Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Best Herbal Remedies for Winter: Part One

Let’s face it--radiant health doesn’t come as easily in the winter. The sun fades away and along with it our daily dose of vitamin D. With less sunshine, we're more likely to fall into a funk of low energy or a dismal mood. Meanwhile, we don’t spend as much time outdoors absorbing nature’s beauty, munching on fresh garden food, or walking barefooted in the grass. Then, cold and flu season hits right as our immune system is not at its best.

Now, I don’t mean to paint a dismal picture of winter. It’s true that it isn’t my favorite season--I love sunshine and green things too much. But I appreciate winter for its introspective, deep, and yin-oriented nature. With less opportunity for fun in the sun, we get the chance to go within and catch up with ourselves. Winter can be a beautiful and magical wonderland--but it’s still harder to stay physically healthy!

The Return of Persephone
This is why I’ve put together a list of my favorite herbal remedies to get through the cold, dark months of winter. Many will boost your immune system while also relieving the symptoms of illness. Plus, these herbs will keep you warm and lighten your mood so you can stay strong and healthy until Persephone returns and things become green once again.

This is Part One of Best Herbal Remedies for Winter--click here for Part Two. For now, let's focus on 5 remedies that will keep you warm and boost your immune system.

Staying Warm

We know Ginger spices up food, but what does it do for the body? This warming root acts as a stimulant to your metabolism and circulation, so you feel warmer and have more energy. It’s good for people whose hands and feet get cold easily (if you’re like me, you can’t feel your toes by February). Also use it whenever you feel a cold or flu coming on--its antioxidant and immune-boosting properties will help you fend it off. Meanwhile, anti-nausea qualities make it a good friend if you’ve caught a stomach virus. Ginger is also expectorant, so it is a cough remedy as well.

There are lots of ways to get more Ginger into your system. It makes a delicious addition to many dishes, from kimchi to pumpkin soup to lo mein. You can also prepare a tea from fresh or dried Ginger. I like to keep on hand dried Ginger that isn't powdered, but cut into small pieces for easy tea-making. Of course, a tincture will provide a quick and potent dose, but be sure to dilute this fiery root so you don’t burn your mouth. One of my all-time favorite ways to use Ginger is in the bath--it is an unparalleled herb for winter bath tea.

Another hot and spicy food-medicine is Cayenne pepper. It is a stimulating plant, which boosts the heart’s
functioning without quickening the pulse, making us feel energetic and warm. Internally, it gets a sluggish digestive system up and running. You can also use it to help burn off a fevered illness more quickly. To perk up the circulation, it can be added to meals--anything from burritos to chili will do. The powder can even be sprinkled into your socks to keep your feet warm! Or, Cayenne can be dried and infused into oil to create a massage oil that will soothe tight or sore muscles, ease nerve pain, and help circulation. This plant packs a punch, so take care not to use it on sensitive areas and wash your hands well afterwards.

Staying Healthy

Echinacea is a well-known cold and flu remedy. It acts as a tonic and modulator to the immune system, so that it runs at optimum potential. Many people use it to shorten the duration of a cold--when taken early enough, it’s often enough to stop an illness in its tracks. Use Echinacea for all kinds of infections, illnesses, allergies, fevers, as well as a general feeling of low energy and exhaustion. It boosts the lymphatic system and cleanses the blood, so it’s a nice way to detoxify and renew the body.

To get the most out of Echinacea, there are a few things to know. The entire plant is medicinal--leaves, flowers, root, and even the mature seed. But that doesn’t mean that all remedies are created equal. I believe that one of the biggest reasons why people doubt the effectiveness of herbs is because they haven’t been using a potent potion. If you buy a generic capsule of dried Echinacea from Wal-Mart (let's boycott that place altogether!), it probably won’t work.

Fields of Echinacea
Ideally, you would be able to grow your own plants and create a tincture. My preferred method is to wait until at least the second year of growth, and then harvest the leaf and flower in the summertime. Leave a few flower stalks blooming in your garden so you can appreciate their beauty and collect the mature seeds in the fall. This is when you will also harvest the root. So you’ll have at least two different batches of tincture--one for the leaves and flowers, the other for the seeds and roots--which you can then mix together for a powerful brew. If it makes your mouth tingle, you know it's really good stuff!

Other options include buying a tincture of the whole plant from a reputable company. Herb Pharm specializes in Echinacea tincture; as a matter of fact, co-owner “Herbal Ed” Smith is a huge proponent of the plant. While others warn that taking Echinacea over time decreases its effectiveness, he emphasizes the safety of taking Echinacea for extended periods of time as traditional cultures have done. But tinctures can get pricey, so a more affordable option is buying the dried plant--you may have to get root and leaf separately--from a good company like Mountain Rose Herbs. Then you can make your own tincture or tea.

Elder in Bloom-By Llez via Wikimedia Commons
Many parts of the Elder tree are medicinal, with Elderberries being by far the most common. You often find Elderberry included in natural cough drops, syrups, and other cold and flu remedies. The sweet flavor makes Elderberry remedies a nice option for children. They are quite tasty, and some good country folk still make yummy Elderberry wine. With antiviral and antioxidant properties, Elderberry can shorten the duration of an illness. It also makes coughs more productive and relieves congestion. Elder flowers are another nice remedy, and will more likely be found in the form of tea. You can use the flowers on their own or alongside the berries for cold and flu, fevers, and bronchitis. Elderflower opens the throat chakra, so it’s good for treating hoarseness--I like to gargle the tincture before singing or speaking.

It’s worth mentioning that the Elder tree is ripe with all kinds of interesting folklore and spiritual qualities. Where the Elder is present, tales of magic abound. Associations with Jesus and the cross, with the fairy world or Underworld, and with shamanic ceremony are a few of the more momentous ones. In days of old, people were cautioned against harvesting the plant without asking permission, or falling asleep underneath an Elder--for a journey into another world can be dangerous for the uninitiated.

I have personally experienced some of the magic of this tree, and to my mind its connections with the Underworld are one reason why it’s such an appropriate winter remedy. The season's darkness drives us into the depths of our being, our own personal Underworld, where we must face our fears as well as our most cherished dreams (which can sometimes be equally scary). Elder can boost our intuition for insight into the unseen archetypes that shape our lives.

Moving back to the practical, herbal throat spray is another key addition to your winter apothecary. Since many viruses first take hold in the throat, you can often stop a cold in its tracks by making your throat an uninhabitable environment. This remedy will also soothe a sore throat that has already taken hold.

There are many good brands of natural throat spray out there, and I have personally enjoyed the ones that Zand and Herb Pharm make. However, to cut costs and connect more deeply with the medicine, I usually opt to make my own. The process is pretty easy if you make tinctures (especially if you’re someone like me who keeps an apocalypse-sized stockpile of them in her closet!).

The basis of my throat spray is a combination of tinctures: Sage, Thyme, Echinacea, Hyssop, Goldenseal, Horehound, Marshmallow, Elderberry, Elderflower, Red Root, and Tulsi are all great options. (You don't need to use them all, but can pick and choose depending on what's available.) These plants will not only heal the sore throat, but also boost your immune system to give you a leg-up on getter better quickly. I also add a few drops of Tea Tree oil for added antiseptic qualities, and stir in a bit of honey to sweeten the deal. It’s as simple as that--all you need is a small spray bottle, and you can take this handy throat spray with you everywhere. 

For herbs to boost your mood and help you breathe easy,
click here for Part Two


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