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Warding off the Winter chill with Ayurveda

January 26, 2009

As the seasons changes, our bodies require different types of food and lifestyle factors to stay balanced. Much of this is also common sense, such as eating warm food as the temperature falls.

If you get in tune with your body and mind (through any mind body awareness technique such as yoga, tai chi, meditation etc) you will find you naturally want to eat the right foods for each season.

The UK Winter is predominantly a cold, wet and damp season (this year colder than last!). These conditions can affect both Vata and Kapha dominant people, leading to coughs & colds. Pitta dominant individuals (fire element) are less prone to problems in Winter (they are more vulnerable in Summer and Autumn).

The digestive fire is much higher in Winter due to the cold, so heavier foods are more digestible and we are meant to eat more and put on a little weight. This may appear contradictory but in cold weather the body retains heat around the core, where the digestive system lies.  Eating seasonally makes good sense as you will be eating more root vegetables in soups and stews, rather than Vata aggravating food such as salads and raw food (dominant in air/ ether elements).

If too little food is eaten to keep the fires adequately stoked, there is a danger of the body’s digestive fire beginning to burn up the body’s plasma and lymph tissues. This is turn vitiates Vata dosha. So, although its good to eat more in Winter, it must be the right foods to nurture the digestive system and minimise heaviness and congestion.

To stay well this Winter:

  1. Favour a warming, nourishing diet which will pacify Vata without aggravating Kapha: Rice, wheat, healthy oils (ghee, coconut, linseed, avocado, hemp, olive), warm water and milk help promote longevity. Raw honey is excellent as it helps clear any mucous and aggravated Kapha due to its heating, drying and channel clearing effect.  Have a warm breakfast (porridge is excellent) and end the day with hot milk (almond milk is a good choice), ginger, cinnamon, cardamon and honey. Nutmeg will also aid sleep but just a small pinch. Drink spicy teas throughout the day, avoiding cold water, ice cream and other cooling foods which will aggravate Kapha and Vata.
  2. Fancy a glass of organic Merlot? The good news is that Ayurveda suggest an occasional glass of warming wine may be beneficial in Winter to stimulate digestion before a meal and encourage circulation (See recipe for herbal digestive wine below).
  3. Warm up: Massage with warm oil and saunas or steam rooms are all good to ward off the cold. As in Autumn, Vata is drying, so skin needs extra care. Ground yourself with a daily self-massage with a warm sesame oil or olive oil followed by a warm shower/ bath to prevent feelings of coldness, and stiff, aching joints. The ancient Ayurvedic texts also promote the ‘physical expression of love’ between couples as being healthy in the Winter months! As the atmosphere is cold, all efforts should be made to keep warm, such as insulating any draughts at home and wearing a hat, not going outside with wet hair (generally follow any advice from your grandmother and you’ll be on the right track…)
  4. Get moving! Or curl up on the sofa? Its fine to get up later than in Summer, but its still a good idea to be up at 7am. Practise some form of vigorous exercise to get the lymph moving in the body, preventing future congestive problems. Exercise is also one of the best ways to stimulate a sluggish digestion, regulate the metabolism and aid the removal of toxins from the body. The Sun Salutations are an idea start to the day, as they build up heat in the body and work all the major muscles. The Kappalabhati breathing exercise is also excellent for generating internal heat and improving the digestive fire (Agni). However, Winter is also a natural time for resting and reflecting on the past year and preparing for a new year. Whilst keeping physically active, its also a time for feeling grounded with a sense of internal stillness.
  5. If you do get a cold with heavy mucous: Reduce your diet for a few days eating light, warm simple foods, such as soup, whilst you rest and recover. Avoid all dairy products, sweets, fried foods and yeasted bread as these will make congestion worse. Ginger tea is excellent for coughs and colds, especially with raw honey added when its cooled down to warm (slice up ginger and steep in hot water for a few minutes). Steam inhalations are excellent (use a bowl of hot water with a towel over your head). You can use plain steam or add Eucalyptus or Olbas oil. Your skin will also benefit from the warm steam. You can also use a neti pot to regularly clean the nose and help prevent colds, as well as hayfever in the Spring. Please click for full article on cleaning the nose:
  6. Herbal help from Ayurveda: One special formulation is called Chywanaprash, which can be taken daily to strengthen the lungs and boost the immune system (you can try it on toast for breakfast). This delicious herbal jam acts to rejuvenate all the body tissues, increasing strength and virility, as well as alleviating respiratory conditions. It is named after the sage, Chywana, who had become very old but used this formula to become young again and satisfy his young wife! If you have recurrent colds, or a persistent cold, you may also want to try Trikatu made of ginger, black pepper and long pepper. These spices act to dry up mucous and clear channels. It is traditionally taken with raw honey which aids in clearing mucous. It should not be taken if you are pregnant or suffering from the effects of aggravated Pitta dosha (eg: heartburn, hyperacidity or stomach ulcers). Finally, Turmeric is a potent natural antibiotic and can be used all respiratory tract infections. Boil half a cup of water with 1/2 teaspoon of turmeric, add a little milk (or almond milk) then use as a gargle.

Winter Recipes to warm (all recipes serve 4)

Digestive Herbal Wine:

1 bottle organic red wine/ non-alcoholic wine; 1 teaspoon each of cinnamon, cardamom, clove, ginger, fennel; ½ teaspoon of cumin, coriander, nutmeg, black pepper. Heat wine to just under boiling, then remove from heat and add herbs. Cover and steep for 10 minutes. Strain herbs (through a cloth if powdered herbs were used) and serve a glass warm with dinner.

Carrot and ginger soup:

2/3 medium carrots per person; 1 large onion; 2 potatoes; large bunch coriander; black pepper to taste; 1/2 pint of vegetable stock per person (Marigold Swiss Vegetable Bouillon brand is good); inch of ginger chopped. Lightly sweat onion in ghee, adding  vegetables (finely chopped) and ginger. Fry for a few minutes then add black pepper and half of coriander. Cover with stock and simmer till vegetables are soft. Liquidise to a puree in blender, the return to pan, adding more stock if too thick. Add rest of coriander (finely chopped) and serve. For a more substantial meal, cook red lentils separately in stock and add to the finished soup before serving.

Warming Winter Chai:

Boil 4 cups of water with 4 cloves, 2 pinches of ground nutmeg/ cinnamon/ cardamom, ½ inch piece of fresh ginger for 5 minutes. Add 1 teaspoon rooboish/ black tea and simmer for 5 minutes. Add 1 cup of milk/ dairy substitute and heat until hot. Add 2 teaspoons of sweetener of choice and serve. NB: Honey is best at room temperature as ferments in hot drinks and baking, creating toxins, blocking the body’s channels.