6 Insights to Cultivate a Healthy Winter Season

by Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. and Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac.

Near the top of Mount Titlis in the Swiss Alps.

Near the top of Mount Titlis in the Swiss Alps.

We recently returned from a beautiful trip to Switzerland where we felt like we were able to slow down and enjoy the feeling of Winter and the holiday season. Watching snow fall and walking through the Christmas markets transported us into a true Winter Wonderland. 

Being in the cold also reminded us why wintertime is the most appropriate time to become more Yin. This naturally Yin, cold time of the year encourages rest and contemplation, both of which help us consolidate our energy and bring closure to our past.

Winter is the season related to the Kidney system. The Kidneys hold the essential energy of the body, known as Jing, which is related to our DNA and the inner self. We're born with a finite amount of this Jing, so living a healthy, long life requires the conservation of Jing through adequate rest and self-cultivation. 

Winter is the ideal time to cultivate yourself through rest and relaxation in order to consolidate and conserve your energy.

The Kidneys store your Life Gate Fire, called Ming Men; the strongest source of Yang Qi that brings power to your body and motivation to your mind. This energy creates the Zhi, or Willpower, that drives ambition and your will to live.

Finding balance is about the balance between being Yin, at rest, and being Yang, active.

Being too Yin causes stagnation in the body and being too Yang overheats and burns out the body.

On a physical level, the Kidney system includes the kidneys, the adrenal glands, the reproductive organs, the brain, the ears and hearing, and the bones or skeletal structure. 

Since the sex organs are an aspect of the Kidneys, excessive sexual activity has the most direct and exhaustive impact on the Kidney's Qi and releasing sexual fluids also exhausts the Jing, which is your most valuable commodity in life. Through the loss of Yin fluids, the body cannot stay insulated and maintain its heat so the body gets cold and over time the tissues dry up and wrinkle. Thus the decline of Kidney Yin and Yang relates to accelerated aging.

Cultivation practices are essential to consolidate the Kidney's Yin and Yang energies to slow down the aging process.

Self-cultivation practices involve daily exercises that increase flexibility and move Qi such as Qi Gong, Yoga and Tai Chi. In addition, emptying the mind through daily Meditation practice is the most powerful and important practice to allow the body's deepest energies to circulate. 

The Winter Solstice marks a change of seasons through the longest night of the year. 

While New Year's resolutions are powerful, Winter is not the time to bring new ideas and plans to fruition.

The seasonal energy of Winter is about going within ourselves and consolidating our energy so we have the power to sprout our intentions during the following, Yang season of Spring.

6 Insights to Help You Have a Healthy Winter Season

1) Go to bed early and sleep, sleep, sleep. Resting and deep, uninterrupted sleep help consolidate your Yin energy to support regeneration at this time of year. For those who have difficulty sleeping well, Chinese herbal medicine and Essential Oils are often very effective to cool and relax your Liver and nourish your Heart blood to support a calm mind for restful sleep.

2) Nurture your Earth digestive energy (Spleen and Stomach Qi) with cooked foods, including lots of soup and stews. This is important during every seasonal transition. Avoid cold, raw food and drinks which reduce your digestive energy and lower your body's core temperature.

Here's a healing Rice Congee recipe: Bring 7 cups water or chicken stock to a boil and then slowly simmer 1 cup long-grain white rice. Cook for about an hour stirring every 15-20 minutes. Add water if necessary to keep it soupy. Add bone broth, ginger slices, green scallion onions and any type of meat or eggs as desired. Eating a cup of congee at end of each meal is very potent medicine to strengthen a weak digestive system. 

Salvador practicing Qi Gong on a crisp morning in Oberohringen, Switzerland

Salvador practicing Qi Gong on a crisp morning in Oberohringen, Switzerland

3) Keep your body's core temperature warm to protect the Life Gate Fire of the Kidneys. If you’re feeling cold, increase your body's metabolism by eating more warming meats such as lamb, beef, pork, buffalo and wild game like venison, elk and moose.  It's also important to keep your feet, head and belly warm to preserve your Kidney Qi. 

4) Exercise to boost your metabolism and circulation but don't exhaust yourself or sweat too much. Sweating excessively dries up your Yin fluids. Practice more Qi Gong, Yoga and Tai Chi to move and strengthen your Qi. Click here to join us for our special New Year's Eve Yoga-Qi Gong class. You can also learn more and register for the one-of-a-kind Yin Yoga Immersion with Dr. Moafi in the new year by clicking here.

5) Meditate daily and focus on what's good in your life. What we focus on expands, so stay positive by keeping a daily journal of gratitude to help highlight all the good things in your life each day. In addition, 10-15 minutes of daily meditation helps to begin the process of emptying the mind. This simple 10 minute meditation will help get you started. 

6) Bring completion to things in your life. This is a great time to let go of a bad relationship or job that keeps you feeling stuck and unfulfilled so you can harvest and create space for those new plans to sprout forth in the coming Spring. Winter is the time for bringing closure when there are loose ends tying up your energy.

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Thank you for helping make our year so special. Wishing you and your loved ones a nourishing Winter and holiday season!

With love,

Setareh & Salvador


Salvador Cefalu, M.S., L.Ac. is the Founder & Co-Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic run by he and his wife, Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine. Salvador is a leading U.S. practitioner of Japanese Meridian Therapy, a rare form of non-insertion Acupuncture using Gold & Silver needles. More information at www.acenterfornaturalhealing.com.

Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. is Co-Owner and Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine and Traditional Japanese Acupuncture. Dr. Moafi offers clinical services and transformational workshops that blend the ancient practices of Classical Chinese Medicine and Yoga. More information at www.setarehmoafi.com and www.acenterfornaturalhealing.com

Sleep and the Gut-Brain Axis

by Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac.

Digestive health is fundamental to the health of your entire body. According to Chinese Medicine, the Earth element, which includes the Spleen and Stomach, is considered to be the central element in the Five Element system. Earth corresponds to the late Summer as well as to all seasonal transitions. This is why it's especially important to take care of your digestive health during all transitions, seasonal and otherwise.

The health of your digestive system, or gut health, is the foundation of your ability to properly digest and assimilate food, manage stress and sleep well.

Gut health is directly impacted by stress because of a mechanism known as the gut-brain axis, which explains the biochemical signaling between the gastrointestinal tract and the central nervous system. 

Under stress, the hypothalamus in the brain signals the autonomic nervous system as well as the pituitary gland to produce stress hormones, including epinephrine and cortisol. The production of these stress hormones shuts down the parasympathetic nervous system, which is related to our ability to rest and to digest.

When the sympathetic nervous system, or our 'fight or flight' response, is active, the parasympathetic nervous system is impeded and therefore both our sleep and digestion are impacted.

You probably know from experience that your thought process, especially when you’re under stress, affects your ability to digest food, but this relationship goes both ways.

In other words, what you eat also impacts your ability to think—and sleep. 

 

Sleep and the Gut-Brain Axis

The bidirectional communication between the brain and central nervous system (CNS) and the enteric nervous system (ENS) is known as the gut-brain axis (GBA), an information superhighway of chemicals and hormones that provides constant feedback and informs, among other things, our moods, emotions and sleep patterns.

Recent research on the gut-brain axis (GBA) affirms that an unhealthy microbiome in the gut impacts sleep quality and that poor sleep causes changes to the bacterial community in the gut. This is because sleep deprivation produces an imbalance of the stress hormone cortisol.

Too much cortisol can lead to a proliferation of unhealthy bacteria microbiome that can lead to gastrointestinal (GI) problems. GI imbalances increase the potential to develop sleep disorders.

In addition, research has shown that there is 400 times more melatonin in the gut than there is in the pineal gland where melatonin was traditionally thought to be produced. It appears that stress causes changes both in gut bacteria and in neurotransmitter levels (Beckett, 2015).

The rhythms of gut microbes are affected by diet, both the timing of eating and the composition of foods consumed. A healthy diet helps the body generate more beneficial gut microbes thereby helping to reduce inflammation and optimize gut health.

The health of the gut helps determine the health of the brain and therefore our ability to process information, manage stress, balance our emotions, and digest and assimilate food; all of which affect our ability to sleep.

 

Unbalanced Emotions and Sleep

Li Dong-yuan, Founder of the Earth School in Chinese Medicine and one of the Four Great Masters of the Jin-Yuan period in China, believed that disease pathology manifests as a result of damage to postnatal Qi, the energy that we refine and consume through our environment from food and drink. Postnatal Qi is produced by the Spleen and Stomach through the Gu Qi, or energy that's transformed from food. This process occurs in the gut.

Excessive or unbalanced emotions and stress weaken the Spleen and Stomach and therefore the gut. According to Li Dong-yuan, this weakness leads to stagnation of Stomach Qi that eventually turns into heat or Fire that burns the fluids in the body.

We can therefore surmise that heat accumulation in the gut eventually affects the brain and interferes with the harmonious interplay between the gut and brain.

During menopause for example, hormone production decreases and, since damage to the gut inhibits the proper production of melatonin and other hormones necessary to regulate stress and sleep, there is a great tendency for a woman to develop insomnia at this time.

Li believed that weakness in the Spleen and Stomach, or Earth organs, is the foundation of disease and begins with unresolved emotions. He stated that "the downward flowing [of the five yang qi] into their confinement with yin fire in kun earth is always due first to damage done by the five thieves -- joy, anger, sorrow, worry, and fright--followed by stagnation of stomach qi. Finally, overtaxation and dietary irregularity succeed in damaging the original qi" (Li, 2004, 203).

The “five thieves” damage the Spleen and Stomach, leading to stagnation of Stomach Qi. Overwork or overtaxation and poor diet further damage the original qi. This pattern is prominent during major life transitions like menopause during which, as Dr. Christiane Northrup has explained, many women’s unprocessed and unresolved emotions cause insomnia and fatigue to accompany “the enormous changes of midlife” (Northrup, 2012).

This internal heat caused by Qi deficiency is called Yin Fire and flares up into heart. This pattern is common among women going through the menopausal transition where stress along with hormonal changes damage the Spleen and Stomach function.

 

Yin Fire: The Impact of Emotions on Your Health

According to Nei Jing Su Wen, one of the foremost classical Chinese medical texts, seven emotions are considered major internal causes of disease - joy, anger, fear, fright, anxiety, pensiveness and sadness. Li Dong-yuan focused on what he referred to as the “five thieves,” or the emotions of joy, anger, sorrow, pensiveness, and fright, any of which in excess become pathological.

The Earth attribute of Yi, or the mind, has a tendency to worry. Nei Jing Su Wen stated: “Pensiveness harms the spleen” (Unschuld, 2011, 207) and if it is not properly transformed, it leads to obsession.

The attribute of the Heart is known as the spirit, or shen. Over-joy, which includes excessive desires and passions, can overwhelm the Heart and disrupt the shen, since the Heart is the organ that manages joy. Over-joy can transform into anxiety and eventually mania.

Yin Fire causes excessive emotions to aggravate the Heart, which then dumps heat into the Stomach. As the abode of the shen, or spirit, the Heart’s disturbance will affect the circulation of blood and thus the shen, inhibiting one’s ability to sleep restfully.

Wei Qi, which determines the body’s circadian rhythm, forms in the Lungs through the Gu Qi that first enters the Stomach via food and drinks. The circadian rhythm, like the circulation of Wei Qi, dips and rises at different times of the day and can be impacted by the pathological process of Yin Fire.

Sleepiness and sleep propensity are strongly influenced by our circadian clock as indicated by circadian rhythms, most commonly by that of core body temperature. Sleep is most conducive in the temperature minimum phase, but is inhibited in a "wake maintenance zone" before the minimum phase, and is disrupted in a zone following that phase. Different types of insomnia symptoms have been associated with abnormalities of the body temperature rhythm (Lack et al., 2008).

Yin Fire results from Qi deficiency heat caused by poor diet, over taxation, and imbalanced emotions (Li, 2004, 86). Over time, Yin Fire creates an internal heat that can burn up the body’s blood, qi and yin and cause insomnia, especially because its ascending quality affects the Heart and Pericardium. It can also inhibit a decline in core temperature, which is essential for falling asleep (NIH, 2005). 

Internal heat can also arise from Yin deficiency wherein insufficiency of body fluids prevents the body from cooling or tempering the heat, or Yang energy, in the body.

Think of Yin Fire as a process of inflammation that slowly erodes the internal membrane of the intestinal wall. As this membrane barrier breaks down, the gut lining becomes hyper-permeable and leads to the problem of Leaky Gut Syndrome. An abnormally leaky gut allows molecules of partially digested food as well as microbial toxins like bacteria, virus and fungus to flow directly into the bloodstream. These foreign invaders lead to overactive immune responses by the body which can lead to a host of serious diseases such as cancer or chronic degenerative conditions like autoimmune disorders. 

If you’re dealing with chronic inflammation of any kind, it's imperative to clean up the toxic terrain within your gut and heal the intestinal lining.

 

Healing the Gut, Brain and Sleep

One effective way to support the process of healing a leaky gut and build back a healthy microbiome for improved digestion and elimination is through the ingestion of bone broth.

Bone broth is a food source packed with substrates to help bind up the intestinal wall, referred to as the Yin of the Stomach in Chinese Medicine. Yin is substance, so we need substance to heal the body's broken down tissues. Bone broth contains the following substances to repair and restore your muscles, skin, joints and gut health:

  • Protein - supplies the building blocks for growth, including the building of muscles, tissues and new cells.

  • Glycine - an amino acid necessary for healthy DNA and RNA that's essential for properly functioning cells.

  • Collagen - holds together our joints, bones, ligaments and tendons. Needs to be supplemented as it starts to diminish as early as age 20.

  • Chondroitin Sulfate - supports joint health and comfort (especially in combination with glucosamine)

  • Glucosamine - a compound that's involved in the creation of molecules that form cartilage.

  • Hyaluronic Acid - a compound contained in the synovial fluid in our joints that serves as a cushion and lubricant in the joints and other tissues. Hyaluronic acid is also a major component of skin, where it is involved in tissue repair and wound healing.

Furthermore, bone broth comes from slowly cooking down bones to provide different types of collagen depending upon the animal source of the bones. In Chinese Medicine, the bones relate to the Kidney system and the Kidney system also supports the brain. So we can see a correlation with how the regular ingestion of bone broth can be very nutritional to strengthen brain function as well.

Other important supplements that support gut restoration include probiotics and digestive enzymes (contact us to learn more about products we recommend that are available at our clinic).

A healthy diet rich in omega fatty acids, leafy green vegetables and limited complex carbohydrates (especially gluten free) will also help to develop a healthy gut microbiome . 

Self-care is also crucial to heal the digestive system, as the ability to care for oneself and others is a virtue of the Earth element. Learning to cook healthy meals at home, receiving regular Acupuncture treatment and taking time for cultivation practices such as Yoga and Qi Gong will help to regulate both the nervous and digestive systems.

With a calm mind and healthy gut, a good night's sleep will naturally become a more regular part of your life.


References

Beckett, F. (2015). Can’t sleep? Blame your gut bacteria! Retrieved from https://secretsofagoodnightssleep.com/2015/03/03/cant-sleep-blame-your-gut-bacteria/

Lack L.C., Gradisar M., Van Someren E.J., Wright H.R., & Lushington K (2008). The relationship between insomnia and body temperatures. Sleep Medicine Review, 12(4): 307-17.

Li, D.Y. (2004). Treatise on the Spleen & Stomach: A translation of the Pi Wei Lun by Bob Flaws. Boulder, Colorado: Blue Poppy Press.

Northrup, C. (2012). The wisdom of menopause: Creating physical and emotional health during the change. New York: Bantam Books.

Unschuld, P., & Tessenow, H. (2011). Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.


Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. is Co-Owner and Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California, a health and wellness clinic that specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine and Traditional Japanese Acupuncture. Dr. Moafi offers clinical services and transformational workshops that blend the ancient practices of Classical Chinese Medicine and Yoga. 

Food as a Mirror

by Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac.

We’ve all heard the saying “you are what you eat” but what may be more true is that what you eat is a reflection of how you feel about yourself. 

When we make healthier food choices, we're also making choices about the quality with which we want to live our lives.

A healthy lifestyle comes from knowledge through the proper resources but also through tuning in with the self. Adapting a healthy lifestyle means looking at all aspects of your life – your work, relationships and your diet.

Proper nutrition is one of the primary pillars of healthy living and, for a lot of people, it’s also one of the most challenging. My hope is to empower you to be more conscious of your diet because it is one of the most impactful aspects of your health over which you have total control.

 

Food and Digestion According to Chinese Medicine

According to Chinese Medicine, the Spleen and Stomach are the primary organs responsible for digestion. Everything you eat and drink has to be digested and transformed into Qi, or energy, with the help of these organs.

There are two major kinds of Qi in the body - the essence Qi, often referred to as the prenatal Qi, and postnatal Qi, which is produced from food and drink (Gu Qi), in the Stomach. Prenatal Qi is the constitutional essence with which we're born and postnatal Qi is our basic daily energy that we cultivate through our diet and lifestyle. The healthier the diet, the better quality Qi we can extract and therefore the greater our endurance.

The Gu Qi, or “grain” as it is often called in the classics, that enters the Stomach, is transmitted to the Lungs to produce the defense or “guard Qi,” also known as Wei Qi, which is essential for maintaining one’s circadian rhythm.

Wei Qi forms in the Lungs through the Gu Qi that first enters the Stomach. As Chapter 21 of Nei Jing Su Wen stated, “Beverages enter the stomach. Overflowing essence Qi is transported upward to the spleen. The spleen Qi spreads the essence, which turns upward to the lung” (Unschuld, 2011, 375). 

The Spleen sends Gu Qi up to the Lungs, where (with the help of Kidney Qi) it combines with air and transforms into another form of energy known as Zong Qi, which is often referred to as "gathering Qi." 

Zong Qi is formed from the combination of Gu Qi extracted through food and drink and Lung Qi extracted through the breath. Therefore, the more nutritious your diet and the better your capacity for deep respiration, the better quality Qi you'll have to support the various organs' Qi in the body.

Since Gu Qi is also used to produce Wei Qi, which controls circadian rhythm and supports immunity, a healthy diet also supports sleep and healthy immune function. 

An unhealthy diet that's high in sweet, spicy, fried and processed foods taxes the digestive system and over time will make us not only feel lethargic but also can damage the gut, or the Spleen and Stomach terrain, and lead to chronic inflammation.

In Western Medicine, the impact of nutrition on overall health has been confirmed through recent studies on the gut-brain axis (GBA).

Eating healthy can be so simple (and beautiful!) - Sprouted quinoa, lentils and adzuki beans with brussel sprouts, arugula and beet salad, avocado, butternut squash and baked sweet potatoes. We dressed the salad, grains and brussel sprouts with organic olive oil, black and cayenne peppers, and lemon juice from Meyer lemons in our garden.

Eating healthy can be so simple (and beautiful!) - Sprouted quinoa, lentils and adzuki beans with brussel sprouts, arugula and beet salad, avocado, butternut squash and baked sweet potatoes. We dressed the salad, grains and brussel sprouts with organic olive oil, black and cayenne peppers, and lemon juice from Meyer lemons in our garden.

The Gut-Brain Axis

Recent studies have revealed that the enteric nervous system (ENS), which is a system of neurons within the gastrointestinal tract and often referred to as the ‘second brain,’ may be linked to immune function, hormonal regulation, psychological disorders, and even autism. The bidirectional communication between the brain (i.e. the central nervous system) and the ENS is known as the gut-brain axis (GBA), an information superhighway of chemicals and hormones that provides constant feedback and influences - among other things - our moods, emotions and sleep patterns.

The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve in the body. It passes through the neck to the abdomen and interfaces with parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs and digestive tract. Evidence indicates that the communication between the microbiota in the gut and the brain involves the vagus nerve, which transmits information from the luminal environment of the gut to the central nervous system (CNS). 

Important hormones and neurotransmitters such as melatonin, which regulates sleep, and serotonin, which affects mood, are produced in the gastrointestinal tract. In fact, about 90% of serotonin, which can affect mood and social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory and sexual desire and function, is produced in the gut. 

The health of the gut therefore impacts the health of the brain and our ability to process information, manage stress, sleep, balance our emotions, as well as digest and assimilate food.

 

Chinese Medicine Perspective of Digestion, Emotions and the Gut-Brain Axis

Li Dong-yuan (1180 – 1251 c.e.) was a Chinese medical scholar who is considered to be one of the Four Great Masters of the Jin-Yuan period of Chinese Medicine. As founder of the Earth School, Li believed that the health of the Spleen and Stomach was the foundation for disease prevention. He developed the concept of Yin fire, which he believed is produced by excessive emotions and poor diet, both of which damage the original Qi and overwhelm the Spleen and Stomach. Excessive emotions engender heat internally. This heat, accompanied by weakness in the Spleen and Stomach, eventually flares upward into the Heart causing symptoms such as restlessness, anxiety and insomnia.

The gut-brain axis dynamics discussed earlier parallel Li Dong-yuan’s emphasis on the pivotal role of the Spleen and Stomach, or gut health, for all human functioning. Li believed that disease pathology manifests as a result of damage to postnatal Qi, the source of which is the Spleen and Stomach. 

The Spleen and Stomach is responsible for creating the Gu Qi, or energy that is transformed from food. Excessive or unbalanced emotions and stress weaken the Spleen and Stomach and therefore the gut. According to Li Dong-yuan, this weakness leads to stagnation of Stomach Qi that eventually turns into heat or Fire. This pathological heat relates to any inflammatory or infectious condition within the gastrointestinal tract.

We can therefore surmise that heat accumulation in the gut eventually affects the brain and interferes with the harmonious interplay between the gut and brain. Furthermore, pathological heat in the gut burns out the Stomach Yin which correlates to the destruction of the intestinal mucosa.

Over time, as the mucosal lining of the gut deteriorates, "leaky gut" syndrome develops allowing for undigested proteins to leak into the blood stream and begin the cascade of inflammation throughout the body. This is one of the fundamental pathological processes underlying a host of autoimmune diseases.

 

Diet and Your Health

Some argue that to eat healthfully is too costly or a less convenient option. But we can’t be short-sighted. The long-term return on your investment is quite high, even if in the short-term it is a little more expensive to cook healthy foods at home rather than eat processed foods, for example.

Nothing is worth more than the health of your mind and body. And nothing will give you as great a return on your investment.

Your health is the pillar of your future success, happiness and fulfillment. Nothing is possible without health, and in health anything is possible.

So it should naturally be the number one place where we put our resources.

In Chinese Medicine, diet can be used as a modality in and of itself to heal chronic illness.

Diet is also the most important self-care tool we all have. Our diet provides an opportunity to feel empowered because we're able to have a say in our self-care and well-being through the choices we make with food.

What we eat is a mirror for how we feel about ourselves, and the choices we make with what we eat also allows us to choose how we want to feel and what we want to create in our lives.

Once you've finished reading this article, I'd love to hear from you on any or all of these questions in the comments below --
* How does what you eat reflect how
you feel?
* Do you eat better or worse under stress?
* What's one change you could make in your diet to better reflect what you want to create in your life?


Setareh Moafi, Ph.D., L.Ac. is co-owner and Director of A Center for Natural Healing in Santa Clara, California. The Silicon Valley-based health and wellness clinic specializes in Classical Chinese Medicine and Traditional Japanese Acupuncture with a clinic and studio where Setareh offers clinical services and transformational workshops that blend the ancient practices of Classical Chinese Medicine and Yoga. More information at www.setarehmoafi.com and www.acenterfornaturalhealing.com