Your Health in Winter: The Five Element Theory & the Season of Being Still

The temperatures are dropping and the days are darkening—signals that winter is coming soon. We are using the seasons to continue exploring the Five Element Theory of acupuncture, which maps how each element corresponds to an internal organ system, and each organ system is associated with specific emotions and physical conditions. By giving you a brief overview of the physical and psychological conditions & imbalances that can occur (and how to spot the indicators on your face), and reviewing what East-West treatment approaches can be used for healing, you’ll have a better understanding how this theory supports your health and how to prevent conditions most likely to arise in each particular season. The season for discussion now is winter.

Winter: The Season of Being Still

In The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, an ancient text considered by many to be the highest authority on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), it is mentioned that all deep energy, so called yin reserves, must be re-established within you; winter is made for this time. The earth lies fallow in winter. Nature appears frozen in place, as it has completed its fall retreat. During this time of profound stillness and natural dormancy, winter calls us to look inward, to reflect deeply. The atmosphere of the season begs that we preserve and eventually replenish our energy.

In the Five Element Theory, winter is associated with the Water element. The urinary bladder and the kidneys are the two meridian organ systems related to the water element in this season. The bladder meridian runs through the whole body, twice along the back as well as the neck and back of the legs. In TCM, the bladder meridian has extended functions including not only urine storage and production, but also associated with pain along the meridian like back, neck and leg pain. The emotion associated with the bladder meridian is being overwhelmed and having unclear boundaries.

The kidney meridian begins under the little toe, rises up along the inner aspect of the leg, along the base of the spine, and ascends to the upper chest area. Like the bladder meridian, the kidney meridian is much more than only the function of the kidneys. Branches of that meridian go into the heart, pericardium, chest, joints, lungs and throat. Often disorders of those organs are related to it. The emotion connected to the kidney meridian is fear, anxiety or depression.

 Conditions linked to the water element during the winter season naturally affect the health of the kidneys and bladder as well as the ancillary systems along the meridians. These include:

• Kidney and/or bladder stones

• Urinary tract disorders

• Adrenal fatigue

• Lumbar back and neck pain

• Tinnitus and hearing problems

• Occipital headaches

• Teeth, bone and bone marrow disorders

• Arthritis and connective tissue disorders

• Hair loss

• Immune system disorders

• Poor libido and fertility issues

• Hypertension

• Chronic fatigue syndrome

Given that winter calls for energy withdrawal and inward-looking reflection, it should come as no surprise there are both positive and unbalanced psycho-emotional aspects in this season. The affirmative emotions include:

• Contemplation

• Wisdom

• Self-understanding and preservation

• Clear perceptions

• Empowerment

• Intelligence

 The unbalanced emotional attributes are:

• Depression and anxiety

• Fear and insecurity

• Loneliness

• Non-rational obsessive thinking and paranoia

• Feeling overwhelmed and depleted

• Social withdrawal and isolation

Facial Signs of Kidney and Bladder Deficiency

Initial indicators of problems in the kidneys and bladder can often be seen on your face. Because the kidney meridian is water element related, it manages fluids in the body. Signs of changes in your body’s fluids—dehydration, water retention, and/or oedema (excessive fluid retention)—show on the face in the form of under-eye bags, dark circles, puffiness, and /or inflammation/puffiness around the eye brow ridge. Additionally, sparse and lightened eyebrows often indicate endocrine disorders associated with the adrenal glands or thyroid. Finally, pale ears can indicate nutritional insufficiency and absorption issues.

Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome

While there are many conditions associated with kidney and bladder meridians, one of the most common is Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome. The adrenal glands are two small glands atop each kidney. They produce and control cortisol, the stress hormone. Cortisol is designed to increase in a fight or flight situation and decrease in amount once you are relaxed. This is how it functions in a healthy body. However, adrenal fatigue comes from the chronic stress that results when your mind and/or body pushes too hard and exhausts the adrenals. As a consequence, cortisol production happens at inappropriate times and at inappropriate levels. For example, if cortisol is produced at night, rather than in the morning, this can create insomnia since the body literally cannot shut off cortisol production.

Here are some common causes of adrenal fatigue:

• Poor diet

• Lack of sleep

• Working too hard

• Emotional trauma

• Lack of (or too much) exercise

• Mold exposure

• Gastrointestinal issues

Signs of adrenal fatigue include low energy, mood swings, weight gain, depression, anxiety, brain fog, muscle heaviness and aches, anddull headaches. If you experience any of these symptoms chronically, an adrenal fatigue test can be used to explore causality. Additionally recommended testing can check for any food or environmental sensitivities such as mold, candida, dairy, gluten, pollen and other possibilities that can draw down adrenal function. Further options available to diagnose adrenal fatigue include micro-nutrient testing, other hormonal glands tests, and GI tests.

Keeping the adrenal glands balanced can prevent many of the problems listed here. Balancing adrenals also helps the functioning of other hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, progesterone and sometimes the thyroid gland. Once testing has identified the issue(s), you can treat the condition in a number of ways:

• Establish an individual protocol of anti-stress supplements, adaptogens and nutrients chosen specifically for your condition

• Use acupuncture, craniosacral zero balancing, electroacupuncture and more to treat any presenting anxiety, depression, headache or (back) pain

• Provide advice on lifestyle adjustments related to diet, sleep, breathing and meditation.

Low Back Pain

Low back pain occurs in approximately 80% of the US population at some time in their lives. It is the largest complaint brought to acupuncturists for their services. As mentioned previously, there are several back acupuncture points associated with bladder and kidney meridians, so imbalances in either of these areas often result in back pain.

Fortunately, there are several effective treatment methods to assist with pain management and relief. Here is just a brief look at what’s available, but consult your holistic health practitioner and/or acupuncturist for more information:

1. Acupuncture – helps to restore the flow of qi, which is the flow of energy to release pain

2. Acupuncture Trigger Point – helps to release muscle tension

3. Doctor Fu Myofascial Release – helps with fascia regional tension

4. Electrical Stimulation – has an anti inflammatory effect

5. Shock Wave Therapy – to release deep muscle spasms

6. Cold Laser – for reducing inflammation and faster healing; restores and improves numbness, tingling.

7. Cupping – for pain management.

Nourishing Yourself In Winter

Just as nature sheds its leaves to conserve energy and as bears slumber in hibernation, so too must we slow down, retreat inward, and take time to be still and reflect in winter. By doing so we preserve our energy and take steps to nourish the body and mind this season. Support the water element nutritionally with soups and stews; it is particularly important in the winter to avoid cold foods. As an exception, seaweed is especially nourishing for the water element and should be included when possible. And remember to drink plenty of fluids, but avoid ice and cold drinks.

For the mind and spirit, guard against becoming too isolated, too down, or too anxious. Be aware of obsessive thoughts, depressive moods, and feelings of overwhelm; stop and breathe when overwhelmed or out of energy, and seek help as appropriate. Stay calm, and preserve your energy. Resist the urge to withdraw socially, and instead enjoy the company of your friends and loved ones. Increase rest and sleep hours when possible.

Remember, wintertime is here for restoring energy and getting ready for a new start and new growth in the spring.

Helena Amos, M.Ac., L.Ac., is a licensed acupuncturist, European physician, and natural medicine practitioner since 1986. She is the owner of the Acupuncture and Natural Medicine Clinic in Rockville, MD, and is available for complementary consultations. Call 301-881-2898, email her at, and visit for more information about acupuncture and pain management services. LIKE on Facebook @AmosAcupunctureAndNaturalMedicine. See also her ad on page

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