Supporting the Body Through Seasonal Transition
Now that we’re in the middle of October, the shift into Autumn here on the Sunshine Coast is well underway. The days have darkened and the air has a bite to it. Taking the time to slow down and adjust to the changing seasons is imperative. I had intended to teach a live class on this subject but it seems that life got in the way. In lieu of the class, I’m going to try my hand at condensing the information down into a blog post. Cozy up with a cup of tea as we spend some time exploring this subject here together.
Looking out into nature, it becomes pretty clear that every living being has a way of preparing for the winter- the trees shed their leaves, the plants send their energy into the roots and the bears fatten up for hibernation. Humans traditionally have had our own ways of preparing too! Let’s think for a second about the pumpkin spice craze in the fall. This is actually a lingering traditional practice which has stuck around into the modern world- utilizing aromatic herbs to warm the body.
Winter Wellness Begins in the Fall
Historically autumn served as the big push before winter’s pause. During the daylight our ancestors would have been hard at work preparing for the winter when food was more scarce, but the lengthened nights would create the opportunity for replenishment. The outside world has to slow down as the days grow dark and cold, but thanks to electricity- humans don’t really have to anymore. Although all of our physiologic cues may be pointing us to slow down and carve the space for rest, our culture is saying the opposite.
Nowadays fall goes from the chaos of back to school, right into the holiday season and the stress that comes with it. There isn’t a natural slowing down period really until New Years when most folks are short on cash and trying to reset after the holidays. This matters because how we support our bodies in the fall carries through into the winter months. Properly supporting the body as the seasons shift supports immune function and helps ward of the winter time blues that come with the fading light.
The concepts of yin and yang from Traditional Chinese Medicine provide an easy way to grasp the imbalance created by the modern way of life. The western world operates out of what could be called “yang dominance”. There’s such a high value placed on outward productivity and perpetual growth, that space isn’t left for that inward time of decay. The decay is seen as a set back, but really it’s what provides the nutrients needed for the next season of growth. Trying to live in an endless state of productivity is a sure way to burn out. The easiest way to care for yourself in the autumn is simply to do less. Go to sleep earlier and take small breaks for self care.
Food has always been a primary form of medicine. By no surprise, seasonal foods serve to help the body to adjust to the changes of autumn. Squash and root vegetables contain complex carbohydrates for lasting energy and serotonin production. They sit heavier in the belly, keeping you full for longer and energetically grounded. Wild Mushrooms contain immunostimulating polysaccharides, with certain mushrooms like chanterelles being rich in vitamin D2. By placing mushrooms in the sun, they absorb vitamin D. This is an especially important nutrient to focus on as vitamin D deficiency is very common in the winter months.
When every meal is seen as an opportunity to influence health, it’s incredibly empowering. By choosing to cook with ingredients like onions, garlic, ginger, herbs and spices- you will be benefiting from their antiviral and antimicrobial qualities. Including flavonoid rich foods such as berries and citrus rinds helps to protect the body from oxidative stress and inflammation.
If immunity is a concern, remember that 70% of the immune system is in the gut! In this way, focusing on eating to support gut health is key. Including bone broth will help to “heal and seal” the gut lining. Mucilaginous herbs such as marshmallow, licorice and plantain have a similar effect. Fermented foods serve as a hearty dose of probiotics, while prebiotics like burdock, chicory, onion and garlic help those good bacteria to thrive!
Remember that pumpkin spice comment? Herbal chai is a classic preparation that fills the spot of those often sugar laden lattes. The beauty of herbal chai is that it is incredibly open ended. To make herbal chai is simple. You select some herbs to use as a base and then mix a blend of spices to pair with it. When infusing the tea- honeybush, rooibos or fermented fireweed leaves make a lovely base. If you’re choosing to decoct it- reishi, chaga, dandelion, burdock or astragalus can be used. Some spices I personally enjoy are green cardamom, cinnamon, clove, ginger, fennel, black pepper and allspice.
Herbal chai serves to increase circulation which helps to keep you warm and preventing the body from working overtime to adjust as the temperatures drop. The base herbs can serve many functions depending on what is used. For example, the mushrooms and astragalus help to modulate immune function.
Aside from keeping warm and giving your meals an antiviral boost, I mainly look to herbs for supporting the nervous system this time of year. Transition points can be a bit frazzling and in general, most people tend to be a bit burnt out. There are two herbs I’m going to share which I find to be particularly supportive at this time of year.
Astragalus membranaceus, Astragalus
Astragalus is sweet to the taste, providing the body with a warming and nutritive quality. As an adaptogen, this herb helps to mellow the stress response in the body. Astragalus works deep in the body to support immune function. It also carries antiviral properties. Astragalus pairs well with ginger in a decoction or as mentioned above can be a base for herbal chai.
Avena sativa, Milky Oats
Milky oats are in the category of nervine trophorestorative. This means that they help to restore healthy function to the nervous system. The classic saying for milky oats is that they “feed the nervous system”. Milky oats have an uplifting quality which is well suited to fighting off those winter time blues. I like to pair a fresh plant milky oats tincture with cardamom and rose in an elixir. This warms the formula up and really helps to soothe the nervous system.
If you’re to take anything away from this blog post, let it be this: Slow down, nourish your body deeply and stay warm. Just like how the trees know to drop their leaves, our bodies naturally want to make these small shifts. It’s just a matter of listening. As a Herbalist I believe this cyclical understanding of our bodies is essential. Using herbs to push through when your body needs to rest will never bring about a deeper level of health.
Stay well ♥