Acupuncture helps us live harmoniously with the seasons.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine theory, there are five natural elements that exist within us, as they do in nature. Each season belongs to a particular element and has unique correspondences. When we study nature’s patterns and cycles, we can learn how to support our own health and stay well year-round.
Winter's Associations in Chinese Medicine
YIN ORGAN: KIDNEYS
YANG ORGAN: URINARY BLADDER
SPIRIT: ZHI (WILLPOWER)
COLOR: BLACK/DARK BLUE
SENSE ORGANS: EARS
VIRTUES: STRENGTH, COURAGE, WISDOM
Right now, we are in the best season to slow down and conserve our energy. The cooler and darker days invite this meditative space to rest and reflect. Whatever your “winter hibernation” might look like it’s essential that you take this time to replenish your resources that have been used throughout the year.
“It is the concentrated, internal force of winter that enables a seed to burst forth in spring growth.”
The energy of winter is deep and potent. With rest there is work going on, but inside energy is collected and held in reserve. This deeply nourishing Yin time gives us the needed energy, vision, and purpose with which to emerge into spring- a season of growth, renewal of spirit, and fresh starts.
In this most Yin season, there is an energetic predisposition of retraction as our Qi flows more deeply inside us. There is a depth to the season that invites us to connect with the core of our being and untouched emotions. There is death in nature and less activity to induce stimulation and excitement. For some, the Qi of the season can easily contribute to depression, loneliness, and seasonal affective disorder. Others may feel relief for an opportunity to pause and do internal work.
Wherever you fall in the transition to the cold winter months, the teachings and practices of Chinese Medicine support the body, mind and spirit in the midst of change. In preparation for winter, our focus turns to strengthening the water element’s organ system pair, the kidneys and urinary bladder, and practice that which we observe in nature: stillness and conservation.
The Water Element
Winter is ruled by the Water Element: the most nourishing and essential substance for life. This element stores much of people’s reserves of energy. That’s why rest is crucial in the winter. This time of year, overworking and lack of sleep easily depletes the Water Element and the kidneys especially.
The wisdom of water is to flow. Water moves effortlessly and takes the exact form of whatever contains it. A balanced Water Element is able to move smoothly through the season with strength, courage, and willpower. There’s a sense of flow and ease, and an alignment to one’s purpose or destiny.
There is depth, darkness, and mystery to water. The emotion associated with the water element is fear. In appropriate amounts, fear is essential to survival because it enables us to navigate situations with care and caution. When the water element is out of balance, one might experience excess fear, phobias, and lack of courage.
The Kidneys and Urinary Bladder
The kidney and urinary bladder are the organ systems that belong to the water element. Likewise, both play an important role in fluid regulation. There are acupuncture points along their meridians that can be used to fill the reserves and tap into that place where our real strength, courage, and wisdom reside.
In Chinese Medicine theory, the kidneys are the storehouse of our vital energy and our Jing, or Essence. Jing relates to our genetics and governs growth, reproduction, and how we move through the cycles of life. Our bones, joints, teeth, ears, brain, and marrow are influenced by the kidneys.
The kidneys (called the Storehouse of the Vital Essence) ignite all processes and functions within the entire body, mind, and spirit. They provide the driving Qi- energy and will power needed to overcome obstacles and press forward to accomplish our goals in life and live out our fullest potential. We draw upon the energy reserves of the kidneys just by the virtue of living, working, and aging.
The kidney acupuncture meridian begins at the bottom of the foot and travels up the inside of the leg to the pelvis, low abdomen, and ends at the chest. Our body will let us know when we are exhausting these reserves because symptoms along the channel will arise, such as low back ache, weak knees, frequent urination, and menstrual or fertility issues. Other signs of imbalance include: exhaustion, autoimmune flare ups, very low motivation, excessive fear and anxiety, and skeletal disorders.
The urinary bladder is compared to a reservoir where the waters of the body collect. Its acupuncture meridian is the longest of the body: beginning at the eyes, the channel travels over the head to the back of the neck, down the sides of the spine to the sacrum, to the backs of the knees, down the calves, to the ankles, ending at the outside of the little toe. Physical signs of imbalance include back pain, bladder pain, vertigo and headaches, vision issues, and urinary incontinence. Due to this organs’ role of “holding on” to urine, emotional signs of imbalance relate to this “holding on": grudges and jealousy, in addition to fear.
Winter is an opportunity to focus on the health and spirit of the kidneys and urinary bladder, restore their resources and better manage our reserves. Slowing down, getting plenty of rest, eating well and in-season (more on winter-time foods below), drinking lots of fluids, and adapting a restorative wellness routine will support these organ systems and boost their vitality.
The classic texts of Chinese Medicine urge us to follow the cycle of the seasons in order to stay healthy. The Huang Di Nei Jing ("The Inner Classic of the Yellow Emperor"), contains some of the oldest teachings about winter and its relationship to the Kidneys:
“During the winter months all things in nature wither, hide, return home, and enter a resting period, just as lakes and rivers freeze and snow falls. This is a time when yin dominates yang. Therefore one should refrain from overusing the yang energy. Retire early and get up with the sunrise, which is later in winter. 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. Avoid sweating. The theory of the Winter season is one of conservation and storage. Without such practice the result will be injury to the kidney energy. This will cause weakness, shrinking of muscles, and coldness; then the body loses its ability to open and move about in the spring.”
Maintaining an appropriate balance between activity and rest is crucial to the health of the Water Element. In addition to the advice from the classic texts, here are some self-care tips to follow for the winter months ahead:
Focus on foods that share the qualities of the Water Element. Colors are dark, taste is salty, content is hydrating and nourishing. Examples include nuts, seeds, legumes, shellfish, salt water fish, seaweed, dark colored berries, root vegetables, whole grains, stews and soups. We are also including mostly warm and cooked foods, while limiting cold and raw foods. Use warming spices like garlic, ginger, and cardamom.
Adaptogenic herbs strengthen the kidneys and adrenals, boost immunity, lift depression, ease anxiety, and help the body adapt to stress. Holy basil, ashwaghanda, astragalus, oat straw, and rhodiola are herbs that can be taken daily as supplements or tea. It’s best to consult with a health care practitioner before adding supplements to your wellness regimen. (Recommended reading for adaptogenic recipes: “Beauty Water: Everyday Hydration Recipes for Wellness and Self Care” by Tori Holmes).
Essential oils like geranium, ylang ylang, jasmine, and basil can be used in a diffuser to strengthen the water element. The floral oils are mostly middle or base notes, resonating with the deeper layers of our selves. Floral oils nourish yin, lifts the spirit, and connects with our inner beauty and essence. Basil is used in blends for fatigue, depression, focus, and memory.
Winter is time for internal work. Schedule more time to discover yourself through reflection. Meditation, yoga, journaling, dreamwork, and breathwork are great winter activities.
We become naturally inclined to seek out things that bring us light and joy this time of year, like holiday parties, dinner with friends, and outdoor winter adventures. Keep your gatherings simple and relaxed. The season calls for making deeper connections with those close to you, but without overextending yourself. A mindful balance of Fire (yang, activity, joy) and Water (yin, stillness, introspection) can be helpful to our psyche and wellbeing!
Take Care of the Kidney and Urinary Bladder Acupuncture Meridians
Important acupuncture points along these channels are at the feet, knees, low back, and neck. These points are used to strengthen kidney and urinary bladder function, support immunity, and treat emotional imbalances of the water element. Keeping these areas warm and covered will maintain the integrity of the channels and keep you well physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Hicks, Angela. “Five Element Constitutional Acupuncture”. (2004).
Swanberg, Sarah (L.Ac.). “A Patient’s Guide to Acupuncture: Everything You Need to Know”.
The Huang Di Nei Jing ("The Inner Classic of the Yellow Emperor").
“The Season of Winter”. http://www.5elements.com/docs/elements/water.html