Adjusting to Winter – Part One

Welcome to winter! Winter Solstice is the transition point between fall and winter and also marks the shortest day of the year. In the language of astronomy this is the time when the tilt of the earth is at its greatest distance from the sun. The word ‘solstice’ in and of itself means the sun standing still.

Even as this is the shortest day, the good news is Winter Solstice also marks the time when the amount of daylight begins to increase. A good metaphor that even in the dark there is light and not just light, but increasing light. Conversely at Summer Solstice we have the longest day and the beginning of the retreat of the sun. For me, this is a very important aspect of this season. Many people have a difficult time emotionally and spiritually during winter, but this can be tempered, like many things, with the balance of perspective. The Romans called winter solstice the Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.

As much as you can, try and slow down the pace of your life during winter. Everything has a season, a cycle, a rhythm and winter’s pace is to slow down. Try walking more slowly, doing less ‘running around’. After all, how productive are you really when you spend an afternoon running around? It is important to keep up our self-care during this busy time. Remind and support your loved ones to do this as well. For many in this country, this is a gift giving season and really, what better gift can we give ourselves and our loved ones than good health.

 On a physical level looking at food and digestion during this season is key; as during the whole year. Eat seasonally as well as you can. We tend to eat heavier and fattier foods as the weather turns colder to help keep up our energy and body temperature

 Don’t go overboard on this, though, having a varied diet is good in all seasons, just consider warmer foods, root vegetables, foods that are cooked longer. Think stews, congee, pots of beans, etc. It’s not so much about increasing caloric intake as it is making sure your food is deeply nourishing.  Drink warm beverages; herbal teas, make your own chai; I’ll post a blog with my chai recipe after the New Year.

 Digestive support

On that physical level digestion is really a cornerstone of good health. Both the quality of foods we put into our bodies and how well our body is able to make use of those foods are important. At this time of year, you might be challenging your body by eating richer foods than you are used to. Those overindulgences, especially the older we get, can throw our systems off.

 Peppermint and ginger are wonderful for settling an upset stomach. Peppermint is cold and a little stimulating and ginger is hot and stimulating, so consider your constitution. Also a ginger foot bath will really warm you up if you are feeling chilled

 If you know you will be eating rich food, have some bitters on hand. Five drops of gentian tincture 10-15 minutes before you eat will help your digestive system be ready for food and therefore process it better. You can take bitters after a meal as well, to help settle things down. If you find yourself with a headache later from a meal rich in fats, consider red root.

 Be kind to your liver as well. Burdock root or dandelion root can be really nice as tea to take throughout the season. Sometimes, supporting/fine-tuning the liver is all you really need to get your digestion back on track. Make sure your liver is in good working order, but now is not the time for a cleanse. A cleanse can be too depleting in the winter when you need to be building and nourishing your body.

 Deep immunity and vitality

Our deep immunity and vitality are, in some senses, the same thing. I’m talking about resiliency. I really like that word within this context. When I talk about health, I’m not talking about being a perfect human specimen. Rather, when I talk about health I’m talking about being in balance; and resiliency comes into that concept when we look at how easily we get out of balance. Ideally, we are resilient, which to me means that we can stay in balance in the face of challenges and changes; physical, emotional and spiritual. How big of a challenge can you handle without falling out of balance is a measure of how resilient you are.

 For example, how many days of not enough sleep or eating poorly can you handle before you feel awful? Chances are, if you are 25 your answer is different than if you are 55. Now, I’m not endorsing pushing yourself this way, just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should or that it is good for you.

 Look at the entire life span with a goal of being healthy and vital for many decades. There is no reason we can’t be healthy and vital as we age and I think it is important to distinguish those concepts. Aging is normal and it is also possible to be healthy and vital as you age. Old does not automatically mean unhealthy. This is the choice each of us has; aside from considerations of genetics and serious illness, of course.

 Or maybe physically you can ‘get away’ with a lot but emotionally you get thrown off of your center very easily. I’ll explore more herbal options for supporting ourselves emotionally and spiritually during winter in my next posting, so stay tuned.

 Immunity is an aspect of our vitality as well as an area that gets tested during this time. The seasonal changes and not eating well and traveling and being under stress can all challenge your immune system. An immune tonic during this time of year is a great idea. Medicinal mushrooms and astragalus are deep immune builders. You can eat your medicine by cooking astragalus or medicinal mushrooms into your stews or beans, anything with a sauce that you cook for a long period of time (at least one hour).

 Remember, whenever you are trying a new plant think about who you are. Do you tend to be sensitive to new things? Does a little go a long way? Do you have a chronic health condition? If any of these are true, then start on a low end of a dose and listen to your body. If you are hardy as a bull usually, still start near the low end and work your way up over a few days. And always, listen to your body, even bulls can break down given enough pushing.

 If your energy is feeling a little low and/or your nerves are frazzles try a nice tea of nettles and oat straw to support your nervous system and adrenals. See my post from January 20, 2011 for a refresher on how to make herbal teas.

 If you are going to be traveling around a lot of people, like on a plane, train or bus, consider taking vitamin C, zinc, or echinacea as a preventative. At least have it on hand to take if you are feeling a hint of anything coming on. To use echinacea tincture as a preventative take 10-15 drops 1-2 times/day. If you are feeling like you are getting sick take up to 20 drops 4 times/day. Remember, echinacea is not a tonic, so it should not be taken long term unless you are working with an herbalist around a specific issue; there are some exceptions. Also, do not take Echinacea without professional support if you have an auto-immune disease.

 As much as you possibly can, continue your self-care even when you are busy. During busy times it is that much more important to take extra care with ourselves and our loved ones and, unfortunately, those things are often the things that get let go of first during a time crunch. Sometimes the time crunch is a reality and letting some things slide is simply necessary; so remember that this pace is not forever. You have worked hard over the years to develop those good habits, so if you do need to let go of them for a short time, do not to let that be the new norm. Avoid the all-or-nothing trap.

Being in harmony with the season is about being in harmony with nature, being in harmony with self. Find your time to replenish, relax and dream.

 Stay warm and be well!