Updated: Dec 27, 2018
Our place in the winter ecosystem. Understand the cold, and how to be friends with it.
HUMANS ARE A PART OF NATURE. This is a fundamental concept to Taoism and to Chinese Medicine. Despite our modern, high-tech and fast-paced lives, we have not managed to evolve beyond the realities of our place in the natural world. We have the same biological needs and drives that we have had for the past 10,000 + years of human evolution. And as a result, the answers to all our questions like "how to be healthy" are right in front of us. Nature is our greatest teacher. Spend some time outside, keenly observing, and it will quickly become clear how the elements affect us and all other mammals like us.
THE WINTER SEASON is about Storage and Hibernation. It is the season where cold dominates. Leaves fall off of the trees and the energy goes underground to the roots. Animals hole up and hibernate. Overall activity in nature is less. It's time to rest more, and sleep when it's dark. Go to sleep early and rise late with the sun. Eat warm, cooked food. This is a time of year to eat more food to fuel you for warmth. Dressing warm is very important this time of year. Limit excessive sweating and exercise.
"The 3 months of Winter are called the period of closing and storing. People should retire early at night and rise late in the morning, and they should wait for the rising of the sun. They should suppress and conceal their wishes, as though they had no internal purpose, as though they had been fulfilled."
The idea expressed in the quote above is not that it is bad to have wishes or purpose, but just that the winter season is not supportive to driving at desires and achieving. The rhythm of nature supports going inwards, being reflective, and conserving one's energy so that it can burst forth when the time is right. In Chinese Medicine Theory, we are healthiest when our activities reflect the activity of nature. In modern-day culture there is a tendency to think that resting is doing nothing, and therefore not a valuable thing to do. Even when we rest, we are often staring at a screen - which does not allow the eyes or brain to rest.
Resting is, in fact, very valuable. Think about the domestic house cat. Think about how much time house cats spend lazing around, sleeping. Yet they are absolute killing machines, capable of incredible speed, strength, and agility. Just scale that up in size, and you have a tiger. When the tiger spends hours upon hours sleeping, it is not doing nothing. It is cultivating, storing, gathering its energetic potential so that when it DOES act, it acts with tremendous strength, purpose, and power. This idea that we don't ever need to stop, or that we don't need to follow the seasons, is a major reason why adrenal fatigue and thyroid disorders are so common today.
Winter is NOT a time for detoxing, fasting or purging. The energy is meant to stay inside, be conserved, and cultivated. Think about squirrels stashing their food during the fall to survive the winter. They don't go throwing away that previous stored energy away right in the middle of winter. Detoxing is for Spring.
If in winter we don’t follow the Tao, the rhythms of nature, in Spring we will not have sufficient energy to sprout and grow forth like Spring’s energy does. There will be more menstrual problems, depression, anxiety, fatigue, and irritability. If the body has been exposed to too much cold, menstrual pain will be worse, muscles and tendons will not be as flexible or strong.
LET'S TALK ABOUT COLD. Cold dominates in winter and it is important to understand the effects of cold on physiology. One of our most important herbal texts is the Shang Han Za Bing Lun, from Zhang Zhong Jing around 100 AD. The name means “Treatise on Cold Damage” referring to diseases caused by cold. Three important concepts related to cold are:
Cold causes contraction
Cold causes pain
Cold gives rise to colds and flus.
COLD GIVES RISE TO COLDS AND FLUS.
Your grandmother (or maybe great grandmother now) said, "Don’t catch a chill. Don’t go outside with wet hair when it's cold. Don’t go to sleep with wet hair." I tell my patients the same things, because grandma was right. And after decades of denying this, western science is back-tracking to validate how cold exposure leads to increased risk of infection.
The virus may cause the immune response and the cold symptoms, but we have to step back and ask: why did the virus take hold? Rhinoviruses are living in our nose and throat all the time. It doesn’t matter if you work with sick kids, if you live in a sterile lab: they are there, just hanging out. And you are fine! The immune system keeps them in check.
We are roughly 98.6 degrees F on average. If the body temperature drops to 96 F, even just in the nose, the replication of a rhinovirus increases exponentially. Cold causes stress to the body which makes it less resilient to disease. If you can take one step back and look at the bigger picture beyond the western science microscope – we’re back to grandmas advice. Stay warm. Don’t catch a chill.
Why not go out in the cold or sleep with wet hair? From Chinese Medicine theory the back of the neck are the wind gates, where invasion of wind and cold are most common. Ok now forget I said "wind gates."
The head and neck have major arteries and blood vessels running very close to the surface, and when the head and neck are cooled the body temperature can drop rapidly. Wet hair causes evaporative cooling, and even more so when the air temperature is cold. What about sleep? During sleep the body temperature drops below daytime averages, so wet hair will cool the head and neck more, and we are back to viruses in the sinuses, nose and throat replicating at a much higher rate at this lower temperature.
So dry your hair before going outside, or before going to sleep.
The number one thing I recommend to prevent colds in winter is to wear a hat and scarf.
COLD CAUSES CONTRACTION
Go outside in a t-shirt for 10 minutes on a 10 degree F day and come back inside tell me your muscles aren’t tensed. Do the same in southern California, how does it feel? Not tense. Neck pain, back pain, any pain that relates to muscle spasm and contraction can be exacerbated by cold. So bundle up and this can help to prevent pain and injuries from overly tight muscles and tendons.
Some ways to keep extra warm?
HARA warmers. Also known as kidney warmers. Keep your low back and core warm. When the body is in cold conditions it limits blood supply to the extremities and prioritizes keeping blood warm in the core. If you wear more layers around your core, the blood is kept warmer and more able to be supplied to keep the rest of you (hands feet legs) warm. OVERALLS are great too.
Headaches. The basic pathology behind many headaches is vasodilation (widening of blood vessels) Going out in the cold with your head exposed causes vasoconstriction, and when you return to a warm heated environment strong vasodilation is the counter balance – and can easily kick off headaches. Tension headaches can also be triggered by contraction of the muscles in the head, jaw, and neck.
COLD CAUSES PAIN
We have a saying in Chinese Medicine: Tong Zi Bu Tong, Bu Tong Zi Tong
Where there is free flow, there is no pain. Where there is obstruction, there is pain.
Cold causes contraction and this contraction of blood vessels and capillaries limits blood flow. This is what we mean when we say obstruction. Cold is one of the main pathologies involved in menstrual pain, ovarian cysts, and infertility. It's best to keep your legs and feet warm, and also keep the belly warm.
MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE COLD
It's important to understand the effects of cold on physiology to stay well. But you can still have a great time in winter. Bundle up! Enjoy the only season of the year you get to regularly rock those stylin scarves, big hats, and Michelin man style puffy coats. Fresh ginger, cinnamon, and hot soup are your friends. Consuming warming spices like fresh ginger (Sheng Jiang in pinyin) and cinnamon (Gui Zhi) improve circulation and metabolism to keep you warmer on cold days. Eating warming, hot foods, and make sure you eat enough! Hot chicken soup, hot rice congee for breakfast are excellent winter foods. Eating nutrient dense, protein and fat-rich foods will keep you warm longer.
CHINESE HERBAL MEDICINE
If you struggle with winter every year, then consider coming in to get herbal treatment. We can use targeted herbal medicine treatment to improve your immunity, energy, metabolism, and correct the underlying imbalances that leave some people more susceptible to getting sick, feeling depressed, or feeling more pain during winter.