Ah, winter. It seems to really hit only after the holidays, when the long nights of January march on and the credit card bills come due. The sage consolidates energy in winter, becoming more internally focused, quieter, and listening more. Cooking more, too: long simmered soups and stews, roasting, baking, even a little deep frying (in fresh oil with a high saturated fat content, like lard or coconut oil, of course) are all appropriate to warm our bodies in wintertime. Traditional Asian medicines teach that winter is the time when the energy of the kidneys predominates and it is beneficial to nurture these organs. The kidneys are known not only to govern urination but to be the root and foundation of the body’s energy, showing that the ancients understood the functioning of the endocrine system and recognized the location of the adrenals on top of the kidneys. Kidney energy governs metabolism, reproduction, development, and aging, and weak kidney energy often shows in low back and knee pain, bone problems, frequent urination, and fear.
Kidney nourishing foods include all beans (even string beans!), especially those dark in color, seaweed, parsley, millet, wild rice and other dark grains, walnuts, black sesame seeds, yams, organ meats (only from sustainably raised animals, of course), oysters, clams, crab, lobster, and pork.
The kidney energy governs the deepest forms of internal fire and water in the body. If our internal fire, known as kidney yang, is weakened by chronic stress, overwork, or aging, symptoms such as coldness, pallor, low back and knee pain, impotence/infertility, frequent urination, low libido, edema or asthma might ensue. Kidney fire naturally declines with age, and traditional medicines have many remedies. Foods which nurture the yang include warm spices such as cloves, fenugreek, fennel, anise, black pepper, ginger, cinnamon, rosemary, dill, caraway and cumin, as well as black and aduki beans, lentils, oats, spelt, sweet brown rice and quinoa, citrus peel, dates, cherries and raspberries, walnuts, parsnips, parsley, mustard greens, winter squash, cabbage, kale, onions, garlic, leeks and scallions. Animal foods are powerful yang tonics and people with yang weakness should eat 1-3 servings of high quality animal foods a day, including organic or pastured chicken, organ meats (especially kidneys), lobster or crab, shrimp, wild salmon, trout and lamb.
Our deepest internal water, our yin, can also become depleted by stress, overwork and aging. When our internal coolant gets depleted, we may experience dizziness, ringing in the ears, dry mouth and throat, thirst, low back pain, night sweats, menstrual irregularities, agitation, irritation, nervousness, insecurity and fear. Wheat and wheat germ, bulgur, tempeh, millet, barley, rice and amaranth, beans, asparagus, eggplant, potatoes, and beets, seaweeds, raw cheese, goat cheese and cultured organic dairy products such as yogurt and kefir, shellfish, sardines, organic or pastured eggs, duck, pork, organ meats, and fruit such as apples, berries, lemons, grapes, mulberries and melon are all wonderful kidney yin foods. One should avoid too many warming spices, excessive exercise (especially Bikram yoga!), and stimulants.
An even more esoteric, yet fundamental, aspect of the kidney energy is the storage of the jing. The jing is our deepest essence, akin to the energy savings account of the body. The quality and quantity of our jing determines our health, lifespan and aging process. Our daily energy is drawn from the air we breathe, the food we eat, and, when these are insufficient for our needs, from our reserves of jing. Jing is depleted by stress, fear, overwork, excessive ejaculation or childbearing, toxin exposure, and excessive sweets or protein in the diet. Jing cannot be replaced, but it can be enhanced through meditation, tai qi, qi gong and yoga, and by eating certain foods, many of which are high in essential fatty acids, B12, and vitamins A and D. These include chlorella, spirulina, blue-green algae, barley and wheat grass, fish, liver, cod liver oil, kidney, bone and marrow and the broth made from these, placenta, almonds, raw milk and cheese, ghee, nettles, royal jelly, bee pollen, chicken, mussels, and herbs such as gouji berries, tu ci zi, shu di huang, gui ban, and lu rong (ask your herbalist about these!). Of course, only high-quality, organic or pastured substances will truly nourish the jing. In addition, appropriate jing tonics should be selected based on your constitution and energetic patterns.
Three Treasures Stir Fry
Adapted from Nam Singh, L.Ac. Shitake mushrooms support the immune system, walnuts are nourishing to the kidneys and lungs and are high in omega 3 fatty acids, and gouji berries are high in vitamin A and antioxidants, and nourish the liver, kidneys and eyes. Serves 4 as a main dish.
10 Shitake (black mushrooms, soaked)
1 cup walnuts, soaked overnight if possible
1 cup gouji berries
5 slices fresh ginger root
1 lb. Chinese long beans, string beans, snap peas or snow peas
1 tablespoon coconut oil, pastured lard, sesame or olive oil
¼ cup sake, mirin or white wine
2 tablespoons tamari or shoyu
1 teaspoon kuzu or arrowroot
Toasted or black sesame oil for finishing
Soak the mushrooms in a dish of hot water for 20 minutes, then drain the water and set aside. Remove the stems and slice the mushrooms. Wash and cut the long beans, if using. Toast the walnuts lightly in a toaster oven or dry pan until crispy. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan or wok, then sauté the ginger slices for 1 minute. Add the beans, and sauté for 2-3 minutes depending on toughness. Add the mushrooms, mirin, and allow the vegetables to cook by steaming. Soak the gouji berries in hot water for a minute, and then drain. When the beans and mushrooms are tender, add the gouji berries and shoyu. Dissolve the kuzu or arrowroot in hot water and add to the pan to thicken the sauce. Stir in the walnuts, and finish to taste with sesame oil. Serve hot over rice.
ANNOUNCEMENT: I'll be teaching a class on aging and Chinese medicine this Saturday from 1-3pm at the Immune Enhancement Project in San Francisco. Contact IEP at 415-252-8711 to sign up.