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Practical Wisdom learned from the Winter Solstice & Water Element

Here comes Winter Solstice – the longest night of the year. I have some friends and patients who have a hard time with the cold and the darkness of winter. Winter is something that they endure but don’t enjoy. They feel a depression that doesn’t really go away until spring, when the days are visibly longer.

I have other friends who really love winter and the long, dark nights. For them, it’s time to slow down, to go inward, to stay indoors and be cozy, reading, watching movies, talking, or knitting.  All quieter wintertime pursuits. At Thanksgiving, one friend talked about how every year she tries to get a bit cozier and quieter in winter.

I go back and forth myself in my attitude towards winter. I love the coziness, and I also can’t wait for the return of the light. On the Winter Solstice, I’m so happy that the days have finished getting shorter and now we are heading back to more daylight. 

Winter is the season of the Water 水 element or phase in Chinese Medicine.

This article is part of a series that looks at some seasonal themes in classical Chinese medicine. In particular, we are looking at the season's associations with the five phase elements and how those can help us understand and take care of our bodies. You can read about spring, summer, late summer, fall – and continue below to learn more about winter.

There are three big themes for the water element: keeping reserves, flow, and cleansing.  

Let's start with RESERVES.

In winter, the trees are bare. They may almost look dead, but they are really just dormant. The energy of the tree has left the branches and is down deep in the roots, underground, resting and regenerating for the coming year. In herbal medicine, we often harvest medicinal roots in the winter because they have greater potency.

The hibernating bear represents this as well. She is sleeping and saving her energy to get through the winter until it’s time to emerge from her cave in the spring. We can see these themes in the acorn seed as well. It lies dormant underground, waiting for spring to burst up and out into the above-ground world. 

Traditionally, in winter, humans would slow down our pace and sleep more.

We would conserve food and fuel to make sure that we could get through to the spring and summer. These days, at least in the US, the majority have easy access to food, light and warmth in the winter, so we don’t really HAVE to slow down. Still, some part of our bodies are attuned to and respond to the rhythms of nature.

I know that if I keep pushing myself to work long hours or stay up late through the winter, I find myself exhausted in the spring. I don't give myself a chance to rest and restore in the winter. This robs my body and mind of the chance to heal, rebuild my reserves, and to be ready for the natural hurry and exuberance of spring.

Strangely, the past two pandemic winters have been good for me in this respect. I really slow down. I don’t leave the house much. I rest more and I’ve got more energy once spring comes.

Now, let's talk about FLOW.

There’s a part of the water element that has to do with a healthy relationship to the unknown, and going with the flow. The sea turtle is a wonderful example of this in nature. There’s trust in the unknown involved in laying one’s eggs in the sand and then going back into the ocean, not knowing what will happen to those eggs next, or how many will make it back to the water. Or swimming in the waves, where the ocean may bring food or danger or both.

The virtue of the Water phase is wisdom, which differs from knowledge.

Knowledge is about knowing information and facts. Wisdom is more about understanding how to use knowledge, often gained over time. It’s about understanding and accepting that sometimes you know and sometimes you don’t know, and sometimes you must act and sometimes wait. It’s all about being in the flow.

This brings to mind the water associated emotion of fear.

Fear can be really hard – it means to accept and flow with the unknown. Things could be great or terrible. Scary things can happen in the unknown, there’s nothing saying they won’t. Fear can be seen as Water all frozen up, no longer flowing and accepting. 

Finally, let's address CLEANSING.

Water cleans, this is obvious. In Chinese medicine, the Kidney and the Bladder are the organ networks associated with the Water element, and in both Western and Chinese medicine they have important roles in cleansing the body of impurities and waste. A polluted stream doesn’t nourish anyone.

The Bladder and Kidney organ systems.

We each have two meridians/organ networks that belong to the Water element, those are the Bladder and the Kidney. We'll start off with discussing the Bladder. The Bladder network is in charge of storing water and disposing of waste products.

Water is life. About 60% of our bodies are water, and thus is it our most precious resource. Again, the Water phase element is all about our reserves, literally so in this case. When functioning well, the Bladder keeps more water when we are dehydrated and releases more water when we are retaining too much.

If the Bladder cannot do its job, there is often an imbalance in your body's water – dry & brittle or swollen and soggy!

There can also be urine retention, infection and organ damage. The Bladder meridian is the longest one in the body, running from the inner part of the eye, over the back of the head and neck, down the back, buttocks, hamstrings and calves, and then the outer ankle and foot to end at the littlest toe. Eye, back, and leg issues can be related to blockages in this meridian. 

Mentally and emotionally, there can be issues with fear when the Bladder organ system isn’t healthy.

Either too much fear, especially fear of not having enough, or not enough fear with excessive risk taking. That fear of not having enough can lead to hoarding resources. When in balance, there is less fear of not having enough, and there can be more generosity and trust.

The Kidney organ system separates out impurities, overlapping some with the functions of the Bladder, though technically the Kidney separates and the Bladder expels. The Kidney system sends water to the whole body, in this way nourishing every organ and cell. It is also the storehouse of our Ancestral qi or energy reserves, the oomph that you came into the world with when you were born and that carries you through your life, gradually diminishing as you get older.

When you have used up your day-to-day energy from food and breath, you can draw on these reserves.

When you have to use your will to push and go further, either physically, mentally or emotionally, you are using Kidney energy. This energy can also be depleted by pushing too hard for too long—going with too little sleep, too much stress, too much work, not enough good food or water uses it up. Long-term use of drugs can also harm the Kidney.  

The Kidney organ system is the creator of bone, marrow and the brain.

It also governs the ears (which even look a little like kidneys) and the reproductive organs. Kidney system health is an important part of fertility and reproductive health. The Kidney system also is involved with diseases and conditions that people are born with – congenital conditions.

Ways to Support Your Water phase element!

Rest and Sleep

In higher latitudes, winter used to be a time for working shorter hours, sleeping more, talking and dreaming about the year that passed and the year ahead, but not a time for action. Modern life has made it possible to work long hours, stay busy and sleep less in the winter, but your body still needs that time of slowing down and regenerating. Sleep more, pay attention to your dreams and rest.

Get Your Cozy On

What can you do to help yourself slow down and get cozy? Maybe it’s a fire in the fireplace or a wood stove. Or perhaps it’s your favorite blanket on the couch with a good book or TV series. For some it’s fuzzy slippers or a bathrobe. Anything that helps you slow down and enjoy this Water season is worth consideration!

Bone Broth, Soups and Stews

Soups and stews are great in the winter. They are a great way to stay warm and get lots of nutritious vegetables and protein. Plus, most soup recipes are great for leftovers throughout the week. This helps you spend less time cooking and more time resting. This winter I have been using my slow cooker and instant pot twice a week to make yummy, nutritious recipes.

Here’s the latest one I’ve tried (it was delicious): Three Sisters Butternut Squash Chili

If you eat animal protein, bone broth is another great thing to cook up.

As I've mentioned, the Kidney organ system and the Water phase rule our bones – it's a deep symbolic association in Chinese medicine. Bone broth is rich in minerals and collagen and is supportive to your gastrointestinal tract and joints. It can even help with sleep!

Here’s a recipe and more information on the benefits of bone broth. You can either use the broth in other recipes, or just drink four to eight ounces as a daily tonic.

Moxibustion nourishes the water phase element deeply

Acupuncture and moxibustion

You may have heard of moxibustion before. It’s deeply warming and restorative, and I’ve found over the years that most people find it deeply comforting as well. It works well with acupuncture to build up depleted energy and soothe aching joints and muscles.

If it feels like your reserves are down or your flow is blocked, or if you are having a hard time with any of the other physical or emotional issues that I’ve discussed in this post, come in for some acupuncture or naturopathic care!