Do you “get” winter? In this era of so-called seasonless living, we’ve lost our connection to the natural rhythms of the year. (My 20-something stepdaughters’ 365-day-a-year addiction to flip-flops comes to mind.) It’s not as if we’re still huddling in caves in January with our dwindling supply of nuts and berries. So why are the seasons relevant? Or are just *so* last millennium?
It wasn’t that long ago that our ancestors were crouched in caves snacking on squirrel jerky, so our mind/body system is still designed to respond to the changing seasons in what Traditional Chinese Medicine calls an “appropriate” manner. In winter, it means slowing down (conserving calories during the food-scarce months) and turning inward (not that much to do in the cave, after all, and too much cave chatter makes for some pretty frayed nerves by spring.) It means eating more warm, cooked foods, things that we can gather and store, such as root vegetables. Not a lot of salad in the ol’ cave.
Before you chug that nice chilled glass of orange juice to ward off a cold, imagine what happens when that cold, raw food, not to mention all that sugar, is introduced into your system. Your body is cooled both by the temperature of the juice and by the inherent property of raw fruit, which is “cooling” to the body. Sugar is particularly problematic during cold season, because it causes mucous to form. A great alternative: a cup of ginger tea with a generous squeeze of lemon, a little bit of real maple syrup or honey, and a dash of cayenne pepper.
Think about the noun, “cold.” It says it all. Cold = colds. Your grandma was right about staying out of a draft and wearing a muffler. Protecting the vulnerable back of your neck is a bit of an obsession in Chinese medicine. So is eating warm food, and using seasonal produce.
Kale, spinach and other winter greens are fantastic sources of antioxidant vitamins like A, C and E. It’s easy to grow these and other winter greens, like arugula. For the most seasonally-attuned preparation, steam or braise them. I love them with a nice filet of wild salmon over high-protein udon noodles, which I use in place of pasta in many recipes.
Some other nutritional tips for staying in balance with the season:
- If you’re prone to sinus problems in the fall and winter, eating warm, moist and oil-rich food is thought to be particularly beneficial; oily fishes, olive oil, nut oils and even ghee (Indian style clarified butter) are wonderful. Applying warm oil or anti-inflammatory, rich shea butter to the skin is also helpful.
- Eat locally and organically. Produce that’s grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, in our area, is in sync with your climate and season-the same natural rhythms that are influencing you everyday. It’s easier than ever to do, with our fantastic farmer’s markets. A chef who worships local produce (and has nearly everything grown locally, at Love Apple Farms in Ben Lomond) is David Kinsch at Manresa. On his plates, you’ll get acquainted with amazing heirloom vegetables you’ve never heard of before.
- For a fast winter dinner, I quickly chop the greens, and then dunk them, some udon noodles and some wet-smoked salmon into Trader Joe’s Ginger Soy broth and cook until the greens are done but still bright green. Voila!…A seasonally attuned meal in a scandalously fast 12 minutes. In contrast, a seasonally attuned summertime dinner would be rich in raw vegetables and finished with some luscious local fruit.
- Drink water. Hot water. Tea is much better for you than cold water. Don’t overhydrate in the wintertime; the season is ruled by the Water element in Chinese medicine. (But if you want to feel weak and weepy, drink up!)
For the social animals that we are, winter is our annual low point. Summer is the natural season for gatherings and celebration. What’s wrong with this picture? Just when nature is telling you to retreat within, turn down the volume, give it a rest, and chill out, you’re pounded with the holiday season and its demands, from shopping to partying. No wonder we get the holiday blues.
One of the best antidotes for our perpetual mind-body imbalance is meditation. Yes, the M word is awfully intimidating, with its image of rigorous practice and stringent self-discipline. But even if you don’t meditate, just sit quietly and breathe mindfully, for 10-15 minutes a day. If you miss a day, don’t worry. If you miss more, don’t worry. Just do it as often as you’re able.
I was recently inspired to renew my meditation practice by a book which explained that would-be meditators often give up because they set too high a standard for themselves. Even if you manage to meditate one day a week, or one day a month, resist the urge for self-flagellation. Occasional meditation is much better than none at all, and semi-regular meditation is downright health enhancing. The lower you set the bar for meditation “success” the more inclined you’ll be to do it. (My lap-averse cat now shows up when I’m meditating, and curls up on my half-lotus, something she’s never been known to do when alpha waves were not present. Though it’s not in the official meditation playbook, I can’t exactly turn her away when she’s seeking enlightenment.)
So as you make your way through this winter, take a page from the cave-dwellers you descended from. Stay as warm as you can, eat food that’s in season, and find a place to hide out from the hectic pace of the holidays, if only for a few minutes. And you’d like to do something a little more evolved, there’s nothing like a spa treatment for reuniting body and soul!