Winter Indoor Health

Winter is on its way and with it comes the challenge to remain healthy. The temperature outside is dropping, the heat inside is dry, people are crowded into closed spaces, and viruses and bacteria lie in wait just about everywhere.

Nature has thoughtfully provided for our winter health needs with herbs that are available to assist us in maintaining a healthy immune system. Combine these with a positive attitude, adequate rest and access to fresh air, and this could be the winter you avoid what is “going around.”

For many people winter is a time for slowing down and turning inward. Carried to an extreme, this can lead to SAD (seasonal affect disorder.) Even though it is cold outside, it is important to spend some time outdoors. Bundle up, head to the hills, or step out into your backyard and enjoy the winter wonderland that nature provides. You may develop an interest in snowshoeing or cross-country skiing, or simply walk around your neighborhood or area parks. For the more adventurous there are winter camping trips.

Meditate

Mainstream medical professionals are increasingly acknowledging the power of the mind in maintaining a healthy body. Winter can be the perfect time to learn or deepen a meditation practice. There are many traditions and countless ways to practice meditation, and classes, instructional tapes and books abound. Often, meditators wonder whether they are doing it correctly. The easiest way to tell is to ask yourself, “Do I feel better?” As with most skills, meditation improves with practice.

If using meditation to maintain your health seems a little too abstract for you, consider that neuroscientists have found that during meditation, the brain activity switches from the stress-prone right frontal cortex to the calmer left frontal cortex. This mental shift decreases the negative effects of stress, mild depression and anxiety. Meditators produce more serotonin, the “happy hormone,” and less of the stress hormone cortisol. High levels of cortisol is being implicated in a wide variety of health issues. Simply put, when our cortisol levels are lower, we are calmer, better able to cope and healthier. Studies have shown that meditation can reduce pain and enhance the body's immune system, enabling it to better fight disease.

Eat Healthy Winter Foods

Consuming nutritionally rich foods are an important part of maintaining your health. Winter squash is a source for vitamins A, C and D. If you didn’t grow your own squash, buy it now from your local farmers market and store it away in a cool, dry place. Properly stored winter squash will keep till spring and need very little attention. Choose squashes that have a thickened skin, so hard that your fingernail can’t puncture. Leave the stem on as the spot scar will invite spoilage. It is ideal if you can cure the squash either in the sun or in a warm place (70 to 80 degrees) for 10 to 14 days. Handle them gently and keep them warm and dry. It is best not to stack the squash as they may bruise each other. Ideally, spread them out in a single layer an inch or so apart. Slatted shelves or a layer of hay or dry leaves help to create ideal storage conditions. I keep my squash in a box under my hutch with no problems. Read Root Cellaring by Mike and Nancy Bubel for everything you need to know about winter food storage.

Root crops such as carrots, beets, turnips and potatoes can form the staples of a healthy winter diet. These nutritional powerhouses provide vitamins A and C, trace minerals and iron. Nature in her bounty provides these important nutrients in foods that are easily stored over the winter. If you have carrots in your garden they can keep quite well in the garden row. Spread a one to two foot think layer of mulch over the row before the ground freezes hard and you will be able to dig up fresh carrots for close to a month longer. If you experience a January thaw, you’ll be able to finish your harvest.

Rose hips are an ideal way to include vitamin C in your winter diet. Rose hips have a higher concentration of vitamin C than any other commonly available fruit or vegetable. A single rose hip typically contains twenty times more vitamin C than an orange. Vitamin C is known to boost the immune system and fights any infection, from common colds to flu to viruses. Additionally, vitamin C helps combat stress and fatigue. Rose hips played a very important part in the provision of vitamin C to British children during World War II as citrus fruits were not available. Children were sent out to collect them and they were then boiled down to make a syrup, which was issued as a dietary supplement to small children. Species to look for include:

  • R. ponifera has particularly large and tasty fruits
  • R. rugosa is an excellent fruit
  • R. canina is the brier-rose or dog rose, which is made into an infusion
  • R. eglantaria is from western Asia, but a related species from California, R. californica, is known as macuatas.

Green and red peppers provide wonderful color to a winter food palate that may get a little dull. Along with the bright color, they impart vitamins A and B, and bioflavonoids. The brassica family of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and mustard greens will provide vitamins A and C, trace minerals, iron and calcium. Seaweed can provide needed protein, vitamins, minerals and trace minerals while enhancing stews and soups.

In winter, food should be warming to the body. Eat soups, stews, grains and root vegetables. Drink hot teas and steamed greens. Hot spicy foods are good for the immune system. Cayenne pepper, ginger and mustard all have a warming effect on the body and are a wonderful addition to the winter diet.

Keep Warm

Heat from your body is primarily lost through the head, hands and feet. Just like your mother told you — wear your hat! Dressing in layers is helpful so that as you move from cold to warmth you can adjust your clothing. Using silk as the layer next to your skin provides a wonderful insulator and is a comfortable substitute for long underwear. If you are prone to cold and winter illness consider wearing an extra layer around your kidney area. A lightweight fleece vest will serve the purpose.

A Ute teacher that I did a workshop with had us all plunging ourselves into a swiftly running stream in the middle of November. At the time, it was a test of our ability to control ourselves and to prepare us for the coming winter. It was an exhilarating (and cold!) experience. During my herbal training, it was recommended that we close our shower with a cold spray. My teacher explained that the body has its own built-in thermostat at the nape of the neck. It can atrophy due to the overuse of hot water in bathing, overheated houses and too much clothing. By properly stimulating the body’s thermostat, we can regulate our body temperature. She recommended that starting in early autumn, start your shower with warm water and slowly change it to cool water at the end. Work your way up to 20 seconds. Have the cool water hitting your neck at the base of your skull and allow it to hit all parts of your body. Towel dry briskly.

Herbal Immune Support

Extra support to the immune system can help you avoid winter illness. There are wonderful herbs that will provide the necessary assistance. Echinacea — a surface immune system builder. Echinacea works wonderfully as a tea which has a deep, rooty flavor. If you prefer more “fruity” flavored herbal teas just combine two tea bags. I find the tea is a gentle way to assist the immune system without over stimulating it. It is best not to overuse echinacea, so when I am healthy I like to have a cup only once every few days. If I am displaying symptoms, I will have three cups spread out over the course of the day or use a tincture.

Astragalus Root — a deep immune system builder. Used in China as an immune strengthener and general tonic, it is believed by many to be one of the best herbs for enhancing the protective effects of the immune system. Astragalus increases the levels of immune cells that fight viruses, and has been shown to stimulate the secretion of a powerful anti-viral chemical known as interferon, which prevents viruses from replicating. It is an excellent herb for frequent colds and upper respiratory infection like bronchitis.

Osha Root — a deep system builder and targets lung and throat infections. If you feel the beginnings of a sore throat, gargling a mixture of an osha tincture, warm water and salt provides a wonderful combination to fight infection. Garlic — effective as an anti-biotic. Odorless garlic is available in capsule form. It is an excellent preventative and useful when you are already feeling the effects of a cold.

A properly functioning liver is key to good health. The liver has many functions, including filtering harmful substances from the blood, and the storage of vitamins and minerals (vitamins A, D, K and B12). It is recommended that you cleanse the liver at least twice a year. Herbs recommended for liver health include yellow dock, dandelion root and leaf, pau d’arco, burdock root and red clover. You can make a tea adding some ginger and licorice for their health benefits and wonderful flavor.

Stock your “green home” medicine cabinet with these herbs and stay healthy with green medicine.

  • Sore throat: slippery elm, licorice root, thyme
  • Strep throat: echinacea, golden seal, garlic, St. John’s Wort oil, applied topically
  • Lungs and bronchial: colt’s foot, mullein for dry asthma-type coughs, lobelia can help those who use an inhaler, wild cherry bark, pleurisy root, elecampane root and echinacea root assist the lungs in functioning and a productive cough. Warming herbs such as cinnamon and cardamom are great addition for people dealing with a cold. You can make your own cough medicine with 2 pints of water and one ounce of herbs. Heat the water to boiling, add the herbs and simmer until reduced by half. Add honey to taste.
  • Fever: Elder flower, yarrow and catnip

Get out and enjoy winter. Take walks, explore natural areas and observe wildlife. Be a part of the season and enjoy the natural rhythms of life. Special thanks for much of this info to my herbal teacher my teacher, Donna Wood of Cedar Spring Herb Farm, Harwich, MA. Visit http://www.cedarspringherbfarm.com.

Mary Farrell is a writer, environmentalist, dowser, student of herbalism and teaches self empowerment tools. She can be reached at farrpmar@hotmail.com.