Winter vitality: learning the dynamics of Yin
Winter, a time of maximum yin. We can harmonise with the natural cycles of yin-yang Qi in winter to support our health and vitality.
Winter, a time of maximum yin. We can harmonise with the natural cycles of yin-yang Qi in winter to support our health and vitality.
Do you experience any of the following?
It is possible that chronic dehydration is a factor – underlying the cause, contributing to an exacerbation of the condition, or limiting your body’s attempts at healing.
My patients will be familiar with me harping on (ALL. THE. TIME) about the importance of hydration. It’s because it’s so important – for your overall health, and for the effectiveness of acupuncture treatments.
When I perform acupuncture I am stimulating the Qi through acupoints and channels in the body. Qi is dynamic movement or potential, it is relatively yang in nature – insubstantial, we might say ethereal or ‘energetic’. Stimulating the Qi invites a response in the body, and on the level of physiology it will require yin substance (fluids and Blood) in the body to flow and to nourish the Qi. We see this yin-yang interdependence in many forms in a healthy body.
For example, the Liver in Chinese medicine stores the Blood, and is the system responsible for smooth movement of Qi. When the Blood (yin) is deficient, the Liver tightens up to attempt to store the little Blood reserves available and consequently the flow of Qi (yang) is restrained. It is said the Liver is “in excess”. This may manifest as headaches, menstrual pain or a tight body. Women who have very heavy periods and are low in Blood may experience tension or pain on a regular basis or during and just after their period.
For my acupuncture treatments to be effective, I require you to have sufficient fluids to support the body’s response to the message being transmitted by the Qi.
The same concept applies to why hydration and healthy fluids are needed for efficient daily functioning.
Your immune system relies on healthy fluids to support sweating and a functioning mucosa. Healthy fluids are the yin that supports the (yang) Qi response commanding the body to generate a fever and efficiently eliminate the pathogens. Elimination may occur through sweating, coughing, urination, sneezing and defecation – all of which require fluids.
Fluids are also required on a daily basis to be distributed out to the exterior and nourish the skin, to be ascended to the head to nourish the sensory organs, to calm and hydrate the digestive tract, to build Blood and so on. Good digestive function supported by healthy fluids ensures your body can extract and make the vital substances you need from the food you eat to sustain all activities in the body.
Many people are chronically dehydrated.
If you are living off a diet of toast, chips, tea and coffee, skipping meals and eating whilst worried, you won’t be generating the fluids you need. Further, if you are not taking in enough fluids in the diet, the body will take fluids away from other places in the body – the lymph, blood, muscles, interstitial spaces, digestive tract,… leave the body desiccated.
So how do we ensure we generate sufficient healthy fluids?
All fluids utilised by the body are manufactured in the Stomach, so we need to take enough fluids in through our diet. Drinking plain water helps flush our system but it is not the best to hydrate. To hydrate we need wet-cooked foods in our daily diet. Think soups, stews, congee, porridges, broths, casseroles. Anything that is cooked in plenty of water allows slow-release hydration into your body as it passes through the gastrointestinal tract and you digest the food. Soups used to be a common accompaniment to main meals; a practice that has fallen away in the last few decades much to our detriment.
Also important is to avoid foods that desiccate fluids and inflame. This includes sugar, garlic, onion, chocolate, caffeine and alcohol.
Personally one of my favourite ways to achieve daily hydration is by eating a breakfast congee – made from either rice or millet and served with a boiled egg, sauerkraut, grated ginger and tamari. It is delicious and since making this a regular feature in the AM I have noticed improvements in my digestion and skin.
What is your favourite wet-cooked food?
If you’ve enjoyed this article and would like to work together, please reach out.
A common diagnosis in the Chinese medicine clinic, particularly among menstruating women, is one of “Blood deficiency”. This may be associated with issues such as headaches, body aches, fatigue, cold extremities, poor sleep, anxiety and menstrual disorders (missing, very light, or very heavy periods, fertility issues).
This post provides information on what Blood means in Chinese medicine and simple ways to build and nourish the Blood if it’s depleted.
What is Blood in Chinese medicine?
Chinese medicine describes the basic physiological substances of the body as Qi, Blood and body fluids. Blood forms a yin-yang pairing with Qi. It is said that the Blood nourishes the Qi, and the Qi leads the Blood. Qi is the yang aspect of bodily function while Blood is the relatively yin aspect, providing substance and nourishment to the body. Blood nourishes all the body tissues and structures. Whilst it incorporates blood as we understand it in western medicine, the red substance that circulates within the vessels, Blood in Chinese medicine also relates to mental, emotional and spiritual components.
The 2000 year old Chinese medical text tells us:
‘The heart stores the vital circulation (mai) and the mai are the dwelling place of the spirits.’Lingshu chapter 8
In another classic text we read:
‘This is why to maintain (to nourish) the life of the spirits it is necessary to know the state of repletion or emaciation of the body; the rising of power or the decline of blood and qi. The blood and qi are the spirits of a human being. One cannot but pay attention to their maintenance.’Suwen chapter 26
The health of the body, the Blood and Qi, is inextricably linked with spirit and our mental-emotional wellbeing. This is why strategies to nourish and build Blood also involve lifestyle, not just dietary additions.
When Blood is sufficient and healthy, the complexion has a healthy glow, the body feels warm with clear sensation throughout. The hair is lustrous, nails are strong, the eyesight is clear, and the body is relaxed and limber. There is a feeling of being calm and grounded. Menstruation is not too heavy, not too light.
What does it look like when Blood is depleted?
When Blood is depleted there may be dryness, tension and spasms in the body, numbness or feeling cold especially in the extremities. The face, tongue and fingernail beds may appear pale. There can be spots in the visual field, thin dry hair, hair loss, prematurely greying hair, headaches (particularly following the period), for women – light or missing periods or very heavy periods, and fatigue. Sleep may be disturbed or light; it may be difficult to fall to sleep or you commonly wake at around 3am.
With insufficient Blood, someone can experience nervousness or anxiety and be less resilient to emotional waves and daily ups and downs.
There may be a western medicine diagnosis of anaemia, although this is not a one-to-one equivalent diagnosis to Blood depletion in Chinese medicine.
How does Blood become depleted?
A modern lifestyle is extremely taxing on Blood. Overworking, working late at night, emotional stress and worry all consume Blood and impact on organ systems (such as the Heart) that govern or produce Blood.
A poor diet of too much refined foods, fried foods, coffee, alcohol, sugar, prescription or recreational drugs damages the digestive system and stresses the Liver function. A healthy digestive system is needed to efficiently extract nutrients from the food and drink we consume, to produce healthy and plentiful Blood. The Liver in Chinese medicine theory “stores the Blood”, detoxes and assists its smooth flow in the body. A weak digestion and stressed Liver leads to deficient Blood.
For a woman, the monthly loss of menstrual blood means extra attention is required to ensure Blood is nourished. When periods are particularly heavy or long, Blood can easily become depleted.
Looking at screens for too long, and into the night, depletes the Blood through taxing the Liver. There is a correspondence between the Liver and the eyes in Chinese medicine.
How can Blood be rebuilt or maintained?
Lifestyle and dietary factors are equally important in maintaining or building Blood.
It is essential to maintain a healthy working digestion to produce Blood. This means eating a balanced wholefood diet, adequate hydration, eating at regular meal times, avoiding cold foods and drinks (such as straight from the fridge) and getting to know what supports your individual digestion. If your digestion is out of sorts, it can be helpful to consult a natural health practitioner to work towards a healthy digestion.
Find ways to support your mental and emotional wellbeing, and reduce stress and overwork. A meditation practice, daily supportive physical exercise (yoga, walking, swimming etc), having fun with friends, can all be helpful here.
For women, the time of menstruation is particularly important. While menstruating get plenty of rest, avoid over-exertion, and keep your body warm especially the legs and feet. You may also start to notice that if you’ve had a particularly stressful phase leading up to your period, that you get more discomfort and feel fatigued during menstruation, and the monthly migraine/headache is more likely to appear.
Nurture your emotional wellbeing. Being creative can help – dance, draw, sing, write,… whatever it is that brings joy and flow. At times you may need to deep dive and do your emotional work. In Chinese medicine, emotional blockages lead to Blood stasis and the Blood no longer flows freely carrying the spirit. To build Blood, the Blood must move. Working on clearing unresolved emotional issues frees the flow of Blood, and allows your system to make new Blood.
Get enough sleep. This means going to bed by 10pm at the latest so that you can be deeply asleep during the most regenerative yin time of the night – from 11pm to 1am.
Avoid eating late at night; finish eating dinner two to three hours before going to bed. This has to do with the energetics of the Stomach (digestion) and the Liver in Chinese medicine. We want to Liver to turn its attention to nourishing and storing Blood during the night time, however if there is food in the digestive system, the Liver Qi will be directed to the Stomach instead. Thus Blood nourishment is compromised.
From a western medicine perspective, iron, folic acid and vitamin B12 are needed to help build blood. Adequate protein is also needed. To help absorb iron, B-vitamins, copper and vitamin C are necessary.
From a Chinese medicine perspective, it is interesting to know that the foods that nourish Blood contain the minerals and vitamins that build the physical substance of blood. However, these foods have been recognised through their forms, colours, organ associations and energetics.
Understanding food energetics makes it easy to remember the properties of the foods, without needing to recall long lists of random food items. I like to summarise Blood-nourishing choices by recommending that people include “green and red” foods. So these include:
Red foods: beetroots, berries, grapes, pomegranates, goji berries (better digested after soaking in hot water), chinese red dates (jujube), red meat and bone broth
Green foods: green leafy vegetables (kale, spinach, silverbeet), compact vegetables (broccoli, cabbage), nettles and nettle tea, seaweeds and micro-algae (spirulina, chlorella), sprouts (lightly steamed to temper their excessive cooling properties)
Other foods that are important additions for building blood include: grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. Black beans, sweet potato, pumpkin and carrot.
For severe blood deficiency, animal liver is a strong blood tonic.
When a variety of whole foods are consumed, abundant nutrients and vitamins are usually available to assist iron absorption.
Sometimes we need additional support to help nourish and build our Blood. This can take the form of Chinese herbal medicine to provide stronger blood tonics than can be gained through diet alone; and acupuncture to help manage stress, alleviate emotional stagnation, and support efficient functioning of organ systems involved in building or governing Blood.
I hope you found this helpful!
Feel free to get in touch if you have questions, or you’d like to work with me in clinic.
Photo by Karyna Panchenko on Unsplash
Spring has sprung in the Illawarra! And just as the movement of Qi in Spring is “upwards and outwards”, my little beets are pushing up through the soil in my garden, eager to be plucked.
We can enhance our own mental-emotional-physical health by harmonising our body’s Qi with that of the season. This applies to what we eat, how we behave and our attitudes. The Classic of Chinese medicine (which is 2000 years old), the Suwen, tells us thus about Spring:
“The three months of spring, they denote effusion and spreading. In heaven and earth everything comes to life; the myriad beings prosper. Go to rest late at night and rise early. Move through the courtyard with long strides. Dishevel the hair and relax the physical appearance, thereby cause the mind to come to life. Generate and do not kill. Give and do not take. Reward and do not punish. This is correspondence with the qi of spring, and it is the Way to nourish life. Opposing it harms the liver. In summer, this causes changes to cold, and there is little to support growth.” (Suwen 2)
Yang is rising. Spring is ruled by the wood phase and it is a time of opening and spreading. It is a time to eat less and lightly – young plants, fresh greens, sprouts. Raw and sprouted foods can be taken (though take care and moderate if your digestion is weak). The rising quality of sweet-pungent foods is beneficial. E.g. drink honey/mint tea, use basil, fennel, and rosemary herbs in cooking; and eat young beets and carrots for a refreshingly sweet flavour. Favoured cooking methods are light – saute and light steaming, which is a change from the longer stewing methods of winter.
Take care of your Liver (the organ of the wood element). Emotionally this means staying calm, breathe, minimising stress, and not holding on to anger or frustration – find a way to release or express these healthily. Opening and nourishing your Heart can assist the Liver to flow naturally and minimise emotional stagnation or repression. Physically this means moving, relaxing a little, opening the body – walking or a flowing yoga sequence can be great.
On a more sombre note, but one which I feel needs to be raised given the year we’re in, is that suicide rates are highest in Spring. This is most pronounced in the northern hemisphere where the seasonal changes are more dramatic, however with COVID-19 lockdowns we may be more at risk than usual in Australia. Why is this? We really don’t know. One social theory proposed is that the pressure of social connection after the winter hibernation can be a significant source of stress for some. Another theory is the physiological inflammation that occurs in Spring (think hayfever!) is connected to mood disorders. A friend of mine from Sweden once suggested to me that the reappearance of the light is simply too much for some, coming out of the long darkness of winter. Whatever the cause, the statistics show this to be real.
Thinking in Chinese medicine terms, the Liver is associated with anger, and stress or repressed emotions can disrupt its smooth flow. A Liver disharmony is commonly diagnosed in people with mental-emotional challenges, and these people are likely to be most at risk of imbalances at the start of Spring when the energy of the Liver rises. I expect this risk may be compounded this year when the bloom of Spring coincides with a year of lock-down, especially for those just emerging in Melbourne – it’s like a double Spring.
Spring is a beautiful time. Maybe it’s even my favourite season. Let your hair down, munch on young beets, move, and also be particularly mindful of your emotional health. Pick up the phone, check in on someone. Melbourne peeps, please take extra care and look after one another.
We learned in Part 1 that emotions often contribute to health issues – including back, neck and shoulder pain, digestive complaints, fertility, migraine and high blood pressure. We also learned that by avoiding excess and not repressing emotions, our Qi and blood can flow unhindered which is necessary for good health. In this Part 2, we discuss common causes of mental and emotional imbalance and what you can do about it.
Are you angry or stressed and have high blood pressure? Is your heart aching and you suffer upper back or neck pain? Often your emotions, either current, or from an event in the past, contribute to the issue.