Photo of a sweet chestnut
Sweet chestnuts increase energy in the body and strengthen digestive system and kidneys [Image: joost j. bakker - Wikimedia Commons]

Healing with the seasons: Winter

4 January, 2012

Winter is natures’ way to pause, renew itself and gather the momentum for the new cycle of life.

The luscious trees of the summer are just a memory now, the glorious autumn colours have faded away, the sap is hidden in the depths of the earth to conserve the energy for the new growth of the spring to come.

Landscapes veiled into dark mists appear sleepy, almost tranquil. The sounds of cracking ice disturbs the crisp air and the silent snowflakes evoke childhood joys.

When nature declines into a winter nod, everything out there, although bare, reveals the beauty of the true essence of life, the simplicity itself.

At this time of year, in the midst of unadorned nature, all new life rests, nurtured by the warmth of the Earth’s care.

Safe in the Earth, every seed waits for the right moment to reproduce itself, to fulfil its potential and mark its participation in the life cycle of its generation.

It is this mystical, hidden, concentrated energy of winter that nurtures and imparts the strength to a seed to grow into a new life.

And so this is a time to rest, to renew our vitality, to conserve our sexual juices.  It is a time to sleep longer, take brisk walks on a crisp mornings, nurture our true vision, in quietude of our deepest self, and mature our strength for this all new way of being.

It is a time to remember that the most profound self healing happens naturally, in the quiet of the winter, when we allow ourselves to tune in to what nature does so beautifully.

A time of dreams

We would be wise to take a hint from nature and use wintertime to deeply nourish ourselves on this concentrated power by moving our attention inwards.

This time of year encourages us to journey into the deepest, darkest essence of who we are, so that we can restore our health and heal the blemishes and life knocks that we have accumulated in our own cyclical, seasonal merry-go-round of life.

In the stillness of the winter we access our true selves. We find the safe place of inner warmth, the part of our being that holds the seeds for all new growth, the place from which our future unfolds.

It is a good time to pay attention to our dreams. Dreams are the seeds of our future vision; our ideas – about who we are and what we want – grow out of them.

Dreaming the life we want, crystallises the vision and helps us to find the strength and numerous ways to materialise all we need to have another go at doing our best over the coming year.

Still waters

Winter is marked by the qualities of the element of Water. Water spends long periods hidden in the darkest recesses of the earth, ripening, flowing, gathering momentum before reaching for the blue sky again.

To simply be still and quiet, to contain our energy within ourselves is to stand in the energy of the Water element. Meditation, yoga, qi gong, contemplation are all great tools that help us to be present to the deep inner strength.

Most of us have a lifestyle incompatible with stillness and contemplation. Patience and quietude are not high on our agendas. We exert ourselves to dangerous limits of our bodies’ ability to cope.

Too often we live not out of our strength, but out of deep subconscious fear that we ourselves are not enough, that we don’t have what it takes to meet the challenges ahead, and fear that we don’t have enough strength stored to survive the winters of our lives.

Perhaps not surprisingly, fear is the emotion associated with the distressed water element.

The root of life

According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the kidney and urinary bladder network belongs to the element of water

This network is the root of life; it is the basis of all tangible and intangible potential for development and growth.

The kidneys are understood to store and preserve the essence (or Jing) of human life. The essence is the primal energy of human life, indeed the signs of ageing are signs of the diminishing essence, the fine substance of an individuals’ life.

Kidney essence is the fundamental reserve for the body to call upon in time of crises, disease, and periods of change and hardship. Strong essence leads to wise, long and vigorous life.

Because of the presence of the essence, qualities of vitality, endurance, intellect, creativity basic instinct for survival, our will power and a basic instinct for procreation, are all governed by the kidney.

Fear, anxiety and shock injure the kidney. Prolonged physical exhaustion, beyond the limits of the constitution, chronic illness, pain, excessive or addictive sexual activity, extreme cold environment, chemical additives, drugs and excess of salt in our diets all deplete the kidney energies.

Depletion of the kidney energies manifests as a lack of will power, lack of direction, inactivity, indecisiveness, diminished zest for life, lack of sexual desire, premature ageing, withering skin, loss of teeth, grey hair, diminished vision and hearing, impotence and poor health.

The Superior tonics

Rejuvenation, longevity and enhanced health are as much a part of human experience as ageing and disease.

Chinese Taoist masters in particular left us a great legacy in the field of mastering longevity and enhanced health. Their philosophy advocates a simple life in order to live in harmony with nature and achieve a long life.

Fu Zeng, the Superior Herbalism, is part of their legacy and it is the most sophisticated and effective way of applying gifts of nature to promote health rather than eliminate disease.

Fu Zeng, means “supreme tonification”, “strengthening what is already correct”. In ancient times as well as now, Superior tonic herbs and other kinds of ingredients were used to preserve health with aim of attaining long life, youthful vigour, sexual potency and spiritual awareness.

As you may have gathered by now, most of these health-enhancing materials have the effect of replenishing the kidney essence, and that is what puts them into the category of supreme tonics.

Today the herbs from this category are known as adaptogens – medicinal substances that increase the human capacity to adapt to the external environment. Adaptogens shield the body against stress, the process of ageing and disease and release our own innate sources of vitality and strength.

Tonic foods

Numerous commonly available foods also come under this category. Seeds in particular, which carry the potential for the new life, are nourishing to the kidney essence.

The kidney tonics, are the most praised medicinal plants and foods and when taken as a part of our daily diet, they provide the body with the deep substance of life. They are traditionally recognised as having anti-ageing and longevity properties because of their life-preserving quality.

They also enhance the ability to resist disease, our natural ability to adapt to change. they help us to have strong glossy hair, strong teeth, sexual vigour, quick thinking and great stamina.

Those with a sweet flavour and cool nature nourish the essence, the fluid aspect of our being. When sweet and warm they nurture the life force, the energy of life that streams through us.

To maintain vitality curing the winter months, here are some common foods to adopt into the diet at this time of year:

Cinnamon bark

The thicker inner bark available from Chinese herb shops (known as Rou gui) is particularly pungent sweet and very hot. This spice is well known as a kidney tonic used to relieve pain by dispelling cold, it promotes blood circulation and is therefore good for cold limbs. It also warms up the interior, reduces internal coldness and warms the digestive system.

Moderation is required, however. The safe way is to use it as a sprinkle on your breakfast cereal or in a warm drink.

Sweet Chestnuts

Being sweet and warming, chestnuts increase energy in the body, strengthen digestive system and kidneys. They are especially beneficial in case of weak lower limbs and lower back, bone and tendons injuries with swelling and pain.

Fennel Seeds

A warming, aromatic carminative (that is, soothing to the digestive tract),  fennel is an excellent food for warming the kidney and bladder region.

Pistachio nuts

These are particularly good for warming the kidneys and increasing sexual vigour.


Raspberry’s nature is slightly warm, sweet and sour; it is an excellent fruit medicine. It strengthens and tones the liver and kidneys, is good in cases of impotence or sterility, as well as diminished blurred vision, spontaneous seminal emission, frequent urination and fatigue


Walnut is the “longevity fruit”. It’s nature is warm and its flavour is sweet. It can be used to strengthen the kidneys and brain, return hair to its original colour, moisten the skin, increase energy, nourish blood, lubricate large intestine, relieve impotence, and relieve frequent urination and incontinence.

Black Sesame Seeds (Sesamum indicum)

These tiny seeds can increase body energy, improve hearing and sharpen vision. They are also useful for strengthening connective tissue and bones and for nourishing brain tissue. Black sesame seeds are a moistening food that increases production of semen and bone marrow.

They are specifically indicated for constipation due to blood deficiency. Grey hair and certain skin diseases, are known to respond to treatment with sesame seeds.

Adzuki Beans

These are specific for promoting the flow of urine, and to help to drain the oedema (water weight)in the lower part of the body, adzuki beans also tone the heart, spleen and kidneys.

A final word

Nature’s pharmacy is rich with remedies, even in the seemingly barren world of winter. But before you start worrying which one of these tonics would solve all of your ‘ills’ remember the mind needs to be still… watch the snowflakes, the jewels from the sky, hear them fall one by one. Let the inspiration come.


  • The late Dragana Vilinac was chief herbalist at Neal’s Yard Remedies.
  • For a great way to use fennel seed see this recipe for Chamomile and Fennel Tea.