Winter and Sleep in Chinese Medicine: Kidney Qi


Its Winter. Classical Chinese Medicine has this to say about it. “Go to sleep early, but get up LATE, after the sun has risen.” Makes total sense because as an animal you don’t want to waste your valuable energy heating your body up against the cold morning, when you can wait for the sun to do its job first. Its also about respecting the biorhythms of the biological clock.

Kidney Qi in Chinese Medicine: Metaphor for the Deepest Levels of Vitality

Winter is when the Qi in our body concentrates in the Kidneys. The Kidneys, our deepest solid organ, is to the body what Winter is to the seasons; the time and place when/where storage occurs. Winter is the time to accumulate energy so as to be prepared for the growth of spring. Since we get our energy from breathing/oxygen, food, and sleep, it is natural to get more rest in Winter, as opposed to Summer when there is a naturally manic riot of life flowering and fruiting that takes place on earth and in the heavens the Sun is directly overhead, the days long, and we naturally stay up late because the sun sets so late.

Its the storage, or accumulation of Qi in the winter, when the rain and snow replenish the acquifiers and soil, when the plants send their energy into their deepest roots, shedding their leaves even, that allows for the budding and flowering of spring and the fruiting of summer. A cycle that repeats over and over again.

In our bodies the Qi of Winter corresponds to the Qi of the Kidneys, whose job it is to store energy. Kidneys are the root of all the Yin and Yang in the body. The root of the Liver blood is the Kidney Yin. The root of the Spleen yang and Ministerial Fire (Agni in Ayurveda) is the Kidney Yang. The Lungs grasp the clean Qi of the air (oxygen) by virtue of the grabbing force of the Kidney Yang.

Mental health occurs when the Heart and Kidneys communicate well. So the Kidneys in the classical period became the metaphor for some basic aspect of our life force that motivates metabolism, breath, digestion, and even mental health, especially the will. People that are born naturally strong and willful have “strong Kidney Qi” Kidney Qi here summing up all that is yin and yang in the kidneys.

And on top of that the Kidneys are the root of all the reproductive and growth functions in children and adults. Reproductive power comes from the Kidneys, and health growth in children the same.

So women who can birth and nurse 11 children and still live long have very strong Kidney Qi. Men with live long with strong teeth, strong backs and full heads of hair–strong Kidney Qi. Being born with strong Kidney Qi is like being born with a big savings account. You take some of the money out for life, and you put it back in with adequate quality sleep, rest, food, and a calm mind.

When Kidney Qi is depleted, as normally occurs with childbirth, then what we call Kidney tonics in Chinese Herbal medicine are given to women routinely, automatically, after first taking blood vitalizing herbs that cleanse the uterus of fetal toxins and retained lochiae. These Kidney tonics are rich, heavy, nourishing, and above all, warming.

Kidney weakness is most frequently associated with the kind of profound cold that comes from childbirth or loss of blood, so hot tonic herbs are used along with rich nourishing ones like Rehmannia Shu Di Huang and Polygonom He Shou Wu.

How Kidney Qi is Weakened

Kidney Qi is drained and weakened by over-work, insufficient sleep, overexposure to cold, as a natural by-product  of old age, excessive seminal emission for men, and excessive menstrual bleeding and birthing for women.

So don’t let any puritanical or pioneering or new-aged ideology tell you you are “lazy” for sleeping 8-9 hours or however much you need. It may even be 10 hours in winter.

And both Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda are quick, to point out: there are different types of folk, we are not all the same and have differing needs–some people don’t need as much sleep as others–Vata dominant folk need a lot of sleep since their nervous systems are so active and tend to the overactive, Pitta can do with less depending on how balanced is their lifestyle, Kaphas, who are naturally slow and earthy (the dosha itself is water and earth) can easily sleep too much, and need to be careful and push themselves a little.

Am I Sleeping Too Much or Too Little?

In Chinese Medicine the marker for whether or not you are sleeping the right amount, and as importantly, sleeping well, which means for long periods without waking up, is common sensical. It comes down to whether you feel refreshed or not. Feel refreshed and energetic? That’s good sleep and the right amount.

Wake up feeling abnormally sluggish and groggy? Either you are not sleeping well (which means no deep REM sleep), or you are sleeping too much. If sleeping too much is the cause, you will feel better when you adjust downwards. But if that does not work, then you may be sleeping poorly and not getting into REM sleep and you should treat that insomnia with acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine and mindfulness meditation/body scanning technique.

“I Feel Groggy in the Morning”

On the issue of feeling groggy in the morning. You are SUPPOSED to feel a little bit groggy when you first get up. While our American “can do” capitalist culture certainly valorizes the fraction of people that surpass all normal limitations and walk themselves to the moon without any help from anyone else while making millions in the process, for the rest of us normal folk (and for most of the valorized ones, too, in fact) normal things happen.

We are part of nature and the universe. We may have super sized brains and egos, but we are still mammals like all the others. We live and die according to laws of nature we have zero control over.

My point is this. Every day the sun rises and sets. Rising is dawn and setting dusk. Dawn and dusk are transitions
which is what makes them so nice. Why we have fantastic sunrises and sunsets. Magical times of day. Full of soft light and rich colors. Does your morning look like a sunrise, or something else. Living “naturally” begins with how you pass through your day.

What Does Your Morning Look Like? Is Your Lifestyle “Sustainable?”

In the same way, it should be obvious if you think about it that its not normal or natural to wake up and jump out of bed wide awake as a monkey jumping in a tree. In fact, clinically, that usually points to an amped up nervous system, that again, could be great for machine like efficiency and making lots of money, but not necessarily for mental health or the heart.

I get patients not infrequently that used to be able to do that, and now, thanks to exhaustion, can’t, and they want me to “fix” them and get them back to their unhealthy lifestyle and I won’t do it because its the lifestyle that got them to exhaustion in the first place. Sustainable should be a buzzword when it comes to lifestyle, not just a marketing term for fancy organic veggies.

My goal is to get them to change to a healthy lifestyle. That’s real medicine in Ayurveda, which, like Chinese Medicine sees a healthy lifestyle, diet, and mindset as the foundations of health.

When I lived in a small village in Tamil Nadu, India, morning were fantastic. Normal sounds. Quiet voices. Smoke from kitchen fires starting. People slowly walking down the lanes, one hand behind the small of the back in the style of the time, the other hand leisurely brushing the teeth with the twig of a neem tree, or with herbal powder and their finger massaging the gums. But none of the loud sounds of midday. A gradual process of awakening that mimics nature.

Contrast that with waking up to an alarm radio blaring obnoxious morning talk radio, rushing out of the house in 15 minutes, gulping down a super sized super sugared Starbucks while spinning through the air in a little box on the freeway at 75 miles per hour. It really is not so surprising we Americans spend so much money on laxatives and anti-anxiety meds, when so much about our culture involves rushing about.

So please, have realistic expectations of yourself. Its normal to go slow in the morning as your nervous system transitions between the state of repose and the state of activity, between sleep and wakefulness. This is the human equivalent of dawn, full of soft light and rich colors.

This is why in Yoga before you go about your days activities you have to perform asana, pranayama, and dhyana–postures of deep relaxation, breathing exercises that vitalizes the body and calm the mind, and meditation, where your develop some mastery of mind. All I am saying is give your nervous system a chance.

What is Good Sleep Culture?

Its exactly the reverse at night. M.D.s that treat sleep disorders call this “good sleep culture.” Good sleep culture involves how you orient your bedroom for starters. Bedroom is for sleep, reading a distracting book, sexual activity, nothing else. No media, no cell phones, no computers. Above all, no work. Television is very stimulating, so if you want to watch, watch in another room.

Another piece of good sleep culture is how you train your mind. Do you know how to get into a state of deep relaxation in which your conscious thinking mind gives up and even the subconscious mind slows down. In the east this called Mental Culture, and in societies that prioritize wisdom over youth, being over doing, a cultural value.

The third part of sleep culture is the equivalent of dusk, the transition between day and night. We do this one a bit better in USA, we slow down between dinner and sleep, enjoying out evening going out to dinner, for drinks, watching t.v., having non work related conversation. But, what you have to look out for is watching the news right before bed, bringing work into the bedroom, etc.

If you are student, you have to stop studying an hour before bed if you want to sleep well. So think of evening as the transition between day and night, just as morning is the transition between night and day. Night is Winter, morning is Spring, Day is Summer and evening is Fall, when we get sleepy and Fall asleep.

Respect sleep and the need for rest and you will be halfway to health. It seems to have worked for one of my favorite footballers in Europe, Mezut Ozil who is the brilliant midfielder playing for Arsenal, who is having his best year in England ever, and credits it to what? Changes in lifestyle, including sleep. Mesut Ozil’s Secret: Getting More Sleep

“The biggest change started when I was injured last year and I changed my diet and started to look at the small details in my life,” the 27-year-old said. “For example I started to have physiotherapy on my days off and made sure I had a good sleep. That is crucial over here [in England]. It is the fastest league in the world and we often play twice a week with no winter break.”

Nothing complicated or technical. Half of medicine is Grandmother Wisdom. I can still hear my mother’s voice, “Eyton, put your hat on!” Now I know what she meant.


copyright Eyton Shalom, San Diego, CA  December 2015 all rights reserved use with permission


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