Winters in the northern hemisphere are rough. We are forced to remain indoors. The days are shorter than the summer, so it`s harder to get out and feel the sun on our faces. Sometimes, we need to crawl out our windows with our snow shovels to dig out our front doors.
I have a cold constitution. Meaning, I run cold. Winters have always been hard for me. Sometimes I feel like a caged animal. Other times I feel so cold and hopeless about the return of the sun that I curl up under my warm blankets and refuse to move. Some years are better than others. I could sit here and complain about all the reasons why I hate the winter. In fact, I have considered writing a book. A book entitled “1000 Things I Hate about the Winter”. Instead, I will try to be proactive in my engagements with my nemesis season, by taking some extra precautions, and preparing not just my mind, but my body and spirit for the long haul.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is depression that is a result of the changes in season. When we get less sunshine on our faces, and have to stay indoors because it`s too cold. This can really take a toll on our spirit`s! Sometimes, this looks like a mild depression where there is a lack of energy and a low mood. Other`s experiences can be more severe, leading to major depressions.
I would love to share with you some of the things that have worked for me in staying positive and motivated during this challenging time. I still get sad in the wintertime, but these simple changes in lifestyle, diet, and incorporating some awesome herbal allies have helped me SO much!
Our body uses the sunshine that touches our skin and turns it into vitamin D- a vitamin that is so important for our moods. Our body can get some Vitamin D from organ meats, but most of it we do not get from our diets. If you are prone to the winter “Blah`s”, then you may benefit from taking 1,000 IU`s of Vitamin D3 a day. Another thing that I have found incredibly helpful, is investing in a full spectrum lamp. I know, it`s not the sun on my face, but it`s the next best thing, especially on the 4th grey day of a long string of overcast.
We need to make sure that we are getting a good balanced diet, especially after Christmas. It is so important for our health and wellbeing that we get good organic vegetables, legumes, grains, fruits, fats, and toasty-warm herbal teas. We are what we eat! Plants take the sunshine and the nutrients from the soil, and put them into a form that our bodies can use. When the soil is buried under a 5 foot snowbank…. Well, you get the picture! Eating a diverse variety of vegetables and herbs can ensure that we are getting the right nutrients.
Being an herbalist, I spend a lot of my life outdoors with my feet in the dirt. When I do not have the grounding energy of Mother Earth running up through my feet, it makes me ungrounded, stressed, and cantankerous. I have to be extra mindful in the winter that I stay focused and connected, and I do this through a daily meditation. By sitting in stillness, I can take all my wild summertime caged animal thoughts, and send them out through my breath as I clear my mind and become more in tune with my higher self, my emotions, and my physical body. Meditation can help bring one into the moment, and perhaps bring a fresh new perspective. For example, not focusing on the 8-foot snowdrifts, but rather the beautiful way in which the sun refracts off the snowflakes, creating beautiful rainbow colored snow-sparkles!
There are also benefits to this time of year, some of which are not always as revered in our culture. Working with the season rather than working against it can have some shining benefits. For example, the days are much shorter. It is not unhealthy to sleep a bit more during the winter. Instead of staying glued to the television or computer under the artificial lights, try going to bed a bit earlier than usual. Sleep seriously affects our moods, and there is a huge sleep deficit amongst many individuals. I have learned that it is much better that I be gentle with myself, rather than forcing myself out of bed at the crack of dark. In fact, spending more time reflecting, and in those introspective places can be very insightful. Taking the extra time to be instead of do. Focusing on the self. Loving the self. Turning inwards.
Some other things that one might want to consider: Changing work hours- not necessarily an option for everyone (much like flying to Hawaii…), yet taking an hour mid-day if the sun is shining and getting out for a brisk walk is awesome and feels great! Spending more time with family and friends can also help lift one`s spirits. Embracing the Danish “Hygge” while indoors and cozy by the fireplace. Having a good social network, and trying to get out into the community (if weather permits, of course).
Ok, now for some herbal allies. The Doctrine of Signatures suggests that those herbs with sunny yellow flowers harness a solar quality, that when taken, can help to lift the spirits and help us shine our own internal sun sparkles during the winter! Here are a few of my favorites!
St. John’s Wort- This amazing sunny herb, aside from being traditionally known to ward off evil spirits (internal and external?), is an amazing antidepressant. It is also nourishing to the tissues of the nervous system, and can help with anxiety, nervousness, and stress and muscle tension. It is an incredibly healing herb, which will speed healing of tissues when used topically. It also has antiviral properties. You know those cold-sores we tend to get in the winter? Try some St. John`s Wort tea as a preventative! The dosage range for this herb is 1-4 grams dried herb, up to 3 times a day. Some caution must be exercised when using St. John`s wort as there are lots of potential herb-drug interactions (especially with dose critical pharmaceuticals and anti-depressants), so check in with your local Herbalist to see if St. John`s Wort is an appropriate herb for you!
Damiana- This delightful herb is both uplifting and warming. One of my very favorites. It is also a relaxant and is nourishing to the nervous tissue, but is energetically more warming than St. John`s Wort, and has been used for its aphrodisiac properties. Perhaps an added benefit when we are stuck indoors more? ;) This herb is also helpful for lucid dreaming, and can help with mindfulness and meditation practices. Traditionally, it has been used for infertility, conditions of the genito-urinary system, and asthma. The recommended dosage range for this herb is between 6 and 12 grams dried per day, and this herb is considered safe within that range, except for a caution with use during pregnancy.
Borage- Borage is a beautiful and robust herb with a delightful blue flower, which also goes by the name “Starflower”. Another antidepressant herb, but this one helping with courage in the face of major stresses (it is considered an adrenal gland restorative, where are adrenals are responsible for generating our stress-response hormones). Borage gives us the strength to persevere. The recommended dosage of this herb is between 8 and 14 grams dried herb/day.
I hope that this can shine some light on coping with winter sadness. It has certainly helped with mine!
Bone, K. & Mills, S., 2013. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy, Modern Herbal Medicine. Second ed. Elsevier, London.
Hoffman, D., 2003. Medical Herbalism. Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont.
Wood, Matthew, 2008. The Earthwise Herbal- A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Publishing, Berkeley, California.
Wood, Matthew, 2009. The Earthwise Herbal- A Complete Guide to New World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Publishing, Berkeley, California.
Photo: Palmer, Brooks. https://clutterbusting.com/sunshine/
I would like to take some time to acknowledge the heart and all it does.
It is so much more than a means of moving blood through the body! The heart does help pump our blood around our bodies (and yes I mean help, as recently I learned that the blood moves through the body mainly by other means!). The heart is also the place where the light and love of spirit and the higher self meets with the grounding energy from the earth, balancing us and allowing us to move forward through our lives. The heart has its own nervous system independent of the brain. The electromagnetic field of the heart is so much greater than that of the brain, and can be measured up to 15 feet away from the body! Why is this? The heart is an organ of perception, allowing us to gather information from our surroundings.
We can determine whether a person or a situation is safe, or whether we want to move forward or not. Our hearts can not only pick up information from around us, but they send information out into the world. If you are feeling sad or unhappy, that is the feeling that you send out. If you are beaming with joy and love and happiness, then you send that out into the world as well, affecting those around you! One of the best things that we can do for ourselves and for humanity is to carry love, joy, and peace in our hearts. The love amplifies, and everyone benefits!
What does it mean when we are not nurturing our spiritual and emotional hearts? It can manifest as illness. Our energetic heart (or some like to refer to as the heart chakra), is the center housing the physical heart, the circulatory system, the thymus gland (which plays an important role in our immune response) and the lungs. When there are unresolved emotional issues (grief, for example), then this can manifest as loneliness, depression, criticism (especially of self), and a fear of intimacy. They can also manifest as physical issues, including problems with the heart and circulation, the lungs, and the immunity (including autoimmune issues).
What can we do to nurture our hearts? We can practice intense self-love! We can put ourselves first, making it easier to step into the fullness of who we are. We can be compassionate with ourselves and others. We can practice positive self-talk, affirmations, and engage in a meditation practice, filling our heart-space with golden light and universal love. We can immerse ourselves in nature or sit with a tree. We can breathe deep breaths while we sit quietly.
There are also many plant allies that will help nurture the heart.
My all-time favorite is rose (Rose damascena). Rose is soft and moist and nourishing, helping us move through grief and sadness. I always add rose petals to tea for emotional support. Rose has helped me through much trauma and heartache, helping me by not suppressing the emotions, but to move through them safely to a space of love.
Linden is another great one, very relaxing and calming. It is one of the most delicious plants, helping in any grief or sadness that is also accompanied by nervousness and anxiety. Linden also helps facilitate dream adventures, help with insomnia, and can help lower the blood pressure.
Reishi is a powerful plant that can be used whenever the heart feels vulnerable, and can bring a strong sense of heart protection. It is also great for stress and enhancing our immune system. Reishi also helps with metabolism, and with the metabolizing of experiences in the dream world.
Hawthorn’s leaf, flower, and berry tonify to the heart tissue, enhance the heart muscle itself, and generally support the whole cardiovascular system. Hawthorn is also in the rose family, also offering strong emotional support to the energetic heart. Hawthorn has also been used in successfully lowering the blood pressure, and helps with relaxation during stressful times.
And lastly we have Motherwort. Another protector of the heart, and especially the hearts of mothers who do a lot of nurturing themselves. Used also when nervousness and anxiety manifest as heart palpitations. Motherwort is strengthening to the physical heart, and has blood pressure lowering properties.
Donahue, S., 2014. Mental Health Therapeutics. Pacific Rim College, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Gerber, R., 1988. Vibrational Medicine. Bear & Company, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Judith, A., 2009. Eastern Body Western Mind- Psychology and the Chakra System. Celestial Arts, New York.
Spelman, K., 2013. Keynote talk at American Herbalist Guild 2013 Symposium in Bend, Oregon.
Photo: Pauline Battle, https://paulinebattell.wordpress.com/2014/06/17/6-16-14-an-important-video-right-now-judith-dagley-the-celestial-team/
I have always been a fan of prevention when it comes to health. If we can support our body’s natural defense mechanisms from day to day, then we will be more resilient to pathogens that may come up in the throes of a frigid winter. Making slight adjustments to the foods we eat, getting sufficient rest, reducing stress, and incorporating some herbal plant allies can really help us keep on top of our health when the weather gets hairy.
As we move towards more coldness and more dampness in the fall and winter months, so do our bodies. In terms of western herbalism, cold and damp within the body can make us more susceptible to illness. We can help to reduce this coldness by eating a diet that is energetically warmer and drier.
Warming foods include cooked root vegetables, broths, onions and garlic. Most of the culinary herbs and spices that we use are antibacterial AND energetically warming (Yay!). These include basil, thyme, oregano, rosemary, fennel and sage, all of which have the added benefit of being carminatives, meaning they support digestion and dispel gas. Cloves, cardamom and cinnamon are also lovely additions to hot winter drinks (also all containing antibacterial properties).
Cold foods to avoid include raw vegetables, seaweeds, and cold drinks. Damp forming foods to avoid include refined sugar, excessive oils, and dairy, which can all lead to excess phlegm production. It goes without saying that consuming ice cream in the dead of winter is not something we should strive to achieve.
Medicinal mushrooms such as reishi (Ganoderma lucidium) and chaga (Inonotus obliquus), as well as astragalus (Astragalus membranaceuos) are adaptogens (herbs that help the body deal with stressors), and they can do a great job at boosting the body’s immunity when taken long-term, but should be avoided in acute conditions (they have the potential to push the illness deeper into the body).
So what to do if a cold has got us??
It depends on the individual and their underlying constitution (everyone is different!), but generally one cannot go wrong with Echinacea. Echinacea (angustifolia or purpurea spp.) root is an immune-modulator, enhancing our body’s natural defenses. It also has anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, and antibiotic properties. A medicinal dose for an adult at the onset of a cold is 5ml (approximate teaspoon) of an Echinacea tincture (alcohol-based extract) between 2-5 times a day, or 5g of the root boiled in 2 cups of water drunk throughout the day.
Other useful herbs include diaphoretics (herbs that make us sweat), which help to move blood to the periphery, helping the body push out illness. Diaphoretics include elder flower and berry, yarrow, lemon balm, peppermint, chamomile and catnip. Herbs which induce a sweat are also often herbs which can bring about menstruation, so consult an herbalist if you are pregnant.
Here is an example of an energetically warming herbal tea to stay warm during cold times, which has the added bonus of supporting digestion.
Warming Spice Tea
1 tsp dried ginger,
1 stick of cinnamon, broken,
1/2 teaspoon fennel
¼ tsp nutmeg
5 cardamom pods
½ tsp fenugreek seeds
1 pt. water.
Boil for l5 mins and then strain. Drink a cupful every couple of hours. Sweeten with raw unpasteurized organic honey.
Everyone has stress in their life, but it is our resilience and our ability to bounce back after stressful periods that is one of the most important aspects of leading a healthy life. Why is it that some people can be cool as cucumbers, and others lose hair, sleep, and perceivably, their minds?
David Hoffman states that “Stress is the response of the body to any demand.” Demands of life bring about reactions within the body, varying by intensity and by our perception of the intensity of those stresses. Stress can include unhappy worry about financial matters, but also joyous events, like a birth or a wedding.
The stress response helps us survive. It helps us run away from danger and keep ourselves safe. Our body however, cannot differentiate between the stresses that we experience today which are not necessarily life threatening, and the response that helps us run away from wild beasts that want to eat us. We are very lucky to not be living in fear of getting eaten by a tiger, or the fear of zombie apocalypse, for that matter….. But there are other things in which we perceive to be threats to our survival or general well-being. These include money and job security, family issues, and especially not to be overlooked, emotional issues.
The nervous system sees little difference between the pain of a drastic change in temperature, and the pain of the loss of a loved one. Good stress and excitement for life can be just as stressful as something traumatic. It is the body’s resilience and its ability to return to a state of homeostasis after periods of acute stress which is fundamental to our health (Hoffman, 2003). Illness itself can be a major form of stress. It could even be that the stress of an illness is perpetuating the illness!
Quick Nervous System Overview
The autonomic nervous system (the one that is responsible for all those bodily functions that we do without thinking) is divided into 2 parts. There is the parasympathetic (or the rest-and-digest) nervous system, which allows us to digest our food, and perform all the things we do when we are relaxed and content (you know- dilating the blood vessels, absorbing nutrients…..sending blood to the genitalia….all that good stuff!). The sympathetic (or the fight, flight, or freeze) nervous system on the other hand, prepares our bodies to run away from danger. When we are in sympathetic mode, our pupils dilate (to take in extra information about the surroundings). Additionally, there is a rise in blood pressure, and more blood is sent away from the internal organs and into the muscles where one is then able to make a speedy dash away from danger. Fight or flight can be initiated by fear and anxiety, and sustained stress can lead to depression and withdrawal.
Effects of stress on the body-
When you perceive a threat, whether it be real or imagined, emotional or physical, the inner part of the adrenal glands (which sit on top of the kidneys) pump out adrenaline (activated by your nervous system). The adrenaline goes into your blood stream, and acts upon the different systems of the body causing the aforementioned sympathetic (fight-or-flight) response.
Next, the outer part (or the cortex) of the adrenals pump out cortisol. The release of adrenaline and cortisol is referred to as the “alarm” or acute phase of stress. In the short term, cortisol increases cognitive ability and immunity and decreases pain. Cortisol is also involved in glucose metabolism, appetite, mental function, immunity, and blood pressure.
Over the long term, however, the opposite can happen!
The “resistance” phase occurs when there is a prolonged period of stress (therefore increased blood cortisol) over time. This cortisol flood can lead to an increase in blood pressure, blood sugar imbalances, central weight gain, insomnia, lower bone density, immune suppression, indigestion, slow wound healing, an increase in inflammation, muscle tissue loss, hormonal imbalances, and lowered mental performance (from the stress itself, but also from blood sugar imbalances) (Cauldwell, 2013).
The “Exhaustion” phase occurs when levels of cortisol have been depleted, leading to anxiety or depression, fatigue, further inflammation, and more low blood sugar episodes.
Coping with stress:
Everyone is different, so everyone has a different way of handling the stressful periods in their lives. Everyone needs a healthy way to manage stress, but some have turned to unhealthy ways of coping (in the short-term), and these include drugs, alcohol or other addictions, all making things worse in the end.
Making sure that one is getting enough sleep is especially important, and more so if someone is experiencing adrenal burnout and exhaustion. It is ok to sleep for more than 8 hours! The body will need time to recover from all it has been through. Making sure that all electronics are off and that there are no glowing or flashing lights in the bedroom can help if someone is experiencing insomnia. Sleep deprivation can further increase cortisol levels.
Exercise enhances insulin sensitivity, improves glucose tolerance, and is a great stress-buster, but too much exercise can have negative effects by stressing the body. Always exercise and move your body lovingly, never “punish” your body by exercising, especially if you are punishing yourself for eating an extra brownie! Long walks and yoga can be just as effective as intense cardio, so don’t beat yourself up!
Taking care of your emotional, mental and spiritual life is also important, since these can all be sources of stress. Live in an environment that supports emotional stability (although this is not always accessible for everyone). It is important to connect with others and reach out for support when we are experiencing hectic times. Emotional stress is still a stress, and this Heartmath website has some useful tips about the “heart-brain”: http://www.heartmath.com/research/#emo.
“Our thoughts should be creative, life enhancing, and open to influence of intuition and imagination, rather than conceptually rigid” (Hoffman, 2003). The practice of meditation can help us be in the present, keeping us focused, and our minds away from the big list of things we need to do. Will anyone die if the list of chores is not complete by a certain time? Likely not. So let’s stop worrying about it! Without our health, those tasks will never get completed anyways! Deep breathing is a great way of controlling the stress response. Different relaxation techniques can also be helpful, such as relaxing your tongue, listening to music, or getting a massage. Being in nature is a must. Put your feet and hands in the dirt, or hug a tree!
Supplementation with a mulit B-Vitamin, vitamin C, and magnesium can be helpful. Dietary changes can also be beneficial, like cutting out sugar and caffeine, as well as incorporating more fat and protein in your breakfast to help keep those blood sugar levels under control. Eating smaller more frequent meals can help with blood-sugar imbalances. Do not skip meals, as this can cause cortisol levels to increase.
And now, saving the best for last, here are some herbal allies that can offer support during intense periods!
Adaptogens are herbs that increase the body's resistance and vitality, helping the body adapt to stresses, including environmental, emotional, mental, and physical stresses. “Adaptogens moderate stress by enabling a more rapid but less exaggerated response, allow a more sustained peak, and foster a more gradual decline by making sure the blood glucose levels do not raise too high during stressful periods, keeping it sustained for a longer period of time, then having a less precipitous drop after the stress has passed” (Hoffman, 2003). Adaptogens also help our cells to use glucose by helping it get into the cell, and also by helping the liver convert glycogen to glucose. Adaptogens also work on the hormones, and more specifically, the stress and sex hormones. Some examples of these include Siberian Ginseng, Rhodiola, Ashwaghanda, Schisandra, Reishi, Gotu Kola, and Holy Basil.
Herbs which are nourishing to the adrenal glands include Licorice Root (not to be used if the blood pressure is elevated), Rehmannia and Borage.
The nervous system is the connection between the physical and the psychological parts of our body, where perceived psychological threats manifest physiologically. This is why when dealing with stress, the nervous system needs to be addressed. In the herb world, we use herbs called nervines, which are nourishing and calming to the nervous system (Hoffman, 2003). These are especially useful use during periods of debility, stress and shock. Nervine tonics strengthen and restore nervous tissues directly. They also contribute to the healing of damaged nervous tissue. Some examples include Valerian, Skullcap, Passionflower, Oatstraw, and St. John’s Wort.
And what about that brain fog? Try some herbs for the brain (cognitive enhancers), such as: Ginkgo, Schisandra, Gotu Kola, and Rosemary, to help you focus and think clearly.
To keep those blood sugar levels under control, herbs such as Cinnamon, Holy Basil, and Gymnema can help stabilize. This could be as easy as adding cinnamon to your breakfast every morning!
The liver is responsible for processing our hormones, and is very important in regulating the blood sugar levels. If the liver is sluggish, then we can experience worse blood sugar dips. Herbs for the liver (hepatics) like Milk Thistle and Schisandra, can be great herbal allies.
Relaxant herbs which are useful include Hops, Valerian, Skullcap, California Poppy, Kava Kava, Lavender, Lemon Balm, Catnip, Motherwort, and let’s not forget the lovely Chamomile!
Now let’s all relax and enjoy a nice cup of herbal tea.
By Megan Tardif-Woolgar, Medical Herbalist
Bone, K. & Mills, S., 2013. Principles and Practice of Phytotherapy, Modern Herbal Medicine. Second ed. Elsevier, London.
Cauldwell, D., 2013. Therapeutics II- The Stress Response. Pacific Rim College, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Hoffman, D., 2003. Medical Herbalism. Healing Arts Press, Rochester, Vermont.