the same, but your arms swing out to the sides at about a 90-degree angle. As you rotate your body, let your arms float out, as if you’re swirling and grazing your fingertips through water. This is a perfect tool to unwind after a stressful situation, or if you need to calm down and get ready for bed.
Pressing Acupressure Points
In TCM, the kidney is paired with the urinary bladder. This acupuncture channel is the longest one in the body, and goes along the back. When strong and balanced, it can help create healthy boundaries that protect how you use your precious time and energy. To help strengthen this function, use the acupressure point UB 60, found on the outer ankle between the Achilles tendon and the anklebone.
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To help deeply replenish resources, stimulate the acupressure point Kidney 3, found on the inner ankle between the Achilles tendon and the anklebone. This helps nourish the deep source of the kidneys. When stimulated, this point promotes a sense of groundedness, improves energy, and boosts overall vitality.
For improved metabolism and energy, acupressure points Ren 4 and Du 4 help boost the internal “Ming Men” fire, or “pilot light.” Ren 4 is located about 3 to 4 inches below the navel, or 2 inches above the pubic bone. Warm this area with a heating pad, and rub clockwise circles. Du 4 is the area of the Ming Men fire. Imagine a line drawn directly behind your navel, coming out through your back. Rub this area, and your whole lower back, to stimulate strong kidney function and
strengthen your lower back. Heating this area is also helpful.
The best mantra for the winter season? Rest, digest, and replenish. When in doubt, or overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of the season, sleep. Winter is also the perfect time to begin a course of acupuncture, to help set the tone for a vital and energized new year.
Julie Bear Don’t Walk is a licensed acupuncturist and national board-certified herbalist. After experiencing life-changing results of her own, she decided to spend her life helping people feel better in their bodies and their lives. You can learn more about Julie and her clinic here.