The winter settles in, deep, dark and cold. For some of us this can be a deeply hard time as we descend into sadness, lethargy, exhaustion and depression. For most of our time as humans, the winter has been a challenging time for those in temperate climates. Plant life dies down and the cold weather brings people indoors to sit beside the long fire, sharing stored reserves of berries, roots and game until the light months and new plant growth makes foraging possible and hunting easier. For many traditional people, there was always a question of if there would be enough. Enough food. Enough wood for the fire. Enough warm clothes and enough adequate shelter. And from those questions there was often uncertainty. Worry. Fear.
The emotion of fear is processed in the limbic system and specifically in the thalamus and the amygdala of the brain. In the human brain the two almond shaped amygdalae are responsible for storing memories that are related to emotional events and crisis. So while the thalamus is responsible for detecting and relaying information from our senses, our amygdala is responsible for integrating emotional events and crisis situations and specifically is involved with the development of the fear emotion.
The limbic system also contains the hypothalamus, a key part of the brain that is responsible for sending hormonal messages to the pituitary gland that in turn signals the adrenal glands to activate and produce cortisol and adrenaline. When under stress the adrenals produce adrenaline that activates the sympathetic nervous system, triggering the fight, flight or freeze response. Soon the heart rates goes up while blood pressure and blood sugar levels rise. While this is a useful response to dangerous situations, it can become deeply depleting when one is constantly stressed, or when previous trauma makes us hypersensitive to stress.
Cortisol is released by the adrenals as a stress response as well. Initially this is a good thing as cortisol converts protein into energy and counteracts inflammation. But if cortisol levels remain high this hormone starts to break down muscle and bone, slows down cell tissue repair and regeneration, impairs digestion, absorption and metabolism. Eventually it weakens the immune system and the potential for chronic illness rises.
When our adrenals are taxed by excessive stress and poor lifestyle choices over long periods of time, we start to develop adrenal fatigue and exhaustion. Here are some of the symptoms:
- Morning fatigue
- Poor memory
- Increased allergies
- Sugar and stimulant craving
- Knee and back weakness
- Pain issues
- Weight gain
- Decreased libido
Chinese Medicine, the Winter and Depression
In Chinese medicine, the symptoms of adrenal fatigue have long been known and have been associated with insufficiency of kidney energy. In this ancient system, the kidneys are associated with “jing”, the essential energy that we inherit. Some of us are born with a strong supply and we are naturally imbued with vigor and dynamic energy. For others, we are born with less essential energy and reserves can be depleted more easily.
When we party too hard, stay up late at night too often, don’t sleep enough, eat poor foods and take in stimulants and drugs that burn up our kidney essence for long periods of time, we start to wear out and age early. We feel increasingly fatigued, exhausted and depressed. We start to slip cognitively and lose agility and mental acuity. We can develop autoimmune diseases, insomnia, arthritis or go through menopause early. We get increasingly sad and tired.
Integrative practitioners may diagnose this as adrenal fatigue or adrenal exhaustion. Traditional Chinese practitioners would recognize this as Kidney yin deficiency and recommend rebuilding food and herbs, lots of rest, quiet, reducing stimulation and meditative practices such as qi gong. Think of the winter and what it is asking. It asks for sleep, rest, nourishing broths and warm fires.
In Chinese theory the kidneys are also associated with the winter season and the emotion of fear. In this darkest time of the year, we can start to feel deep feelings of inadequacy, how we are not measuring up, what we lack, that there is not…enough. For some that doubt, worry and fear takes over and settles in like the deep winter as sadness, as depression. We feel sunken and disconnected.
But in Chinese theory, the winter also presents a time when we can strengthen and rebuild our deep storehouse of energy. This is a period of natural quiet, stillness and darkness that calls out to us to sleep more, rest and restore our energy. The winter is an opportunity to address our depletion, our sadness and exhaustion and start to rebuild our good energy.
Nature and the Healing Power of Deep Stillness
In the natural world, the land is dormant this time of year. The animals conserve their energy and some hibernate. Annual plants have died back and perennials turn to store their energy in their roots. I remember one winter I spent in Minnesota, I walked out into a deep snowy plain circled by leafless deciduous trees. A barn owl swooped noiselessly from the dark sky and I listened intently to the beautiful hidden silence of the winter. This is the silence of the deep winter. The stillness of the Earth at rest. If we can sit with this stillness, it is deeply nourishing. Just as fields need to lay fallow periodically, the body also needs periods of deep rest, to turn off the noise and confusion, the many distractions from our true hearts.
The modern world does not let us easily embrace this time of year. We are forced into working two jobs, swing and graveyard shifts, made to stay artificially alert and awake with florescent lights and energy drinks. We stimulate ourselves with video games, blockbuster movies, high impact aerobics, red bull and the go go hum of modernity. We cannot easily connect to the nourishment of winter silence and so we get more depleted, recede into deeper wells of exhaustion, sadness and anxiety.
We often treat exhausted “kidney yin deficiency” depression with stimulants, sugar and antidepressants that may prop us up a little while longer while our body is calling out to us, crying. Shuffling around post synaptic serotonin will not address that underlying need for quiet, for rest, and for nourishment.
For those of us who have fallen into these places of deep exhaustion its key to rebuild our “kidney jing”; to nourish and to resupply our well of deep energy. Here are some ideas for healing:
1- Take time off. If you have become deeply out of balance due to deficiency; its best to treat yourself as if you were sick. Can you take time from your work life to nourish? A couple weeks? a month? Several months? This is impossible for many people. But if it is possible, or if you can reduce your load and stress level, your body will thank you.
2- Use your time wisely: Often when we are depressed we want to distract ourselves with activities that can also be depleting. We often exhaust ourselves in how we live our daily lives; giving away energy via draining people, toxic work environments, and negative media. Shifting from depleting activity to nourishing activity is key. Key ways to spend the day include reading uplifting books, doing a craft (knitting, sewing), playing music, spending time in nature breathing fresh air, drinking gentle herbal teas, cooking nourishing meals, spending time with good friends, family and enjoying funny movies.
3- Move gently: When we become depressed or experience insomnia sometimes we are told to get more exercise by running or doing heavy aerobic activity. This type of exercise can actually deplete us more and its better to engage in gentle movements such as walking, gardening, stretching and gentle bicycling.
4- Sleep more. When your basic essence gets tapped, one of the best ways to replenish is to sleep more. Getting into bed around 9 or 10 and sleeping until 7 or 8 is wonderfully rejuvenating. For many people with underlying deficiency, this also comes with a feeling of being wired and often having insomnia. If that is the case, then spend the time you would be sleeping doing restful exercises, visualizations and meditation. Avoid any screen time at night.
5- Nourish. Bone broth is likely the best way to bring yourself back from these depleted states because it is filled with nourishing marrow and healing gelatin. Adding key healing herbs to your broth will help strengthen yourself at the core. Medicinal mushrooms such as maitake, shitake and lion’s mane are very helpful for restoring core energy. Astragalus and codonopsis are both also very helpful for strengthening the immune system and improving energy levels without being overly stimulating. (These can be purchased at Mt. Rose herbs.) Outside of bone broth, it is key to support our bodies with nourishing food such as stews, casseroles sweet potatoes, squash, fish, black and kidney beans. Eliminating processed foods, sugar, caffeine, alcohol and tobacco can go a long way to allowing our body to restore.
6- Get Acupuncture. One of the best ways to heal long term adrenal fatigue is to heal the body at a core level. Acupuncture is incredibly helpful for those who have been depleted and exhausted by long term stress, and especially if there is a component of trauma involved. Studies have pointed to its efficacy for helping those who have been diagnosed with PTSD- which often can lead to adrenal exhaustion due to the body always being on high alert.
7- Consult an integrative practitioner. If symptoms like this persist it is important to receive a medical consult. Unfortunately most mainstream medical practitioners do not generally recognize adrenal fatigue unless it is quite severe (Addison’s disease) but integrative practitioners such as naturopaths often do more in depth testing to determine if there are issues with adrenal functioning. Please make sure you consult a doctor if symptoms like this persist.
8- Practice Qi Gong or Gentle Yoga. Qi gong means the cultivation of good energy and vitality and is an ancient Chinese practice of self-healing. There are some great basic videos out there for beginners as well as teachers, classes and workshops to learn wider skills. Both gentle yoga and qi gong encourage the body to heal and to restore vital energy. A large part of these activities include gentle rhythmic deep restorative breathing. Daily healing practices of at least 10-20 minutes a day helps restore that energy and centers us in wholeness and relaxation.
An excellent rejuvenative qi gong video-
Depression that is due to exhaustion from long periods of stress, trauma, excessive activity, anxiety, and poor food choices almost always coincides with physical manifestations such as poor sleep, pain, autoimmune ailments, cognitive fog, allergies, frequent colds and poor immunity. When the body starts to signal us with these ailments, it is asking for deep systemic change; to change how we walk in this world. This is not depression that can be easily solved by a medication or by talking it through. These are symptoms that are asking us to change and transform at a core level. In essence our body is asking us to rest more, to find quiet and stillness. Our body is sending us signals that we are taxed, overstretched and burdened. The current patterns aren’t working and the challenge is not only to listen to our body, but to make needed changes as well.
You can also find me at the Facebook group Herbs for Mental Health