seasonal living

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!

Water to Wood – Lessons from the Birth of Spring

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The five elemental phases, also known as the five elements, are a key theoretical structure of 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 summer, late summer, fall and winter. Read below to learn about SPRING!

The five phases are:

  • Water / 水 / Shui
  • Wood / 木 / Mu
  • Fire / 火 / Huo
  • Earth / / Tu
  • Metal /金 / Jin

The phases are not static, but flow in a cycle, one generating the next.

The Chinese correlated each of the phases to a season. The water phase element relates to winter. The wood phase element relates to spring. The fire phase element relates to summer. The earth phase element relates to late summer. The metal phase element relates to fall. At the time I am writing this article, we are at the end of winter moving into spring. This means we're experiencing the shift from the Water phase element into the Wood phase element.

In Winter there is Water.

A few years ago I was lucky to be in Hawaii for a class in February, and I spent a lot of time on the beach just sitting and looking at waves and listening to their rumble and crash and swish. For me it was an experience that was healing. The wordless time helped me to refuel after a depleting stretch of months. The water phase has this quality. In East Asian traditional medicine it is thought to be the original source, a deep well of energy that you are born with and draw on through your life.

It is dark, quiet, a womb, wordless, original and first.

It corresponds to winter, which in nature is the time of hibernation, sleep, the time of waiting and regeneration. Water is the mother of the next phase or element, wood, but we can’t rush that transition (as much as we might want to get to Spring sometimes) we have to give it it’s quiet time so that we can sleep, and heal, and regenerate. We need to go inward to the dark, to listen to our deepest quiet self, to give ourselves time to just be. All of nature in our latitudes needs this quiet time. If we try to skip it, try to push through we risk burning up and burning out.

Wood comes soon enough!

Water can also be compared to a seed. Buried underground and in some places under snow. Dormant. Waiting. But at some point, the seasons change. We start to move into Spring. There’s a different feeling in the air. Maybe it’s the little more sunlight that signals us. Spring starts to move, everywhere around us and in us as well.

The Wood element is all about that feeling of spring.

Wood refers to living plants. Its color is that bright, new green that you see in new leaves, just as they pop out. There’s a tremendous amount of energy in this new phase. Think of what it must take for a seed to go from this thing that almost looks like a little rock, to burst up and out and grow and grow and grow, as much as it can, as exuberantly as it can, until it reaches the potential of who it can be.

That drive to grow and change and be is incredibly powerful. People who have a lot of wood energy tend to have a voice that always sounds like a shout. Little kids tend to be more woody than adults—think of a playground and all the yelling and exuberance.

The emotion associated with the Wood phase is anger.

This can be a tough thing. Some of us (I’m thinking of myself) tend to avoid anger. And why? I’d say for myself I’m afraid of that anger that comes from frustration and lashes out indiscriminately. I don’t want to get hurt by that stuff! And I don’t want to hurt other people. And that can be what Wood anger is if it is repressed, or stifled, or misdirected.

But Wood anger can also be a virtuous thing. It can be thought of Constructiveness, or Heroism. Healthy Wood anger is seeing that things are unfair, to yourself but especially to others, and using that tremendous energy of Spring, of the growing plant, to speak up, do something to correct that unfairness. It’s Robin Hood and Joan of Arc and Martin Luther King Jr.

There are ways we can best stay in balance as we move into the Wood phase element.

  • Like a growing plant, we need to move! Get your body moving with a walk, dancing, or other exercise every day. This will help with releasing stress and improving circulation, two aspects of a healthy wood element.
  • Clean out the waste from winter so that you can use all that Spring-Wood energy! Drink lots of clean fresh water every day. The organs of Wood are the liver and gallbladder. Herbs such as Milk Thistle, Burdock, Oregon Grape and Nettles can be supportive to your liver and gallbladder health. Nettles are also great for spring allergies.
  • Garden! Plant your own leafy greens, which are also great for liver health and feed healthy gut bugs.

In the coming months, I will post more about the other phase elements as we move through their seasons. Until then, go out and grow!