11 tips for a healthy winter – make your winter whimsical, not woeful
Does winter leave you feeling congested or cosy? Sick or strong? Does the cold crisp air leave you devitalised, or invigorated? Grab a hot mug of golden milk, rug up and read on to discover how to get through this season flushed with health.
Stillness. Silence. What emotions do these words conjure up in you? These words describe the energy of winter. For most modern-day folk, these are uncomfortable concepts. “Oh yeah, I should meditate, but I’m just so busy!”
Addicts to any kind of doing, many of us have been conditioned to think that if we aren’t moving, achieving, or acquiring, then we are wasting time. We value ourselves only if we are doing something, and we may think that people who don’t do much are less valid members of society. We are orientated toward productivity and the accumulation of wealth and possessions, rather than toward the accumulation of wisdom, self-knowledge and spiritual strength.
We live in such an extroverted society that it is hard for us to imagine how we would actually manage to find some time to be in silence – but be (somewhat) still and quiet we must, because this is winter, folks! If we don’t take heed and follow the withdrawing energy of this time of year, our bodies will force us to rest with some form of illness – a cold perhaps, or aching joints that groan at the thought of that annual ski trip you meticulously planned.
Now obviously, it would unbalance us in the other direction if we all laid down and decided to just ‘be’ for the next three months, but perhaps we could use a little more stillness in our lives, and I don’t mean sitting in front of the telly, watching people kill each other and cheat on their spouses. I’m thinking more of sitting in front of a campfire, or a lake, or a tree, and just being.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, winter is ruled by the water element. It is the time to take heed of the
yin principle and become more receptive, introspective, and storage-oriented. Cold, dampness (from rain or snow) and darkness drive us to ‘rug up warm’.
It is a time to soothe, protect, and heal our spirits; a time of rest, deeper meditation, and storing physical energy – yes, that means you may gain a little weight!
In our fat-phobic society, it seems a herculean task to remember that seasonal fluctuations in body weight are healthy, and normal.
In Ayurveda, the kapha (the water and earth principle) nature of winter predisposes us to disorders of excess mucus and congestion such as colds, ‘ flu, pneumonia, bronchitis and pharyngitis. Consumption of warming foods and herbs that are dry, pungent, hot, bitter, and astringent will help balance kapha.
Your local environment must be considered. Although cold, damp winter is a kapha season, for some of us living in cold and windy climates, Vata (the wind principle) may be aggravated. Joints can get stiffer in winter, and if we allow the cold to leech into our bodies, poor circulation, aches and pains, arthritis, asthma and colitis may show up.
In the Chinese system, the organs ruled by water – the kidneys and bladder - are most vulnerable to imbalance during winter. Think of the dilemma you face when you need to pee in the middle of a freezing cold night – do you confront the cold or do you hold it in? There is a tendency to wait until morning to empty the bladder to avoid leaving the warmth of our beds. Holding in urine can predispose us to urinary tract infections and irritable bladders. Bitter and alkalinising foods and herbs help clear out these types of infections (1).
Both TCM and Ayurveda place an emphasis on bitter foods during winter, as these promote a sinking, centring quality that heightens our capacity for storage. These foods cool the exterior of the body and bring body heat deeper and lower; with a cooler body surface, we notice the cold less. Salty foods, too, are suggested in TCM, for this reason.
With this in mind, here are my top tips for creating health this winter, and ensuring you greet September with stores of strength and vitality.
Warming, pungent foods and herbs. Cook foods longer, at lower temperatures, and with less water. Roasting, stewing, and slow cooking are ideal cooking methods. Focus on eating warm, cooked, slightly oily, well-spiced foods.
Warm, hearty soups, whole grains, and roasted nuts are nourishing wintertime foods.
Hearty, warming vegetables like radishes, cooked spinach, onions, carrots, and other root vegetables are generally well received this time of year, as are warming, pungent herbs such as ginger, garlic, and chilli. I keep a pot of caffeine-free chai tea on the stove, containing cinnamon, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg and black pepper in water. Boil it up, strain and add a little honey and milk of your choice to retain inner body warmth and bring delight to a dark, cold winter’s night.
Bitter, astringent foods. The most common bitter foods are actually combinations of bitter and other flavours, and include rocket, cos lettuce (especially the outer leaves), watercress, celery, asparagus, alfafa, rye, oats, quinoa and amaranth. Strong doses of bitter food are not needed except in the case of certain imbalances, but “small, regular amounts in winter nurture deep inner experiences and preserve joy in the heart” (1). A side of steamed winter green leafy vegetables such as kale, celery, and broccoli, with a little butter, salt and lemon juice adds nutrients and balance to any meal. Dried beans and lentils are astringent, as are cauliflower and tea.
Salty foods include miso, soy sauce, seaweeds, Celtic sea or Himalayan rock salt, olives, and capers.
Salt is already overused in the typical Western diet, while we get nowhere near enough bitter foods. Small amounts of salty foods have a strong effect; so use them respectfully.
Be careful not to eat too much meat, mucus-forming dairy, greasy food, and refined carbohydrates, which all aggravate acidic conditions such as gout and arthritis. The heartier quality of winter foods should come from longer cooking times, high quality produce and legumes, low GI whole grains, and meats such as slow cooked chicken, turkey, venison, rabbit, and poached or hardboiled eggs, if you eat animal foods.
Drink plenty of water. Aim for around eight 240ml glasses of clear fluid (water or herbal teas) per day. When it’s cooler we tend to forget that our bodies are 50-65% water, and that we need to keep our fluid intake up.
Foods and herbs that support the kidneys and bladder, especially if you are prone to urinary tract infections. Like many animals, in winter we spend more time in bed,
hibernating and having sex, which spells UTIS for many women. To avoid and treat bladder infections and optimise kidney function, include unsweetened cranberry juice (which prevents the adherence of bacterial to the mucosal lining of the urethra and bladder) and herbs like nettle leaves (Urtica dioica), juniper berries (Juniperus communis), dandelion leaves ( Taraxacum officinale), flaxseed, marshmallow root (Althea officinalis), fenugreek ( Trigonella foenum-graecum), and cornsilk (Zea mays) (2).
Anti-inflammatory foods and herbs. To keep colds, sluggish digestion, and achy joints at bay, enjoy lots of fruits, vegetables, fish, legumes, and whole grains in place of excess inflammatory meat-based foods. Go for anti-inflammatory bioflavonoids (e.g. quercitin), Vitamins C and E, and zinc for antioxidant support. Botanicals like turmeric (Curcuma longa) and ginger (Zingiber officinale) support arthritic joints, and also assist digestion. Although dairy is best reduced in the winter months, a cup of hot golden milk (see recipe) before bed can help to encourage sound sleep and should not be overly congesting.
Bitter herbs harbour the strongest bitter qualities of any edible plant, and get the digestion primed for heavier winter meals. Common examples are burdock root (Arctium lappa), dandelion leaves and root ( Taraxacum officinale), horsetail (Equisetum arvense), gentian (Gentiana lutea) and the King of Bitters, andrographis (Andrographis