In Harmony with the Seasons
The idea of “follow the path of least resistance” is associated with the Eastern viewpoint of Taoism and contemplation of the flow of water. Taoist philosophy is based on an ages old observation of the cycles of nature and the effects these have on all life, including our bodies. Being in harmony with the seasons affords us good health and mental well-being. In our own culture, we have the example of the agrarian lifestyle in which many farm people follow a similar cycle throughout the year.
In many health practices, winter is thought to most impact the functioning of the kidneys because of the cold and precipitation. This means that if there are existing imbalances in the kidneys, they will be exacerbated by the weather. Symptoms of kidney imbalance include poor clearance of toxins through the kidneys, water retention, urinary tract infections, mucous accumulations, coldness, rheumatic complaints, tiredness and dizziness. In the case of kidney imbalance, this translates into cleansing the kidneys before the onset of winter, which includes modifying the diet according to seasonal availability and adding mild herbs supporting kidney function to our regimen.
Eating in harmony with the seasons means using foods that come to market from your local region or from other similar climate zones at the same latitude. These foods tend to support the body’s needs in dealing with the weather of that season and the challenges it brings to our health. Vegetables and fruits harvested in the fall in either of the Temperate Zones are traditionally stored in root cellars well into the winter. Some of these foods are cauliflower, potatoes, burdock, fennel, carrots, turnips, rutabagas, beets, hard squashes and beans, onions, leeks, garlic, pears, apples, nuts, seeds, grains and dried mushrooms. More tender vegetables, such as cabbage, celery, broccoli, kale and other firm greens, are stored short-term since they do not hold unspoiled all the way into midwinter. Eating within the seasons at your latitude also means keeping foods from the tropics or those normally available only in the summer in your region to an occasional minimum. For instance, eating lots of hot chilies, sweet corn, zucchini, peas, green beans, strawberries, bananas, oranges or other summer/tropical crops in midwinter tends to increase our tendency to sluggish elimination. In particular, water retention and thus mucous accumulation become a risk because of the cooling, moistening nature of these foods. This is just what the body needs during the summer but not during the winter! All of this means shifting our food preparations to include baked or sautéed dishes and cooking with moderately pungent herbs and spices like garlic, thyme, savory, bay leaves, cumin, coriander, nutmeg, fennel seed, etc.
What is especially interesting about this ages old thinking about fall harvest foods is that these foods provide carotene, essential fatty acids or "good fats," minerals, vitamins and fiber. This is important for health issues that are challenged in winter months; resistance to infections and healthy elimination. In many health systems, our elimination is thought to slow down during winter, including the kidneys, and the resulting load of toxins overtaxes our immune systems. This makes us even more vulnerable to infections, which the body has more difficulty fighting in colder temperatures. Foods which are particularly valued for supporting this definition of kidney functioning are red, purple and black beans (especially adzuki beans), mushrooms, buckwheat, beets, burdock, chestnuts, sesame, mussels, oysters, scallops, duck, quail, pheasant, miso, tofu and tempeh. It is also important to maintain an ideal balance of proteins to carbohydrates, not only for smooth hormonal regulation of all of our organs, but also to reduce the tendency of grain based carbohydrates that can increase mucous accumulations.
Cleansing a particular organ system is thought to be most effective when undertaken just in advance of the change to the season with which it is associated, i.e., liver with spring, intestines with fall and kidneys with winter. This helps eliminate the "load" on that organ, leaving it free to rebalance itself and better able to deal with the demands of the season. In terms of Western herbs, this means using herbs with mild to strong diuretic (urine promoting) actions at the threshold of or early in winter when temperatures are still moderate. Many of these herbs are also traditionally thought to help remove toxin accumulations from the nodules and fatty tissues of the kidneys, thus promoting blood cleansing as well. This includes dandelion root, parsley root, gravel root, hydrangea, cleavers, couch grass and uva ursi. These herbs should be accompanied by increased daily water intake and used only short-term, perhaps for a week or less. Please consult your health care practitioner for guidelines as to the appropriate duration for your body, particularly if you have a history of urinary problems. These herbs may be helpful in urinary infections but are not strong enough alone to ward off infections. They should be used in addition to supplements with antibiotic properties, such as chaparral, echinacea, goldenseal and olive leaf. Infections in this area of the body may cause permanent organ damage if not treated promptly. These herbs may be combined with other milder, more soothing diuretics, particularly if there is any irritation in the urinary tract. Kelp, marshmallow, cornsilk and plantain are considerations. Try ginger or coriander if one is feeling cold from taking any of these herbs.
After cleansing, we can use milder, lighter herbs as maintenance. This includes parsley, dandelion leaf, buchu, plantain, watermelon seed, watercress and marshmallow. Because of their mildness, they are more suitable for frequent use, perhaps a few days per week, or as a midwinter mini-cleanse. Chlorella and spirulina, algae classified as "super foods" rather than herbs because of their even milder but tonifying action, are associated with kidney functioning more than other green supplements and are suitable for daily use. It is important to drink extra water at room temperature or warmer, as this is more in harmony with the needs of this season. Teas, therefore, are an especially good practice for winter. If you have preexisting kidney conditions, please consult your healthcare practitioner before using any of these supplements.
Combining kidney supportive herbs with seasonal eating strategies gives us an excellent foundation for winter health, which we can supplement with immune strengtheners as needed. It is important to also pay attention to the notion of being more inward and contemplative. Rejuvenating our forces should be our main emphasis for this time. The psyche is a major force in our physiological health and if it is going against the trend of the season and of our other health practices, we will not get the results we desire. While this does not mean stopping all production and activity for the winter, it does mean being aware of how much energy we are directing outwards, keeping the balance in favor of gathering energy into the deepest parts of ourselves. This is the spiritual analogue to what occurs in nature during this season.
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From Winter 1997 Herbal Insights.