In an era of biohacking, quick fixes, and the never-ending search for that one miraculous solution to our woes, wellness trends like cold plunges, cryotherapy, and cold-pressed juice cleanses have become some of the most popular representations of health optimization. But are cold therapies really that therapeutic for everyone? The ancient wisdom of TCM has a more nuanced approach.
According to TCM, it’s generally preferred to cultivate warmth, which represents balanced Yin (cool) and Yang (hot) energies in the body – absolutely fundamental to the experience of vibrant health. Warmth helps promote the smooth flow of Qi (life force energy) and Blood throughout the body, enhancing circulation and therefore our ability to transport nutrients, oxygen, and energy to all of the body's organs and tissues, supporting their optimal function and our whole-body wellness. In the TCM lens, warmth also supports strong digestion and the assimilation of Qi, muscle and joint health, pain relief, and robust immunity. However, because of the importance TCM places on seasonal living and one’s individual constitution, the preference for warmth is general, not dogma.
Exposure to cold can offer healing benefits for some people, some of the time. It is essentially a shock therapy that can have an invigorating effect on the body precisely by pushing Yin to its edge of excess, so that it stimulates Yang – the constant internal dance of recalibration. If one’s intrinsic regulatory mechanisms are functioning optimally, strategic cold exposure can actually jumpstart circulation, tame inflammation, and activate an immune response. As such, cold therapies have always had a place in TCM, but the focus is on cultivating balance. Acute injuries, characterized by heat and inflammation, can be greatly supported with cold exposure like the application of ice, as doing so constricts blood vessels and reduces blood flow to the site of injury, minimizing inflammation and pain. This is the same reasoning behind the popular practice of icing one’s face for beauty purposes. However, other types of pain that are energetically cold in nature, like menstrual cramps or muscle and joint pain, are better relieved with heat therapy.
Interestingly, balance is inherent to the design of the modern original Wim Hof method, which popularized the cold plunge in our current awareness, by combining cold immersion (Yin exposure) and breathwork (Yang stimulation). While the practice itself contains an element of balance, it’s wise to be conscientious about timing and bioindivudual needs prior to engaging in cold therapies.
Seasonal living is an intrinsic part of the entire TCM cosmology, and represents one of the most basic ways we can create harmony through the changing rhythms and cycles of life. By honoring the energies of each season, we align ourselves with nature’s inherent intelligence to find balance. While each individual’s bodily constitution should always be taken into account so that any patterns of Yin/Yang excess/deficiency are not aggravated, for many people it can be therapeutic and balance-promoting to engage in cold therapies during the Yang-dominant seasons of spring and summer, when we can develop internal Yin deficiencies. However, in the Yin-dominant seasons of autumn and winter, it is important for most of us to shield ourselves from cold and wind invasion, which can be deeply destabilizing to our inner balance and capacity for resilience. For women living through personal monthly seasons, it is also important to cultivate warmth during the inner winter and autumn seasons of the menstrual and luteal phases. This is also true of the vulnerable postpartum period, when it’s advised to shelter indoors and be nourished with warming, cooked meals.
Strong digestive fire helps us effectively extract and metabolize nutrients into Qi – the abundance, quality, and unobstructed flow of which is foundational to our health. At the core of TCM’s dietary guidelines is the importance of preventing and relieving dampness, which obstructs the flow of Qi and causes stagnation, potentially causing a wide variety of health issues. For most people, and most of the time, it is advised to focus on warm meals and cooked foods, as they’re more easily broken down and digested, preventing the body from expending extra energy on the extraction process and allowing for greater bioavailability of nutrients. Over-indulgence in cold foods like iced drinks, smoothies, juices, and even salads, can cause an excess of Yin, expressing as dampness and Qi obstruction. These energetically cold foods should be enjoyed in moderation, by those who have strong digestive fire, and seasonally, in the Yang-dominant times of spring and summer in order to cultivate balance.
As we move deeper into the Yin-dominant seasons of the year, we recommend focusing on the nurturance of balance and choices that honor your individual constitution. By cultivating harmony from the external to the internal levels, we enhance our capacity for adaptability – a primary marker of resilience and therefore vibrant health in the TCM understanding.