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Seasonal Transitions: Winter Wellness

Snowy winter scene on the farm

This is a tough one. 

This winter thing. 

As I type this, I have an exquisite view of six inches of pure, dry snow on the back patio, untouched aside from the gentle morning sun and the dainty footprints of cats. We never have this nice clean, dry, snow. At least, not for very long. And while I’m sure my electric bill will remind me of how harsh these very cold (for Maryland) days are with highs in the 20s, it’s nice to see snow that is too cold for that muddy slush. For now, as I sit at my desk facing both the pristine landscape and the woodburning stove, I am loving winter. 


Over the past handful of years I’ve really been making an effort to glide and flow with the seasons as we make our way around the wheel of each year. While I’ve not quite reached the level of Barbara Kingsolver in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, in which her family tried for one year to eat only locally-grown everything, I have found that learning about and incorporating certain practices to align myself more deeply with nature has been having a positive effect. And so, I will continue to pass on that knowledge in hopes that it might also help others create a sense of connection with the land, as well as to lighten the heaviness of Winter. 


When I teach my seasonal transition classes, I typically cover four areas: historical context, wellness/ mindfulness, diet, and herbs. 


I tend to speak from a place of personal experience when I discuss the seasons, and since I live in an area which does experience all four seasons in a pretty traditional sense, some of what I cover will not apply to all people all over the world, obviously. 


Winter doesn’t actually start until after the winter solstice, which is typically around December 21st, and ends at the Spring Equinox on March 20th. It sure does feel like winter starts way before this, especially because it’s so dark. We are just about one month into winter now, and the growing daylight already has me mentally diving ahead to spring. If you tend to really struggle with the lack of daylight, as I do, it’s helpful to stay busy. This is your time to make plans for the summer, whether that’s vacations, projects, or gardening. This is when I take a look back at my year and see what went well and what didn’t. What do I want to leave behind and what do I want to continue? What do I want to invite into my life? I’ll tell you what I inevitably want to invite in: all the plants. 


I can’t wait to get seed catalogs in the mail; I love to use this time to review what I have from last year and what I need to order more of. I will, undoubtedly, increase the size of my gardens even though I know I will not have the ability to manage it all. It’s a problem 😅. But that’s one of the ways I get through the harder times of winter. I also work on intentionally turning inward. 


This is the time for quiet and stillness and reflection. For rooting down and hibernation. If we were to take a cue from our animal and plant friends, most everyone is diving down, drawing inward, and preserving resources. Many animals hibernate. Plant energy has been sent down into their roots. The time for that Yang energy, that masculine, hot, boisterous energy, is gone. Now is the time for Yin- the mysterious female energy that allows for deeper contemplation and appreciation of beauty in the stillness. 


We, too, need to follow suit with nature. Historically we have needed to work to survive through this time of year; while that might not be the case so much for most of us these days, it is natural to feel that pull towards slowing down and getting cozy. Conserve the resources. Bulk up a bit- because we should be shedding that extra few pounds in the spring, anyway, as we get up and moving and eat lighter foods. So yeah, I indulge a bit more in winter.


If you are an intuitive eater, you might notice an inclination towards heavier foods this time of year. Food that ‘sticks to your bones.’ Hearty stews and soups tend to feel right more so than sushi, in my opinion. Oatmeals and warming foods with spices like ginger, turmeric, cinamon, and cloves just hit right. While these herbs are great just for their warming energetics, they are also helpful in digestion, inflammation, and circulation, which are areas that our bodies need to reinforce this time of year. With the increase in rich, heavy foods like dairy, meats, and sweets, we also see an increase in inflammation and digestive issues. Plus, all that sitting around being cozy stuff leads to more stagnancy in the body, particularly in the digestive system. If you tend to lean toward constipation when you’re out of whack- this time of year makes that a bit more pronounced. And, if you tend to run cold, like me, or have weaker circulation (hands and feet get cold easily), those warming circulatory herbs increase the blood flow to those areas. Nice. 


One of my favorite parts about winter is the cozy on the couch-ness of it. Give me a blanket, a fire, a hot drink and a book, and I’d be good all day, every day. However, even though there is less daylight and less to do outside, it’s still really important to stay active. While we might not want to incorporate super active exercise this time of year, we need to keep things moving- all over the place! Winter tends to be a time when people are more likely to get sick due to the time spent indoors with other people with little ventilation. Dry air, increased dairy, and other inflammatory foods can lead to more mucous and thinner mucus membranes (think bloody noses!), which then leads to more respiratory issues. Although Autumn would have been the best time to prep the body to stay healthy heading into winter, there are still many ways to prevent illness and increase your body’s resilience if it does become sick. 


My top ways to stay healthy are sleep, nutrition, and herbs that support the immune and nervous systems. 


This is your time to sleep, ya’ll! Who doesn’t like to sleep?! That is the time healing takes place, both physically and mentally. If you don’t sleep- you don’t heal. Period. 


While I am very guilty of having little to no willpower and eat whatever I want (with not always the best outcomes), I try to frame my mind around food as gas for my tank. I need to put the right fuel in this body to keep it running optimally. And when I indulge in half a gallon of eggnog, I feel the effects later. I try to balance my indulgences with fuel, and sometimes I do better than others; this time of year is hard. 


My go-to herb for immune health is Echinacea purpurea root. This tincture has been my solid choice for over a decade. I’ll take a ton of it before I go somewhere ‘yucky’ where there are a lot of people and a lot of germs. I’ll take a heroic dose of it when someone in my house is sick. But I don’t take it on a regular basis. I want my immune system to ramp up and turn on when it needs to- not all the time. I will also whip out the raw garlic at the first sign or any hint that I might be getting sick. I try to eat three cloves a day when I start feeling it, and chase it with raw local honey. It’s not pleasant, but it sure beats dealing with a cold. 


Another area to really focus on, at any time of year, really, is the nervous system. That probably seems odd, but when our stress levels amp up and our body can’t recover, we’re more likely to get sick. We often overlook the importance of supporting our nervous system, but there is more and more evidence showing how the nervous system affects other issues, from digestion to menopause. 


Speaking of menopause (kind of but not really), emotions tend to be at an all-time high in winter. Feelings might bubble to the surface a bit more easily now, or you might be surprised at how sensitive you (or others) might be feeling. This is normal. I like to emphasize this because it might make you feel like you're crazy, being more easily moved or emotional in winter, seemingly out of nowhere. In the Chinese tradition winter is ruled by water, which tends to flow with ease. Our emotions are related to water, so it makes sense that they might be more noticeable now. Plus, if you tend to have strained family dynamics or are not quite a social butterfly, all the holiday activities and events can be very triggering. 


Balance

That’s the key here to living with the seasons, but especially in more extreme seasons like winter and summer. Listen to your instincts. Listen to your body. If it’s tired- rest. If you’re hungry- eat. Get some fresh air. Journal your thoughts just to put them somewhere. Let yourself rest, and take a breath, as we gather our resources to emerge, to burst through that crust, come spring. 


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