Do not disturb the yang [qi].
Go to rest early and rise late.
you must wait for the sun to shine.
Let the mind enter a state as if hidden,
as if shut in
as if you had secret intentions;
as if you already had made gains.
Avoid cold and seek warmth and
do not [allow sweat] to flow away through the skin.
This would cause the qi to be carried away quickly.
This is correspondence with the qi of winter and
it is the Way of nourishing storage.
Opposing it harms the kidneys.
In spring this causes limpness with receding [qi],
there is little to support generation.
– Huang di Nei Jing Su Wen trans. Paul Unschuald
Chinese winters are cold, particularly in the North. So Chinese Medicine texts talk of cold, dry winters. Perth’s winter months are the coldest of the year, but are relatively mild and quite wet, typically with cold fronts bringing south-westerly winds and days of heavy rain. By the local Nyoongar calendar, we are moving from Makuru, the coldest and wettest season to Djilba or first spring, with some wet days, and more clear, cold nights and pleasantly warm days.
Despite this difference with the cosmic flow of yin and yang in the Middle Kingdom, Chinese Medicine still has good tips for winter health.
As the Su Wen outlines above, we should stay indoors and avoid the cold. Most of us will welcome the advice that we shouldn’t get out of bed until the sun comes up. Winter is a time to reserve and store and some have interpreted the rather cryptic third stanza above as applying this to sexual activity, but the ninth century commentator and editor Wang Bing commented ‘All this to say one does not wish to go out needlessly lest one is struck by cold’ (Unschuld p. 49). Those that like to snuggle up in winter would prefer this interpretation. Notably Makuru is the season of fertility, and many indigenous plants flower in winter.
We should be particularly careful about not getting chilled after exercise. Young people have abundant warm energy or yang so it is ok for them to perspire at footy training in the evening, but even they should be sure to have a hot shower afterwards and change out of sweat-damped clothes. The rest of us should be even more cautious about exercising late, or outdoors.
Winter is the time to eat warming, full-flavoured foods and to nourish the Shen organ-meridian system linked to the kidneys. Wong’s ‘Four Seasons’ suggests: anchovies, bay leafs, capers, chestnuts, chicken, coriander, dill, fennel, leek, mussels, mutton, nutmeg, pine nuts, rosemary, spring onions, prawns, sweet potatoes, and walnuts. Trout and salmon are warm-natured fish. Eat stews, soups and curries, particularly of flavoursome foods with plentiful qi such as mutton or brisket. As well as eating warming foods we should moderate our consumption of cooling foods. Winter is not the best time to eat a lot of raw foods, salads, sushi or icecream, tofu should be cooked or even fried.
Winter is also time when it’s thought to be healthy to enjoy a little alcohol. Chinese will drink rice wine that has had warming herbs steeped in it, but regular wine is warm enough to help us through winter. Wong says that it ‘enlivens the spleen, warms the digestive system, expels wind and cold, promotes circulation of the qi and blood, improves appetite and dispels fatigue.’ But alcohol would kindle any fire in the body, and red wine seems particularly unhelpful to people who overheat at night. The alcohol in beer is warming, but beer can bring dampness. Dark beers warm the yang more than light ones, and some beers are brewed with orange peel, cardamon, and other spices that can warm the digestive system and reduce dampness.
Be careful though, while the seasonal qi is cool, we have the adverse qi of even winters being warmer than usual. And western diet and stress tend to generate pathogenic warmth, particularly when alcohol is added.
At the first signs of having caught a cold simmer two slices of ginger with three spring onion stalks for twenty minutes and drink the broth.
A warming nourishing dish from Professor Wong’s Food for the Seasons that doesn’t use meat:
stir-fried daikon radish with carrot
Stir-fry finely diced daikon radish with carrot until al dente and slightly browned. Add a handful of chopped shallots and cook for another minute. Add soy sauce and black pepper to taste.
Wong says that the carrot supports digestion and the radish clears damp that hinders digestion.