simple ways to stay healthy in winter.
In the era of climate change we have more erratic weather so one day it is freezing or icy and the next day 40 sunny and melting. We need our core immune system to be strong as well as our ability to thermoregulate.
A well hydrated and RESTED body and mind is the most simple way to do this. Sleep is a natural medicine always but especially in the extremes of winter. Water makes our cells more able to move nutrients in and discharge toxins out.
There are so many views on diet I wont reiterate and we know fresh food is best. All I want to say is regardless of what ingredients you choose making at least 50-60 percent of them fruits and vegetables is a guarantee that you are getting well fed.
As for herbs if I had to pick say three herbs for winter health I might pick Astragalus as a deep immune tonic literally building the cells we need to circulate to fight pathogens and it is also warming and promotes interferon which fights viruses. I do love elderberry extract of syrups made with honey also especially because hildren and elderly people will take it readily as it is delicious. perhaps a third could be rosehips because of its high content of Vitamin C. OK maybe four as deep immune health is so well supported with medicinal mushrooms like Reishi, Chaga, Turkey Tail Maitake etc. Start to take them in the fall so your immunity is strong and solid before the cold season begins.
Of course if we get sick or just a bit rundown there are many to choose from.
At the earliest stages of a cold use Yin Qiao a chinese formula or frequent doses of Echinacea, and/or Andrographis (I love these two together).
Take advantage of the quieter shorter days to go inside and then of course get outside into nature. Nothing renews like a snowy walk or seeing an owl or mooseprints on the trail.
Gratitude is great medicine
Why Herbs Dont Work
Sometimes herbs work quickly and effectively and sometimes they don't. This can be confusing especially for people just starting to use herbal medicine.
I want to discuss some of the reasons that herbs may not work and how we can change that.
The first reason is that one is using the wrong herb or a poorly contructed or inappropriate formula. There are many herbs for most situations and people have different resonances with them. this is true for diets, for pharmaceuticals and styles of excercise. If you aren't trained or experienced it may be better to work with someone rather than scout the internet or a book for what to do to treat your situation. Of course trial and error is a great way to learn if you aren't in a hurry like if you have a flu.
Reason number two is that the dosage may be inadequate or too high. Taking too little of anti-microbials for instance won't fight a pathogen effectively. Or if you are using herbs for anxiety and you only take 1-2 droppers 1 time per day it probably isn't enough to make a difference. On the other hand, if you are taking herbs you don't need or taking too many different herbs or formulas you may be flooding and confusing your body so it can get overwhelmed and shut down.
Reason three has to do with what else is happening in your life. For instance are you trying to build your adrenals but continue to drink a lot of coffee or work too much or go without eating or only sleeping 5-6 hours per night, no matter how good the herbs in the formula or appropriate the dosage you are asking too much. We have to do our part with diet and and life style to support the action of the herbs.
The last reason I'll talk about in this post is quality. Herb quality is difficult to assure so use respected companies for both dried, fresh and extracted herbs or capsules and tablets. Check in at your local natural food store, herbal groups or practitioners and use your senses. This is called organoleptics, using your sight, smell and taste to feel if there is vitality in what you are using. We all know when we buy fresh food if it seems old or weak. We know a fresh garden tomato from a wimpy, mealy one from the supermarket in January.
Herbs have a lot to offer us for our health and well being but we must learn how to support them and use them well.
As the famous educator John Dewey said "Learning by doing".
Recently there have been a number of new moms who have had trouble with milk supply. For busy modern working women the stress and activity of life can severely impact supply. Lactation consultants have become an essential part of post partum care more and more frequently and they can really help zero in on the particulars. If supply is truly the issue, then herbs make an effective and easy addition to the mom's self care as long as one also is hydrating daily and resting and relaxing whenever possible (really important for supply). So, what herbs really work and do so within say 2 weeks at most.
The herb most commonly used these days is Fenugreek which will build milk in most women within a few days up to 2 weeks. It should not be used during pregancy, taking blood thinners, or with hypothyroid. That aside it is generally safe. Fenugreek has been used historically to treat Diabetes (which should only be done under a doctors care).
The herb I have had the most success with is Shatavari which is from India and is known as she who has a 100 husbands because it is so mourishing to woman in numerous ways, fertility, alleviating vaginal dryness, increasing libido and generally moistening and juicing up the tissues. It is a major part of our formula.
Vitex is another important herb for building milk supply and also balancing post partum hormones.
Blessed Thistle supports milk supply and has a positive effect on the liver, though should not be taken if pregnant or one has low stomache acid.
Fennel Seed supports the let down reflex so can be useful for working moms who find stress of work has made that difficult. Never use Fennel also when pregnant.
The last herb in our formula is Nettle leaf. Nettle is the queen of nutrition for women, so rich in minerals, vitamins, chlorphyll. It is the mother's milk of the plant world and can be considered an herbal food. it is milkdly diuretic.
Reflecting on the last several years wild crafting and growing medicinals, I can safely say things are changing and a greater rate than in the previous 15 years that I have done this work. Firstly, I have noticed as you have too i am sure that the weather is somewhat more erratic and growing moreso every year. There are many more insects in the garden, though this is more prevalent amongst the vegetables than the medicinals it is still noticeable.
In the wild the plants are coming earlier or the length of time of their availability for harvest may have changed duration. For instance, here in the northeast the Fall is much warmer. The killing frost comes later most autumns which means we can have more picking and digging time. The erratic weather means that though there is a longer season in general the weather shorten the window, destroy a crop or just generally mean you must pick while you can and not put it off. the extreme heat or excessive rain and the fact that it tends to come in deluges greatly influence harvest timing. We are so blessed to have so many healing plants here and we have to live in synchronicity with them in these new conditions. In the 20 years I have been following the plants around the seasons I have seen a perceptible and definitive shift that is not just random weather. Nature is always talking to us. Take care of it and we all will live better.
Winter is soon to come. The roots have been dug, garlic planted, wood stacked and ready. this is the "going within" time of year at least after the holiday season. I love to research and study and play with make new formulas.
But it is a time of stillness. And there are plants that specific nourish that quiet inner strength in us, that gives us the ability to stand on our own feet while still staying in relationship. this is a good time of year to gather strength and cultivate ourselves, just like the seeds waiting in the earth for spring's emergence.
Here are a few of my favorite go to plants in my winter. Not so much for just staying immune strong but as also to keep me calm and truly well in body, heart and mind.
Ashwaganda because it is strenthening but calming and tension relieving. it aids sleep which I think is so important in this season of renewal.
Reishi mushrooms ( and the other medicinals also ) are useful for calming the spirit and bringing it home to the heart.
Chaga is a great immune strengthening plant, particularly keeps me warm outside. I feel stronger when I drink it.
Maybe that is because of its association with Russia where it is a common winter tea at least in rural areas.
Nettles are my first wild plant in spring but I drink it all winter like it was a nourishing, chlorophyll rich nutrient concentrate. I feel like it builds blood which wupports healthy energy.
Shatavari and Marshmallow are also nourishing kidney nourishing herbs that help keep us juicy inside and lubricate. sometimes I add Oats, a wonderful nerve tonic.
Cinnamon, Ginger, Turmeric, Cardamom and Licorice keep us warm but also spark our senses with their aroma and taste. Too much time indoors can slow me down and make me tight. these herbs lift the spirit because they are spicy, colorful and tasty and they certainly help keep things loose and lively.
if you have other herbs you love for winter, please email and share your thoughts.
If rather than stuck or heavy you just feel tired or played out from illness or hard winter work, with the snow and woodstove maintenace,you might want to recharge the body and mind with vitality soup.
Get some marrow bones and a crock pot and add some Astragalus, eleuthero, medicinal mushrooms like Reishi or Maitake, Burdock, Codonopsis, etc. (see the premixed herb packet offered from Blue Crow Botanicals)
Add water and cook for 3 days. then you can freeze some and have 1/2 vup to 1 cup warmed up every day like a vitalizing soup. Gently and firmly boosts the immunity and energy.
This is a great time to also include warm lemonade, or turmeric drinks to move the liver energy and lighten things up. A freshsqueezed vegetable or some fruit juice or a green drink will help us adjust and expand into the emergent energy of spring. Also, including some sprouts in a salad! Beets are my favorite way to get things moving, grated raw on a salad or boiled plain or with a dressing, or roasted. Beets definitely get sluggish bowels to move.
If allergies arise for you in the springtime, support the immune system with the vitality soup or use Reishi in particular. Reishi is quite woody and bitter so it does not make lovely tea but as an extract it is reliable and also has a calming effect on the spirit. Extra Vitamin C and using some supplements like quercitin and freeze dried nettles also support our ability to stem the histamine response that substances we are allergic to create.
spring is a great time for a tune -up, short fast, a cleanse, a lighter diet, herbal support, get more exercise out doors and let the rising energy of spring enter and fill you up. Pretty soon, the nettles will be up to eat along with the dandelion greens, Keep your eyes out for them. next post will talk about how to cook and eat them.
I am very excited about broth for joints, digestion and for immune health. Bones and herbs together create a great deep immune and energy tonic. I decided to package the basic herbs with a page of instructions so anyone who can get some good bones of chicken, turkey, lamb or beef can make several months of immune support easily.
The herbs we use are Astragalus, Reishi, Maitake, Turkey Tails, Eleuthero, Burdock, Codonopsis, and Atractylodes. You can purchase several pounds of bones or save them from food prep. For this soup I use marrow bones rather than joint bones and feet which I use for making gelatin rich broth to feed my joints. Always be sure to use animals that have been as naturally raised as possible or are wild.
I bring the herbs and bones to a simmer on my cookstove starting with cold water and then transfer the soup to the crock pot just to give it a jump start. then I let it cook covered for 3 days. I check the water level and add when necessary. A crock pot has such even cooking that it is easy to just let it go. Of course on a woodstove you have to check the water level more frequently. then I strain out the bones and herbs anbd put the pot outside in the winter or in the fridge to get any fat to rise and harden which I then remove easily. Next I strain the soup through a coffee filter and put the liquid in ice cube trays and freeze. Then whenever I want a dose which is usually everyday I just pop out 1 or 2 cubes and warm on the stove and drink. it is delicious and fortifying.
it is great for anyone who has done too much and is rumming on empty, tends to get sick in the winter, has had a course of treatment, is elderly, post partum, a period of intense work or physical training.
A batch of the herbs which is 12 ounces will make about 12 cups of soup. That should last about 2 months.
the first time I made it I was going a long having one cube a day so I decided to have 4 cubes one morning. Wow, did I feel the energy and of course did too much, so be consistent and persistent and overtime you might feel renewed vigork, strength and well protected.
Echinacea purpurea grows easily here in the Northeast and is common in everyone's garden's. It also makes great winter cold medicine. Because of climate change the frosts have been coming later and later in the fall but whenever it will happen, it is best to wait until after one or two hard frosts to dig your roots. The frost concentrates the polysaccharides in the roots making them more powerful medicine. You don't need many to make enough extract for yourself, your family and friends and herlp to keep everyone healthy all winter.
When the frost has happened
Dig and wash the roots cutting off right at the crown. The crown is a very vital place in any plant food or medicinal,and I feel that it holds a lot of the most potent energy of the plant right there at the juncture of the root and the aerial parts (kind of like the navel of the plant).
You can simply chop the roots fine and cover with vodka or brandy or half and half 100% alcohol and distilled water, in a jar and put it in a cabinet for 6 weeks (I like to cover a full moon cycle as that time will guarantee that whichever moon phase you make it in it will benefit from the pull).
I also like to run the roots and the menstruum (the alcohol and water or vodka portion) through a blender.
You can also measure your roots by weight and then add twice the amount in ounces of the menstruum to be more exacting then just chopping and filling a jar. if you do this then just double your weight in ounces with the fluid ounces of your menstruum.
It is also nice to make an extract from the leaves and flowers earlier on in the summer, and also from some seeds after the seed heads (the cones of the cone flower) have turned dark but before the birds have eaten them all. Then you can mix some of each finished extract all together making the root extract the largest part and you will have good strong medicine.
Don't let the process be daunting. It really isn't hard, it is fun to do and it saves money.
Fall is beginning to show itself in the garden and the wild with leaves losing their vigor and some already falling here in Western Massachusetts. We are beginning the end of the fresh extract making season with our own Andrographis (known as Kalmegh from India aka the King of bitters), Jiao gu Lan (from China) having many of the same saponins that give ginseng its power but in a leafy vine so with a more gentle (less yang) energy. it is one of our very favorite tonics and delicious as extract or tea. We found this plant actually wintered over so we are planning to try again and not to have to start from seed each spring. there is so much to learn when adapting plants from other continents and climates.
the Ashwaganda (another tonic plant from India) will stay in the ground a bit longer before we dig its long and rangy roots, but the seeds are already starting to form. There are other annual plants that we will winter indoors and then put out again in the spring like Gotu Kola (so wonderful for connective tissue, and Vitex and Lemon Verbena (from South America , my newest favorite mind quieting plant which is utterly delicious and resinous lemony scent).
With climate change we never know but we still know we have to wait until real cold comes before digging roots to allow the energies of the aerial parts to sink back down into the roots. The cold concentrates the sugars or polysaccharides in the plant and makes them sweeter as well. In springtime before the tops emerge is another great time to harvest roots but this time more for their bitter constituents. Nature is so varied and so generous and we are very grateful.
Today after making extracts from dried plants we went outside to stack the last of the firewood. With the rain lately the new Mullein plant rosettes (second year plants of this biennial) had doubled in size. Because we have been without Mullein for a month or so now with so many people using it this winter with flu and colds we grabbed knives and started gathering.
What a joy it is every year to see and get o use the abundance of life emergin from the earth again. when that was done we spied the Valerian plants emerged though still purple leaved. perfect time to harvest roots still full of qi. and so we started digging deciding which plants to harvest and the babies to leave for next year. they smell TASTED so good. what a grounded feeling. This year for the first time we will gather the Valerian flowers which smell so divine and make a separate extract and then mix the two together. I feel like the lightness and aroma of the flowers will beautifully balance the deep grounded earthy and deeply relaxing roots.
Valerian is one herb that works best as an extract as the volatile oils will vaporize in a decoction.
Nettles are next on the list but this years cools has them hiding a bit longer. they are up though and next week should really be seen. This is the best time of year to eat them and get their huge nutritional benenfit.
My name is Bonnie Bloom and I am a clinical herbalist. Plants give us clothing, shelter, food and medicine. They are an intrinsic part of our earth ecology, diverse and essential. They breathe our carbon dioxide and generously give us oxygen. Where would we be without them.