Ensuring Robust Health Through the Rest of Winter
There may be the slightest hint of spring in the air in some places around the country, but for most of us, especially for those of us in the Northeast, six more weeks of winter is the norm. So this mid-winter reminder of safe and simple remedies for maintaining robust health through the rest of winter seems particularly timely.
The beauty of herbal medicine and I believe its true worth, is in its ability to prevent illness. So in considering what plants we choose to support ourselves through the cold winter months, our primary focus is on those that will safely and effectively help us to maintain robust health and well being. We also need to consider the herbs we have access to in winter; those we have stored and/or can easily afford to purchase.
To create and maintain robust wintertime health our intention needs to be on nourishing the kind of internal balance that naturally resists infection and thus prevent vulnerability to whatever infectious microbes may be going around in our schools, churches, workplaces and other public and private areas we visit.
What follows are some of my personal favorites – those commonly available herbs that help create the kind of internal balance that resists infection and enhances our winter time health and well being. This is the essence of preventive medicine!
Roses, Rosa spp. – One of my most preferred herbs, spring, summer, fall or winter, is the rose. Roses have been used for food, beauty and medicine by people for many thousands of years. Rose petals and fruit simply cannot be overlooked for assisting in the maintenance of vibrant health throughout the winter months. My favorites are the Rosa rugosa, but any wild or organically grown rose will do.
Sweet, soothing Rosa is life supportive and vitality enhancing, immune and endocrine system nourishing, tonic for the heart and circulatory system, brain and nervous system. Roses are indispensable for health. The Chinese say roses nourish chi or vital energy and are a blood and liver tonic. In Ayurvedic medicine they are a recommended remedy for all three doshas.
Rose teas and infusions, glycerites, tinctures, rose vinegar, rose honey, rose sugar, rose salts and syrup, rose mead, as well as rose baths, infused oils and salves all are wonderful ways to consume rose and bring her moistening, softening, health enhancing, vitality boosting properties into your life.
I like to combine roses with many other herbs, depending on the time of year and my needs. Since roses are by nature cooling, during winter I like to warm them up with cinnamon and ginger. The combinations vary in form and content, but usually include rose flower and rose hip tea or a bit of rose hip syrup or rose honey, maybe a few drops of home made vanilla extract or fresh vanilla bean and ginger – could be ginger syrup, which I love to make, or ginger tea if I have fresh roots, perhaps a few sticks of cinnamon thrown into the pot – endless variations using these particular herbs present a most warming ever changing winter time elixir; nourishing and energizing, stimulating and tonic. But I’m getting ahead of myself…first things first – let’s start with the skin.
The Skin – The skin is our body’s largest organ. It is our first line of defense and is responsible for both the assimilation of nutrients and the elimination of waste. As such it works in concert with the liver, and is directly related to the digestive system, the nervous system and the immune system. It follows that care of the skin is of primary importance to our over-all health and well being.
During the winter months our skin has a tendency to get very dry so keeping it well moisturized becomes important. A daily application of hand made infused oil of rose is one of the best things to use and actually works wonders to soothe, nourish and moisturize dry skin and therefore help to maintain the health of our entire body.
Rosa oil, aside from being wonderfully nourishing and moisturizing to the skin, is also antibacterial, antiseptic and antiviral. This makes it an excellent choice during the winter months for application to small cuts and all those dry spots that crack, scale, and the like. Our skin literally “sucks up” all this rosy goodness. I like applying rose oil to my skin after coming out of the shower. I find the aroma incredibly calming and strengthening in a deep comforting way.
Roses are an excellent addition to any face cream, skin lotion, massage oil, antiseptic spray, or healing salve or balm. Rose water is fabulous when sprayed or splashed on the skin, especially the face, during the drying winter months. Roses added to the bath, especially when combined with seaweeds, offer incredible nourishment – deep cellular nourishment to skin cells.
Seaweeds, such as kelp Laminaria longicruris and others, open up a cellular exchange, pulling out toxins and putting in nutrients, and are an essential element in care of the skin during winter. Aloe vera is another excellent ally for the skin during the drying winter months.
Not only is it important to hydrate the skin during winter, but all the cells in our bodies must be well hydrated in order to function optimally. Plenty of fresh air and water, nourishing herbal teas and infusions and vitality building soups will serve us very well.
To boost immunity and protect yourself from colds and flu there is nothing better than the fruits of the rose, or rose hips! Roses and their fruit are especially nourishing to immunity, offer loads of vitamins, minerals and those all important antioxidants, and offer reliable antiviral properties as well.
Some of the easiest ways to use rose hips are in tea, infusion and syrup. If you want to have fun in the kitchen and create something that will last awhile and serve you very well all during winter, make a rose hip syrup out of that infusion by slowly evaporating it down by half the volume you started with, then add half of what’s left in raw, local honey. Hmm..delicious!
This rose hip syrup can be taken by the spoonful as is or added to all kinds of dishes, drizzled over baked chicken, used to sweeten teas, infusions and other cold or hot beverages, including plain water, even added on top of a scoop of ice cream!
Sore throat – Honey contains considerable antibiotic properties. It is excellent to heal and soothe a sore throat and to ease a cold. One teaspoon of raw unheated honey, straight out of the jar, will immediately begin to ease the pain of a scratchy sore throat and help ease lung congestion as well. In fact studies have shown pure honey to be more effective than most over the counter medicines for healing bronchial congestion and sore throat. Rose honey can be especially soothing and healing for a sore throat. Other effective, especially soothing herbs to ease sore throats include marshmallow, slippery elm and licorice.
SAD & Depression affect a lot of people during the winter months.
Roses will also help to lift the spirit! Many people suffer from a lack of vitality, low energy and begin to feel slightly depressed during the winter months due to the lack of sun. This is especially true in our northern Maine climate. A simple cup or two of rose blossom tea taken daily, or rose glycerite added to water or tea, can go a long way to lifting the spirit, preventing or alleviating mild depression and giving your energy a boost.
Combining those roses with other mood enhancing herbs such as St. John’s wort, oatstraw, lemon balm, goldenrod and lavender will increase the benefits. Lavender tastes delicious and can be added to all kinds of dishes as a seasoning spice. In fact, it’s an important ingredient in many European seasoning blends. Try putting one or two of these herbs up as infused vinegars that you can splash and sprinkle on to all kinds of dishes during the winter months.
Stress – is a common problem brought on by winter…dealing with severe cold, snow storm after snow storm, longer dark hours thus a shorter day, sick child keeping you up all night and you still have to go to work in the morning, driving on icy roads, worries, isolation – all these things contribute to stress.
Roses Rosa spp. and other rose family plants such as hawthorn, as well as lavender, skullcap, oatstraw and passionflower are some of my favorite stress relieving allies. If you bring these herbs into your life and use them in some of the ways outlined above, you’ll notice your levels of stress and anxiety soon being eased.
Oatstraw, Avena sativa, is a fabulous and much appreciated trophorestorative – one of our finest nerve tonics or nervous system strengtheners. Oats are a grain, so a grass family plant, thus one of the foundational plants on the planet. The Poaceae family is one of the oldest plant families on earth and evolved around 65 million years ago.
Sweet, warming and deeply nourishing, restorative oats in the diet assure strong nerves, calm steady mind, good coordination and balance, excellent reproductive functioning, healthy sex drive, strong heart and circulatory system, strong bones, balanced hormones, low cholesterol and normal blood pressure. Oats contain high levels of magnesium, offer abundant silicon and calcium, a slew of B complex vitamins, plenty of phytosterols and vitamin E.
An abundance of magnesium in the diet is implicated in a lessening of the swelling and pain of osteoarthritis and other painful joint disorders. In addition, magnesium assures the best absorption of the abundant calcium in oats and helps relax the muscles. Magnesium is necessary for the electrical body to function optimally, for the heart to beat regularly, and for that elusive quality known as magnetism.
Oatstraw (whole plant harvested in milky flowering stage, dried quickly and chopped by hand) is used to make wonderfully nourishing and delicious herbal infusions. Oatstraw infusions are a great way to get the benefits of Avena sativa and due to its bland and vaguely sweet taste, it can easily be used as the basis of many of the teas you make during the winter months.
Drinking 2-4 cups daily is especially hormone balancing, grounding and vitality building. Tincture is also highly effective, as long as it was made with fresh plant material within minutes of harvest. 30-60 drops daily is a typical dose.
Passionflower, Passiflora incarnata, is an indigenous American herb with a long history of use, primarily as a nourishing herb for the nervous system. The leaves and flowers offer potent calming and tranquilizing properties. In higher doses they are sedative. Passionflower is effective against insomnia and possesses constituents that give it a reliable antidepressant effect. It is soothing to the spirit.
Passion flower is an entirely safe, non-narcotic herb, with mild psychotropic properties, no known toxicity and no known interaction with any pharmaceutical drugs. It is safe to give to children and is recommended as a remedy to treat attention deficit disorders.
Passionflower can be used as a safe, natural and effective substitute for pharmaceutical drugs that affect the brain and/or nervous system and relieve pain. 30 drops in water for an adult, half of that for a child, is a typically recommended dose.
SPICES – Our digestive system can get quite sluggish during the winter months. All the stimulating, warming tropical spices are our allies during the cold winter months. Cinnamon and ginger are winter time favorite spices of mine during the winter as I mentioned above. To help ensure wintertime health, add splashes of spice to your daily meals and beverages.
Traditional Chai is another good combination of warming, stimulating spices such as cloves and cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, so many things…I like orange peel; cocoa is warming, vanilla is super yummy and warming. Bitter spices like cocoa and roots like dandelion, especially when infused in vinegar, give the digestive juices a much needed boost during winter.
All of these warming spices help to keep the digestive system well functioning, the blood flowing and the body temperature up during the winter months. This list also includes the well known Mediterranean herbs such as rosemary, oregano and thyme. The cold winter months are the time of year to be lavishly adding these spices to your meals – soups, egg dishes, meats, grains and vegetables. Experiment freely…let food be thy medicine.
Recipe of sorts – Last night I threw a handful of dried rose petals into a pot of water, added another handful of a combination of rosehips and hawthorn berries…think soothing, moistening, nourishing, heart strengthening, hormone balancing and immune boosting – I added a few sticks of cinnamon to the pot to warm it all up…brought it all up just before a simmer, and poured it into the French press. A bit of ginger syrup, ah, superb!
Adaptogens are a special class of herbs that are totally safe, can be taken over a long term, have a nourishing and balancing effect on all body systems and most importantly perhaps, they have the ability to help us to adapt to stressors of all kinds, including the stresses of winter.
Adaptogenic substances can be especially helpful in supporting vibrant health and vitality during the winter months. My favorites of the adaptogens are American ginseng, licorice, Holy basil, astragalus, medicinal mushrooms such as reishi, shitake and chaga and Baltic amber.
I have many years of experience growing and otherwise interacting with and observing these particular herbs and substances and so have developed a deep level of personal trust regarding them, hence the reason they’re on my list of favorites. It’s an entirely personal choice!
I’m confident that these substances, when used wisely, will boost overall energy and vitality, improve immunity and greatly aid in preventing illness such as winter time colds and flu.
They are particularly important for people in jobs that require them to do physical labor, work for long hours, or even that require using a lot of mental energy. (Motherhood!) They can be taken as directed and used on a daily basis for months or years, with no negative impact and a lot of positive effects.
Strong Immunity – To keep immunity fine tuned during the winter months, add a ginseng or astragalus root, and/or a few slices of any of the medicinal mushrooms to the soups you make, or to a basic stock from which you will make soups and other dishes. Doing so will greatly enhance the nutrient content and medicinal benefits of your winter time meals. Be sure to remove the reishi and chaga, as they are similar to wood and you won’t want to bite into them!
Astragalus, Astragalus membranaeceus is another of my favorite immune boosting roots. We’ve been growing this plant in our Blessed Maine Herb Gardens for many years. It is a strong, vibrant plant that simply reeks of vitality in every aspect of its growth. Astragalus roots grow quite large in a short amount of time, though it is recommended to wait at least 4-6 years before harvesting it for medicinal use.
Aside from being especially immune enhancing, astragalus is also an excellent ally for strengthening the lungs and improving digestion. Both of these body systems can be especially challenged during the winter months. Astragalus is best taken as a daily tonic to build immunity, rather than during the acute phase of illness.
Licorice Glycyrrhiza glabra is also touted for strengthening the lungs and aiding and strengthening digestion, however it is usually recommended with contraindications for people with hypertension. In my personal experience licorice is added in small amounts to formulas and acts as a harmonizer and a peacemaker. This root has a distinctive taste, which some dislike, but has many beneficial actions, so for many reasons may be a good choice to add in a very small amount, perhaps as little as 5 to 10% of your formula.
Licorice is an effective immune modulator, so is an appropriate choice for those dealing with allergies and autoimmune dysfunction as it will not stimulate immunity as much as help it to find its innate balance and strength, its point of health and homeostasis. Licorice is a safe, effective adaptogen with thousands of years of proven effectiveness, when used as directed.
If you do get sick with bronchial congestion – My most used herbs here are rose, mullein, hyssop, thyme, pine and other trees, licorice, usnea, ginger.
Hyssop Hyssopus officinalis, contains a number of camphor-like constituents that help loosen phlegm and another constituent, marribium is a potent expectorant. Hyssop has traditionally been used to treat or counter colds, flu, coughs, bronchial congestion, pulmonary distress, asthma, sinus congestion and the related headache. Hyssop contains powerful antiviral properties and a syrup of the flowering tops can be especially soothing and healing for a raw swollen, painful, throat especially if due to strep. Hyssop is also a stomach soother, aids digestion and possesses mild sedative properties, so can also be used as a nerve strengthening tonic. A dropper full in water is a typical dose of tincture, up to 6 times daily if needed.
Mullein, Verbascum thapsus, leaves are among the first remedies to be thought of in treating congestion and dry coughs, as they are an excellent expectorant. Mullein leaves are especially helpful to make your cough more productive, to bring up phlegm and clear congestion.
Ear ache remedy – infused oil of mullein flowers. Mullein flowers have strong antibacterial properties and have effectively been used to ease ear infection and relieve earache for centuries. Another remedy to treat ear ache is to gently heat a clove of garlic in a little bit of olive oil, let it cool down and while still warm apply one drop to the infected ear. Don’t do this is your ear drum is perforated.
Usnea spp., old mans beard, is a common lichen growing from trees all over the world. Usnea possesses strong antibacterial, and antifungal agents and is also a powerful immune stimulant; more effective than penicillin against some bacterial strains. It completely inhibits the growth of staphylococcus aureus, strep, and pneumonia organisms. Usnea is effectively used against tuberculosis, as well as candida and a variety of fungal strains.
I’m intrigued by usnea because it is actually two organisms in one, both parts living as an integral part of the other. The inner organism looks like a white stretchy thread which is easier seem when the lichen is wet. This inner part olf the organism is a potent immune stimulant. The outside part of usnea gives it its color and is strongly antibacterial.
Usnea is commonly used around the world for skin infections, upper respiratory and lung infections. Can be used as a powder, consumed as a tea or infusion, used as a wash, soak or spray. Effective in tincture form, 30-60 drops, 2-4 times daily to boost immunity and up to 6 times daily to treat active infection.
Drink 2-4 cups of infusion for acute illness. Use 10 drops of tincture diluted in an ounce of water and use as a nasal spray to treat sinus infection. Usnea tincture can be irritating to delicate mucous membranes of the nose mouth and throat, so be sure to dilute before using.
Coltsfoot, Tusilago farfara, literally means cough dispeller. The large, almost round, bright green leaves, sometimes with a spider-web like substance on the surface and white and fuzzy on the undersides, have been used for centuries in cultures around the world as a traditional remedy for the treatment of respiratory ailments such as coughs, bronchitis, asthma and emphysema.
Coltsfoot has soothing antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties. The leaves do contain pyrrolizine, an alkaloid that is potentially toxic in large doses, especially to those with liver problems. Those with any liver compromise of any sort, will want to avoid using this herb. However, for the rest of us, since coltsfoot is an exceedingly effective aid in eliminating even a long standing, persistent cough, I feel its use is appropriate for acute coughs and only for short amounts of time. It should only be consumed as a water based medicine, such as a tea, infusion or syrup.
The German Commission E on Phytotherapy and Herbal Substances recommends coltsfoot leaf for acute phase of illness in the respiratory tract, with cough and hoarseness, and mild inflammation of the oral and pharyngeal mucosa. I do not recommended coltsfoot as a tincture, because tinctures concentrate alkaloids.
Thyme, Thymus vulgaris has been considered a powerful medicine plant for millennia – antiseptic, antimicrobial, antispasmodic, antiparasitic, carminative, expectorant and tonic to the entire body, especially the lungs. Thyme is an exceptional ally against any kind of bronchial congestion; it reliably eases coughs and helps clear phlegm. Many winter time lung congestions are due to molds, fungus infections…thyme’s potent antifungal properties are well known and can be especially effective in countering these infections. 30 drops of tincture in water 6 times daily to treat acute symptoms.
Tree Medicines – Pinus spp. makes a fine decongestant. Sip a tea made from the needles of almost any pine or spruce tree for help clearing congestion. Breathing the vapors/steam from the tree branches broken into small pieces is another way of making use of the lung clearing properties of these resinous trees. Pine oil rubbed on the chest eases congestion as well. Birch twigs can be gathered all winter long and made into nourishing, immune supportive infusions.
Apple blossoms and leaves gathered in the spring and stored are especially useful during winter. The flowers contain an antibiotic principle called floretin, and so will help protect against colds and flu.
All of these herbs and trees for bronchial congestion can safely be used as teas, infusions, syrups or tinctures, with the above noted exception regarding coltsfoot. Typical dose for infusions is 2-4 cups daily. Unless otherwise noted, a typical dose of tincture is 30 drops in water up to 6 times daily as needed.
For the aches and pains of winter, to help relieve pain and inflammation the tinctures or infusions of white willow bark, Salix spp., meadowsweet, Filapendula ulmaria, lavender, Lavendula officinalis and skullcap, (Scutellaria lateriflora) can be effective.
I trust St. John’s wort to help ease most any pain when taken as a tea, tincture, or applied topically as an oil to sore achy muscles, sore, swollen joints and nerve pains. I also like what I call Pain Easing salve, made entirely with St. John’s wort oil to which some warming, pain easing essential oils have been added, something like ginger and cloves, even lavender.
Herbs like American ginseng Panax Quinquefolius, licorice, Black cohosh cimicifuga racemosa and wild yam Dioscorea villosa, are loaded with steroidal saponins which are naturally anti-inflammatory and pain easing. Bringing any of these herbs into your life on a regular basis, in the ways we’ve been discussing here, will go along way to helping your body produce the chemical balance needed for natural pain relief.
That is the short list of my trusted preventive health allies for winter time support. These herbs will help you establish the kind of internal flora that resists infection and disease. You can rely on these, and many other common herbs to help you maintain health and vitality through what can be some of the most health challenging months of the year. Goddess grant you good health!
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