While it is not officially winter yet, I think we could all agree that it has officially arrived (at least in Edmonton, Alberta it has) The trees have all lost their leaves, the daylight hours have diminished and most animals have begun their hibernation. Because winter is a time of stillness and silence our ability to tune inwards and listen is heightened. As our energy draws down into the roots it is the perfect time to fortify our relationships to ourselves and family; Presence is key. It may seem difficult as the holiday season gets closer to make time for yourself and your loved ones, but there is a reason that these big family holidays are in the winter. Winter is the best time to step back and just be present, or as I often say: SHOW UP.
Every season I like to write an article about the best wellness practices from various holistic medicine paradigms. If you missed the Fall article check it out here
I have been in the health and wellness industry as both a yoga teacher, personal trainer and nutrition and lifestyle coach for the last 18 years. I am also currently completing my M.S in Natural Health Sciences. A large part of what I do at Empowered Yoga is bring together various philosophies, ideas and practices, extract the most potent tools and discard the dogma. If you are interested in working one on one with me I offer a 12 week program that can be completed from home.
What follows are a few general recommendations (and I am generally not a one size fits all practitioner, but alas people like lists) and some background information on the various natural medicine philosophies.
Natural Medicine Philosophies
According to Ayurveda, in the beginning of the winter months we are considered to be in a Vata phase. Vata season brings dryness and cold, however depending on where you live the winter especially moving closer to the end of the season brings with it dampness and heaviness or Kapha phase. The goal is to create a dynamic balance within each cycle as to not create aggravation. If the climate is dry, cold and windy (erratic) balance this with moist, warm and slow.
In TCM Winter represents the season when Yin is most dominant and is therefore a time of retreat and rest.Winter is the season related to the water element and the Kidneys and Urinary Bladder. The Kidneys store our essence (Jing), regulate reproduction, development and fluid distribution. Our vitality and longevity is also directed by our Kidneys. According to TCM, at conception the essence ( Prenatal jing) is passed from the parents to the fetus. This Jing determines basic constitution, strength, and vitality. It is fixed in quantity and determined at birth and is stored in the Kidneys. jing cannot be added to, it can only be fortified through balance and moderation in diet, stress levels, rest, exercise etc. Irregularity or excess in these areas wastes essential Jing.
Winter and Immunity
Contrary to popular belief winter is actually the best season to improve our immunity. In Holistic medicine, immunity is connected with digestion and overall stress level in the body. If we eat nourishing foods, stay warm and get plenty or rest, winter is the perfect time to restore the immune system.
In the various natural medicine philosophies i have studied as well as the Functional Medicine paradigm there are 2 forms of immunity. This concept is actually being reinforced through modern advances in epigenetics, that is our lifestyle and environment greatly effects our overall health and genetic expression.
Hereditary/genetic: Level of immunity which you are born with. You can think of this as your genetic make up. In TCM this is referred to as prenatal jing and in Ayurveda it is called Sahaj
Environmental Inputs: Fluctuating levels of immunity due to: diet, exercise/trauma, psycho-social, environment (change of seasons, different stages of life, and planetary cycles) these are referred to postnatal jing in TCM and as Kalaj in Ayurveda
If someone is born with a low level of immunity or “bad genes” we can still focus on fortification through lifestyle practices.
In general in the winter months we want to be eating warm nourishing foods. Avoid foods that are hard to digest such as processed and packaged foods as well as foods grown with chemicals, microwaves and preservatives that can be taxing to the immune system. It is also important to develop a consistent schedule with your meals and make sure you sit down to enjoy the meal. Observing the colours, textures, aromas is part of the digestive process and not to mention the enjoyment of eating.
I start each day in the winter with a warm porridge (oats, cinnamon, raisins and walnuts) or with a baked cereal. Fill the bottom of a stoneware casserole dish with seasonal fruit of your choice, i like pears, apples or berries in the fall and winter. Cover the fruit with juice of your choice (fresh squeezed). Fesh juice contains many photo nutrients.”Phyto” refers to the Greek word for plant. These chemicals found in plant help protect the plants. When you eat or drink phytonutrients, they boost the immune system and keep your body working properly. I have collaborated with Glow Juicery and Twisted Sisters Skin Nutrition this winter to provide education on these amazing chemicals and how to incorporate them into your daily regime.
Place a blend of oatmeal, hemp hearts, flax seeds, walnuts, cinnamon, vanilla bean, cardamon and melted coconut oil or ghee on top of the fruit and bake for 1 hr. You can place it in the oven and set a timer if you like. There is nothing better than waking up to that smell.
For lunch and dinner choose warm home cooked easy to digest foods such as: root vegetables, cooked beans, pumpkin, squash, cabbage, leeks, fennel, broccoli, stews, soups and organic meats with aromatic warming herbs like cinnamon,coriander, cloves, black pepper, cumin, basil, ginger, nutmeg, garlic, rosemary and cardamon. Make use of healthy fats like olive oil (for cold preparation) and Ghee or coconut oil for cooking.
A glass of good quality wine or a shot of whiskey after the evening meal (night cap) helps with internal warming, which helps to drive out the cold energy.
I always finish my day with a nice warming cup of tea. I try to avoid eating after 8pm, If i do have a snack my favourite is popcorn with Udo’s oil or truffle oil and pink salt or nuts.
According to researchers vitamin D can lift moods during cold weather months. Vitamin D deficiency continues to be a problem despite the nutrients widely reported health benefits. Northern winters compound this issue as more people spend time indoors and there is reduced sunlight. A combination of adequate dietary intake of vitamin D, exposure to sunlight ( a winter vacation) and Vitamin D supplements can decrease the risk of certain health concerns.
There are many vitamins and minerals that have be proven to effect overall immunity and its is far to much information to break each one down here. If you suspect your daily diet may be lacking in essential vitamins and minerals consider taking a multivitamin or talk to your health care professional about additional support.
As the digestive system contains the majority of the immune cells, proper digestive health is critical to immunity in the winter months. There are thousands of different species of bacteria in your digestive tract, which help you to digest your food. Researchers are discovering a relationship between “good” Probiotic bacteria and the immune system. Taking a high quality probiotic may help to replenish the good immune enhancing bacteria in the digestive track.
There are also many herbs that have potent effects on the immune system including: Astragalus, Echinacea and Ginseng. There are many options but again also many individual factors to consider. I don’t recommend taking anything and everything that claims to boost your immunity. I highly recommend a visit with an N.D for a thorough recommendation.
Movement prevents stagnation and congestion that can build up in the winter months. Yoga, cardiovascular exercise and strength training are all great exercises in the AM to “wake up” the body or anytime of day to move stagnation and release endorphins. Because winter is a Yin month you may assume that you should just do restorative and Yin yoga, however vinyasa forms of yoga help to heat the body internally, move lymphatic fluid and remove stagnation. I like to begin the day with movement and end the day with a more restorative practice. Be especially careful with hot yoga as it open the pores to clear heat, which is the opposite of what the skin naturally does in the winter. Give yourself a long time before transitioning from the hot room to the outdoors. On extremely cold days either avoid exercising out doors or make sure you are completely covered. The general recommendation in winter is to exercise until you are warm with light perspiration.
Winter is especially a good time to “bulk up” on your strength training regime. Research shows that strength training can help you stay healthy throughout the winter months especially in individuals who are already involved in a strength training regime as the initial phase of strength training may actually down regulate immunity as does intense aerobic exercise. As always listen to your body. If you are feeling run down take it easy, however if you just feel stagnant a little movement is just what the doctor ordered.
In addition to Yoga and strength training incorporating foam rolling (or ball rolling) is a great addition to a winter movement practice.
Lifestyle greatly influences immunity. I highly recommend having a daily self care practice or ritual, especially in the mourning to ground and connect with each new day and its opportunities (presence). The more present we become, the more sensitive we will become to the bodies rhythms, feelings and needs and ultimately this will fortify our connection and immunity. I also recommend having an evening ritual that allows you to leave the day behind as you prepare for rest.
Staying up late, working at night, working on a computer or screen at night, eating at irregular times, cluttered spaces, overstimulation and erratic sleeping schedules can all compromise the immune system.
in the Am create a ritual or routine for yourself. I call this paying yourself first. Wash your face, drink some warm lemon water and take a moment to check in (arrive in your body) a 5-10 min meditation can set the pace for your entire day. Current research shows that stress is one of the most toxic substances in our body and has disastrous effects on our immune system. Starting with the day with meditation wakes us up so we do not run on auto pilot all day, which for most of us is sympathetically tuned. Have a bowel movement, a fresh squeezed juice, a smoothy or a healthy breakfast. Some people like to do a movement practice prior to eaten while others prefer to do yoga or exercise after eating. If you exercise after wait at least an hour and eat only a small amount of food. Following movement take a nice warm shower or steam (if available) When you have payed yourself you can hit up your to do lists and work day.
In the Pm give yourself an opportunity before going to bed to meditate or practice yoga nidra. wash your face, brush your teeth and go to the bathroom.
I like a nice soothing cup of tea in the evenings and if I am hungry a small snack. before bed I like to spray, Sleep spray by twisted sisters skin nutrition. Again routine is important as it creates consistency in your body. While I typically do all my studying and writing in the evening this is not the best time for this kind or work as computer screens and studying can be stimulating (and agitating) I am working on creating more space in my day so I can relax more at night.
Before retiring make a list of all the things in your head so that you can rest knowing that they will be there tomorrow (after your AM ritual of course) In winter, when the days are shorter it’s natural for the body to desire more rest try going to be a little earlier.
In the winter we spend more time indoors. Prepare your space to ensure it is healthy and clean. Make sure to check and change your furnace filter. I also recommend a good thorough cleaning, if you have carpets give them a good wash.
- Humidify: A great way to bring in humidity into the air is a humidifier especially in the winter months. a Hot sauna or steam shower when available is very therapeutic in the winter.
- Take care of your skin: right now Winter Butter from Twisted Sisters Skin Nutrition is my favourite but I basically use all of their products. If you can’t eat it don’t put it on your skin.
- Stay Warm: Bundle up, wear scarfs, toques, kits and layers to avoid external cold invading the body.
- Get a Massage: enough said
- Abhyanga: Apply warm oil all over the body. Sesame oil is great for winter as it has warming properties and is very rich. If you have oily skin you may choose a lighter oil as well. You may also add essential oils. Twisted Sisters Skin Nutrition has some great options. Try to let the oils penetrate for a least 15 minutes before your bath or shower. The oil may also be left on for hours.
- Nourish family relationships: The winter is all about fortifying your roots. With the holiday season in full swing make sure you indulge in some family festivities.