Winter’s Holistic Medicine Chest

I’ve spent many winters of my life in the cold, rainy regions of northern California. There was always a wood fire burning and the soft sound of rain. Those long peaceful nights and short silver days were great for “burrowing in.” Reading, writing, dreaming, working with the herbs were my favorite winter activities and kept me busy until spring. My herb shop, too, was always busiest in the winter as people succumbed to the dilemma of winter’s health problems. The nature of winter, Saturn’s season, is a test of both physical and emotional strength for many people.

Over the years, I’ve listened to folks tell me what herbs and remedies worked for them for these woes of winter. There was a marvelous sharing of information in those 15 years of listening “over the counter” to people’s favorite remedies. All are “simplers’ ways,” bits of earth wisdom that, when used, work. Most of what I know is of such simplicity: eat the abundant autumn harvest; be thankful for life’s gifts; use a cold water shower; play in the winter weather; drink warm herbal teas; dress for the weather. Nothing complex or profound here, but it works.

Foods and Tonics

Nature provides all the necessary vitamins and minerals needed for a healthy immune and respiratory system for winter health. The seasonal harvest, both wild and cultivated, provides exactly what the season demands — foods high in vitamins A, C, and bioflavinoids. Walk in the garden in fall, take a stroll in the woods or even your local market. You will find: winter squashes, rosehips, persimmons, root crops, peppers, dandelions, elderberries, sumac berries, citrus fruits, and seaweeds and the brassica family (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, etc), also high in trace minerals, iron and calcium.

In most areas in the United States after the first fall rains, many of the early spring wild herbs poke up again for a few short weeks. They are a special gift from nature — vitamin laden, fresh, wild greens rich with a spirit energy that nourishes us deeply. Get out there and use them! There are far more than just vitamins and minerals in those fresh tender young greens; there is life and more.

Winter foods should be warming and building to the body. Plan meals around soups, stew, steamed greens, grains, root vegetables, hot teas. Always eat a warming, nourishing breakfast as it will be the foundation of your day’s energy.

Miso Tahini Paste is a delicious standby winter time condiment in our household. We spread it on toast, eat it with rice and steamed veggies, and mix it with hot water for soup. It is a great nourishing meal when ill and good to take to prevent ill health. This is one of my basic “do as you please” recipes. Adjust the flavors according to your taste. Mix 1 part miso to 1 part tahini. Then add fresh chopped or grated garlic, ginger, horseradish, nutritional yeast, spirulina powder and cayenne powder. Store in a bottle in the refrigerator. It will last for months.

Hot Curried Onions serve both as a remedy and a food. The onions and garlic are rich in sulphur, allium and mucilage. The curry herbs, such as ginger, cayenne, tumeric, coriander and cumin, are highly medicinal and provide warmth, energy and circulatory heat to the system. They will also clean your intestines out as an added benefit, so be prepared! Use the freshest and best quality hot curry blend you can find. The fresher, the better. Peel and slice several large onions into “moons.” Chop garlic. Saute the onions and garlic in a bit of olive oil and soy sauce until golden and transparent. Serve on toast, rice or just by itself.

Medicine Broth Soup is extremely easy to digest and highly nourishing — a perfect food for when you have the flu. Visit your local herb shop at the beginning of winter and stock up on an ounce or two of each of these dried root herbs (or use fresh if you have them; you can also mix fresh and dried herbs together). To make this broth, cook dandelion root, burdock root, astragalus root, fo-ti root, ginseng root and ginger root in simmering water for half an hour. Use just a little of each dried herb to make your broth. When you have a good strong tea, strain, and to the liquid add miso, cayenne and garlic to taste. Save the herbs after they are cooked. You can reuse them several times or add just a little fresh herb with the cooked when making a new batch. This makes an incredibly nourishing and tasty broth and serves as both medicine and food.

Keep the tea kettle on the stove filled with your favorite winter tea(s). When off to work or journeys, fill your thermos with tea and take it along with you. For a tonic or building tea to be effective it is necessary to drink 3-4 cups daily. To ease winter symptoms, stock your herbal pantry with:

  • Slippery elm bark, licorice root, comfrey root and leaf for sore throat and mucus inflammation
  • Echinacea root, goldenseal root, fresh garlic, propolis (fresh or in tincture) for strep throat
  • Elder, yarrow, catnip for fever
  • Ginger, cayenne, horseradish to warm up and get circulation going

Hot Gingeraide creates heat and warmth in the body, thus helping to eliminate congestion and the yin (cold) types of imbalances such as colds, flus and sore throats. It can be used as both a preventive and remedial, and is a children’s favorite. Grate about an inch of fresh ginger root, add to boiling water and simmer over low heat for 5-10 minutes. Remove from heat and add fresh squeezed lemon and honey. Sprinkle with a few grains of cayenne.

Winter''s Holistic Medicine Chest

Fire Cider is a warming, decongesting tonic that can be taken daily to aid digestion, warm the system and clear the sinuses. It can also be taken in concentrated doses for sore throats, colds and flu. Great as a salad and steamed greens dressing too! Grate and chop: ¼ cup fresh horseradish, 1/8 cup garlic, ½ cup onion, ¼ cup ginger. Place in a glass jar and add cayenne to taste. Add just enough apple cider vinegar to cover all the ingredients by an inch or two. Let sit 4 weeks. Strain out the herbs and sweeten the cider with honey to taste. Store in the refrigerator and take 1 teaspoon every half hour or as often a needed.

Hot Lemonade can be so refreshing and nourishing when sick with the flu. Through acidic in taste, it leaves an alkalizing ash in the system, thereby helping to neutralize the excess acids that contribute to illness. Use fresh squeezed lemons; do not boil the lemon juice but add the juice to already boiled water. Sweeten with honey and sprinkle a grain or two of cayenne into the drink. Drink as much of this refreshing drink as desired. Note: Avoid orange juice with the flu. Through a kissing cousin of lemons, and without doubt, delicious, oranges are very high in sugar and are very acidic to the system. The high sugar content signals the body to produce more mucous, which contributes to congestion. Save the orange guide for when you are feeling great.

Flu and Cold Symptoms

For many people, the very term “flu” is synonymous with winter. There are many people who suffer one bout after another of colds and flu, generally because the inner strength or “chi” is weakened. If one is vital, strong and active, the chances of “catching” the current flu are slim; and if one does contact it, recovery is usually quick and complete.

Attention to our general health and the early symptoms of the flu is each person’s responsibility. When I worked at the herb shop, each winter I would see some of the worst cases of the flu. Sometimes I would feel tired, worn out and susceptible, so I would take these extra precautions: for my immune system I would take echinacea tincture 3-4 times daily; I would rub resins on my skin, those same resins that have been used for centuries to cleanse and purify the temples: myrrh, sage and amber; I would drink tonic herbal soups to strengthen my whole system; and I would wear some of the old protective herbs in a small pouch around my neck or in my pocket: Chinese star anise, sage, sweet grass, osha.

If you do contract the flu, there are several measures you can take that will help it pass quickly and completely. It is often difficult to care for oneself during a flu as there is very little energy left for making teas, soups, even getting up at all. So if at all possible, it is good to allow yourself to be taken care of.

Keep goldenseal and echinacea tinctures by the bedside, as well as a thermos of herbal tea. Eating is not important but fluid intake is essential. Three to six quarts should be consumed daily, more if there is high fever and profuse sweating. If a person won’t or can’t drink, water can be administered by a warm, gentle catnip enema. This simple home treatment is not very popular anymore, but is one of the most effective methods for lowering fever and getting necessary fluid into the system. If an enema is out of the question, try a tepid bath. It, too, will help get the needed fluid into the system and help lower a fever. Be sure there are no drafts in the room and as soon as person has completed the bath, wrap them snugly and hurry them back to bed.

Purify and disinfect the air by burning sweet grass, myrrh, sage and/or frankincense. It is good to open a window to air out the room once in a while, but be sure not to create a draft. Change the bed linens frequently.

For sinus congestion and head colds, freshly grated horseradish is your medicine. Store bought horseradish has lost much of its potency and is not as strong as that you grate yourself. Chances are your sinuses will be clear by the time you’ve finished grating the root. Eat on toast, with soup or on rice. You could also try an herbal decongesting steam by placing a drop or two of eucalyptus, sage or pine essential oil into a large pot of boiling water. Remove from heat and place a large towel over your head and the pot. Breathe in deeply for 10 minutes.

Winter''s Holistic Medicine Chest

Treat ear infections at the very onset of the condition and always treat both ears. Jump into a warm snug bed at the first sign of infection, as resting allows the body’s energy to be used where it’s most needed. Make warm garlic oil by covering chopped garlic with a thin layer of olive oil and warming over very low heat until the oil smells very strongly of garlic. Strain well and place a drop or two of warm (not hot) oil in each ear and cover the head with a cap. Repeat every hour during acute stages of infection.

Hot salt packs are also useful in treating ear infections. To make a salt pack, heat salt (the larger the grains, the better) in a skillet. When the salt is very hot, wrap it in a cotton cloth and hold over the ears (you may need to let the salt cool somewhat or hold it further from the ears). Leave on for 30 minutes. Keep salt packs hot by placing towels over the packs. Work with a health care professional if you are unsure what to do or if the infection is at an advanced stage as ear infections may lead to permanent hearing damage.

Winter''s Holistic Medicine Chest

Hot, Cold and Just Right

One of the oldest and most effective forms of natural therapy is cold water bathing. It has been used effectively for centuries for poor circulation, sluggish digestion, building chi/energy and for various health problems. This is the time of year to enjoy your cold water showers as never before.

Our body has its own natural thermostat. It is located at the nape of the neck. The body’s thermostat atrophies through lack of proper stimulation, i.e., overheated houses, too much clothing, over use of hot water, not enough exercise. By properly stimulating the body’s thermostat, we can naturally regulate our body temperature.

Begin in autumn to acquaint yourself with cold showers. Start with a regular warm water shower. Then slowly or quickly — whichever is your style — begin to turn the water to cold. Stand under it as long as possible, at least 20 seconds, being sure to expose all parts of your body. If you have problems with circulation, are always cold and don’t tolerate temperature changes easily, consider introducing this ancient health practice into your daily routine.

Dress for winter. Heat will leave the body rapidly through the hands, feet, the top of the head, nape of the neck and the kidneys. It is essential to protect and warm these areas should you be prone to winter illness or depression. In Japan, a simple but very effective technique used to keep heat in the body is to take a long, soft wool fabric and wrap it snugly around the belly and kidney area (lower back). This will warm your whole body and is especially useful for those who suffer from kidney and bladder infections, lower back pain, emotional instability, and depression. Best of all, it feels good.

Set up an exercise program for yourself over the winter and abide by it. Be sure it includes some time each week outdoors. Don’t lose touch with winter or you’ll lose touch with what is most magical about the cycles of life. Keep the essence of winter bundled snugly, close to your heart. If you live in the city or a very cold climate, exercise can be done on a regular basis in your home or gym, but still plan to include time out of doors. There is magic and mystery out there that ignites the heart.

Whenever you get confused, unsure what step to take next, just pause, relax, sit down for a moment. Put your feet on the ground, barefoot if at all possible. You will be amazed at how centered and connected you will feel after a few minutes moments with your bare feet consciously connecting with the heart of the Mother. Breathe out and let the earth answer your questions. On the inward breath, let those answers permeate. Breathe in and out until you feel the earth answering your questions. It will tell you which medicines to use, how and when. All that herbology is, is old and wise, filtered through eons of human experience. It is in us, encoded in our genetic memory banks. This winter listen to your body.

Rosemary Gladstar is one of the leading herbal authors and teachers in North America. She is the founder of United Plant Savers, cofounder of Sage Mountain Herbal Retreat Center and Native Plant Preserve in E. Barre, Vermont, and creator of the Science and Art of Herbology home study course from which this excerpt is reprinted with permission. 

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