Fall is creeping in and winter’s not far behind, so I’m going to be writing a series of posts over the next few months about winter wellness and many of my favorite herbs (and recipes!) for that purpose. But simple self-care plays just as vital a role in staying well during the cold months, so I’m going to start with the basics.
I know it’s difficult. Many of us come under a tremendous amount of pressure during the fall and winter to rush around and meet every need or expectation, no matter how unrealistic–from kids going back to school and the myriad extracurricular activities that go with it to the insane rush of the holiday season (only 104 shopping days til Christmas). With so much on our plates, it can be incredibly difficult to carve out time for self-care. But the body has a remarkable ability to fight off illness if the resources for doing so are available.
Trying to make big lifestyle changes all at once is its own kind of stress. It’s best to implement small, bite-sized changes and be diligent about them until they’ve become habit. So here are some suggestions for self-care that might help keep you from getting sick this winter, or help you recover more quickly when you do succumb to the latest stomach bug making the rounds.
You’ve probably heard most of these before, but that’s kind of the point: it’s easy for us to neglect the basics until we’re sick. So if you read through this list and see yourself at certain points, use that as a place to start forming new habits.
Before Using Herbs…
I’ve included some herbal suggestions with a few entries on the list, and I’ll be talking more about some of them in the near future. But it’s important to note that before you take any herb, it is not enough to take my word for it: you must do your own research and especially check for contraindications. Cross-reference herbs in at least 2-3 good herb books. (Stay tuned for an upcoming post with my favorites.) Pregnant and breastfeeding women and people on prescription medications or with serious health conditions should check with their doctors before using herbs in therapeutic dosages. Scientific names for all herbs mentioned are included at the bottom of the post.
1. Drink plenty of water.
The skin is our largest organ of elimination and hydration is a key part of keeping it flexible and healthy, particularly in the dry air of winter. Ample water intake also supports the lymphatic system, which plays a vital role in our immune function. Note that it’s “drink water” and not just “drink fluids”–sugary drinks like sodas, fruit juices, and sweet tea do not take the place of clean, pure water. Unsweetened herbal teas, on the other hand, do count towards your daily water intake and can provide additional health benefits. Nourishing herbs like nettle, lemon balm, and tulsi are gentle, make tasty brews, and support nervous system and whole body health.
2. Get moving.
It doesn’t have to be “exercise,” per se, but simple movement like walking is crucial to lympathic health. Unlike the circulatory system, which has a pump in the form of the heart, the lymphatic system does not have a central pump and instead relies on the movement of the body and hydraulic pressure to push lymph through the glands and back into the blood where it can be filtered. Dry brushing also helps stimulate lymph circulation and has the added benefit of improving skin condition. Calendula and cleavers are some gentle herbs that support lymphatic health when used on a regular basis.
3. Eat a healthy and nutritious diet.
The particular diet you follow isn’t quite as important as whether or not you’re eating real, whole foods and not processed foods full of corn byproducts and hydrogenated vegetable oils. Fresh fruits and vegetables are a must–avoid processed fruits in syrups and processed vegetables with chemical additives and preservatives. I believe that healthy fats and meats are good for you, so I supplement my diet with grass-fed meats, good butter, and bone broths. Healthy gut flora is associated with a strong immune system, so your first line of defense against winter illness is really your diet.
4. Avoid refined sugar.
Processed white sugar encourages inflammation in the body and has been linked to depressed immune function. During an illness, inflammation in the form of a fever can be a useful reaction and is a sign that the body has initiated an immune response to deal with an invading pathogen. But chronic low-grade inflammation due to sugar intake (along with dairy and wheat in some individuals) contributes to serious conditions like heart disease, strokes, and even dementia. Consider alternatives like honey and stevia for sweetening beverages, and less processed forms of sugar like rapadura or coconut sugar for baking. (But go easy on foods even containing “natural” sweeteners–they’re still forms of sugar!)
5. Get enough sleep.
The amount of sleep needed for good health varies from person to person, so don’t place an unreasonable expectation on yourself to sleep eight or nine hours a night if you only need six or seven to feel your best. But if you’re prone to burning the midnight oil and feel groggy and run-down the next morning, try to hit the sack earlier. If you suffer from insomnia, the first thing you should do is look at your sleeping environment and make changes there–the bedroom should be as dark as possible, and the bed should be a no-electronic-devices zone. I make one exception to that rule and use my iPhone as a bio-alarm clock with the Sleep Cycle app. Chamomile, skullcap, and passionflower are a few herbs that can help promote restful sleep.
6. Explore adaptogenic herbs.
Adaptogenic herbs are generally safe, non-toxic, and non-habit forming when used over extended periods of time. Many herbs act specifically on a system or organ, but adaptogens strengthen the overall function of the body and help the body deal with stress. Adaptogens can help people who are prone to chronic fatigue or insomnia due to stress, and can replenish worn-out nervous systems and adrenals. That said, adaptogens should not be relied upon to counteract the effects of poor dietary and sleeping habits; they might give you a temporary boost but your body will still eventually hit the metaphorical wall. Some well-known adaptogens include tulsi, schisandra, eleuthero, and reishi.
7. Nourish your mind and spirit.
Winter is the season for rest and renewal, but shorter days and less exposure to the sun can result in feelings of lethargy and depression. Add holiday stress to the mix and you may find yourself positively dreading the winter months. Stress-reduction techniques like prayer, meditation, and deep breathing exercises calm the mind and boost the immune system. Nourishing self-care can also include a girls’ (or boys’) night out, a stroll through a nearby park, a massage, practicing a hobby or craft, journaling, spending some quiet time with a good book, or simply taking a warm bath with some relaxing herbs like lavender and rose before going to bed early. It’s just as important to make space for rest and emotional rejuvenation as it is for exercise and healthy eating.
Knowing the scientific names of herbs is important because some very different herbs are sometimes called by the same common name and it’s important to know precisely which herb you’re talking about or researching before taking it.
Calendula, Calendula officinalis
Chamomile, Matricaria recutita
Cleavers, Galium aparine
Eleuthero, Eleutherococcus senticosus
Lavender, Lavandula spp.
Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis
Nettle, Urtica dioica
Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata
Reishi, Ganoderma lucidum
Rose, Rosa spp.
Schisandra, Schisandra chinensis
Skullcap, Scutellaria lateriflora
Tulsi, Ocimum sanctum or Ocimum tenuiflorum
What are your favorite ways to stay healthy in the winter?