Hibernation Season: Using Deep Winter to Rest and Restore

Chinese medicine developed based on observation of the natural world. In diagnosing and preventing illness, we always consider the role of natural forces, including seasonal influences. Even though we live in climate-controlled environments, we are still impacted by the winter weather outside our front doors, just like the plants and animals with which we share this beautiful planet.

Winter is the time of year when yang energy—warmth from the sun—is at its weakest. Many animals hibernate, plants go dormant, and water freezes. The kinetic energy of our environment is much slower than it is in high summer. Food and fuel both become scarce—and precious.

Your body has its own energetic sun, housed in the Kidneys. Being attuned to climate, your body naturally regards winter with caution. During the coldest months of the year, this energy is conserved as a means of survival. Sleep becomes a priority. We may also eat more, padding our bodies with a little extra energy. Many of our winter tendencies toward comfort—warm blankets, wool socks, cinnamon tea—are unconscious gestures of self-protection. Biologically we understand that cold is dangerous.

When pathological cold enters the body, it paralyses normal function. Cold can damage the joints, the digestive system, and the skin, causing frostbite. Blood flow slows in cases of excess cold, creating poor circulation in the hands, feet, lower back, buttocks, and abdomen. This deficiency in blood circulation causes poor nutrient perfusion and slows the body’s ability to heal, warm, and detoxify itself.

Cold has always been a serious threat to human survival. One of the most famous Chinese herbal texts, the Shang Han Lun, or Treatise on Cold Damage Disorders, describes treatments for diseases that have their origins in pathogenic cold. This 1,800-year-old text describes how cold penetrates the body and becomes lodged, weakening the organs. Many formulas we use in the clinic today come from this insightful text, written by Zhang Zhongjing, centuries before the discovery of bacteria or viruses. It seems cold weather and weakened immunity were linked in the minds of Chinese herbalists nearly 2,000 years ago.

This winter help your body stay healthy by applying these preventive measures to ward off illness and make the most of the darkest season.


Avoid getting cold

This seems like the simplest advice, but many people do not understand the depleting quality of cold. Dress warm, especially protecting your hands, feet, and neck. In Chinese medicine, cold easily enters the neck, hands, and feet, causing sinus problems, joint stiffness, increased urination, headache, and loose stools.

Gentle exercise, warm showers, footbaths, and adequate clothing can all reduce the danger of penetrating cold. Be cautious of drafts, wear socks to bed, and avoid walking on tile floors without slippers. If you do catch a chill, address it immediately by adding clothing, turning up the heat, or getting in the tub or shower. People with colder constitutions are most susceptible to cold damage, though “hot-blooded” people are vulnerable as well. Dress appropriately to avoid taking on an environmental chill.


Eat for warmth

Culturally, winter can bring a lot of excess—rich food, alcohol, and sugar being the most common indulgences. The tendency to overeat during November and December can inspire dramatic shifts in diet and exercise plans on January 1.

Reducing holiday indulgencies is a great New Year’s goal, but winter is the worst time of year to go on a detoxification diet or shift to a raw food plan. Your body is already fighting to keep you warm, and eating uncooked food takes energy away from critical organs, including the digestive and waste elimination systems. This is energy you need to keep your immune system strong.

If you want to improve your diet during the winter months, switch to cooked meat, vegetables, and grains. Soups, stews, and slow-cooked foods offer the most nourishment and will not tax your body. Smoothies, salads, and raw fruit are the hardest foods to digest during winter and should be saved for spring, when the yang energy of the sun is returning.


Rest, relax, and sleep

Many animals spend the majority of winter in a state of hibernation, conserving their energy for basic daily tasks. Modern humans, of course, rarely adjust their seasonal schedules to accommodate a need for more rest. In fact, winter can be just as hectic as summer, especially around the holidays.

Shorter days are a natural cue to your body to grab a few more hours of rest. Think of a good night’s sleep as a kind of mini-hibernation. Even adding an extra half-hour of sleep to your night can make a difference in you daytime energy levels, cognition, and productivity—not to mention your immunity.

Winter is a great time of year to work on sleep issues. If sleep is challenging for you, consider acupuncture and Chinese herbs. Our clinic can help you rest and relax with treatments designed to address your constitution. In fact, skip the smoothies and make a good night’s sleep your New Year’s resolution this year.

Have a happy, healthy 2017!