The Virtues of January

The post–holiday, post–solstice time is when many people begin to feel low energy, depression and tiredness. The weather is colder, the days are short, we’re exhausted from our parties, and spring seems like a long way away. Colds and coughing are widespread. It’s that time of year when people get sick. Millions of Americans are said to suffer from “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” a phenomenon where we feel generally unhappy for no obvious reason.

Is it supposed to be this way? I don’t think so. This is a time of year that we can look forward to and celebrate just as much as any other. It’s true that in the harsh and cold season of winter our bodies and minds are more vulnerable than at other times. We’re likely to have eaten more junk because of the holidays and we’re not getting as much time outside in the sun. So if you tend to lead an unhealthy lifestyle, this is when your body will start to say “I’ve had enough.” In my opinion, “SAD” is often nothing more than the above. To avoid getting sick or depressed, we must make more of an effort to really take care of ourselves during the winter months. The body is meant to always function well with proper care. If you’ve been under a lot of stress, and have been eating a lot of sugar or other unhealthy food (two things that often happen around the holidays), your body will probably take this time to get sick and eliminate the excess toxins created by the stress and the food. This is a natural, healthy process of the body. Fevers, coughing, and other symptoms of sickness are signs of the body trying to clean you out. Unfortunately, not all of us have the leisure to let ourselves go through this process, and end up medicating ourselves in order to postpone the healing process. I recommend taking time off if you get sick, relaxing, and letting your body heal itself as much as you can. But if this isn’t easy for you, the best plan is to try and stay healthy in the first place.

A good way to look for clues to what it means to be healthy in the winter is to think about what’s going on in nature. Animals are hibernating; seeds are staying warm deep underground. This is a time for planning and preparing, and protecting your energy. Sleeping more and scheduling less is a good idea. Keeping as warm as possible is also important. Exercising will get your blood flowing and help you save on heat bills. Taking an alternating hot and cold shower in the morning does the same thing. Don’t forget to wear plenty of layers when you go outside.

In terms of cooking, warm foods and drinks are the best. I would not recommend eating a lot of raw, uncooked food and fruit at this time of year. Making soup is an excellent idea; so is roasting or baking your food in the oven. I also drink a lot of herbal tea with warming spices such as ginger. It’s common to eat more protein and fat at this time, such as meat, grains with beans, roasted nuts, and fried foods; but make sure you eat plenty of vegetables, especially root vegetables: onions, beets, carrots, radishes, burdock root, parsnips, turnips, potatoes, and winter squashes, so that you get enough vitamins and minerals.

The organs to nourish at this time of year are the kidneys and the bladder. To keep them healthy, always have a source of clean drinking water around you at work, home, or when traveling. You may want more salt on your food in the winter, but try to use sea salt, because sea salt still has natural minerals in it. A moderate amount of salt nourishes the kidneys, but too much can stress them out. I also recommend taking this time to try cooking some sea vegetables. They are available at the health food store, and the companies who sell them always think to include some recipes on the package. Sea vegetables survive in very cold conditions in the ocean; they will help you fight off the winter cold. The main ones are kombu, arame, hijiki, dulse, nori, and wakame. They come dried and, except nori, should be soaked before being eaten, but after that, they go wonderfully well with beans, in soups, stirfries, or as condiments.

Some people have been known to feel less depressed in the winter by sitting in front of light boxes that simulate sunlight. In my opinion, best of all is to try and get half an hour of sunlight every day. We don’t spend much time in the sun even during the rest of the year, so when the days get shorter such that we’re inside for all the daylight hours, we get no sun at all. This is probably one of the reasons why the winter season is associated with depression. Try to sit out in the sun during lunchtime or whenever else you have a free moment during the day, and your mood will probably improve regardless of how happy you are normally. This is less expensive than a light–box, comes with fresh air, and you know it’s authentic sunlight.

The time of year we’re in now can be just as pleasant and special, in its own way, as any other. I look forward to the changes in lifestyle and diet that come with January, and I enjoy hibernating as much as I can. Quiet, internal activity is the order of the day. You may want to start planting some ideas for the future. Most importantly, though, get some rest, and do things you enjoy.

If you do get sick, I recommend a ginger compress. The compress facilitates and speeds the healing process, rather than fighting against it. Making one is very simple.

Ginger Compress
This recipe is from Aveline Kushi’s Complete Guide to Macrobiotic Cooking. The compress stimulates blood and body circulation, helps loosen and dissolve stagnated toxic matter, and soothes and relieves various internal organs, aches, and pains. Especially good for the kidneys, stomach, and intestines. Place a handful of fresh grated ginger in a cheesecloth and squeeze the ginger juice into a pot containing 1 gallon of very hot water. Keep the water below boiling or the power of the ginger will be diminished. Let simmer for about 5 minutes. Then dip the middle part of a cotton hand towel into the ginger water by holding both ends. Wring the towel to squeeze out the excess water and apply, very hot but not uncomfortably hot, to the area of the body needing treatment (such as the kidneys). A second, dry towel can be placed on top of the wet towel to reduce heat loss. When the wet towel cools, remove and replace with a fresh hot towel. Repeat this every few minutes for about twenty minutes, or until the skin becomes very red.

A Note on Christmas

Thanksgiving is over and Christmas is here, and that means lots of stress. Theoretically, the holidays are a time to connect with your spiritual side, take a break from work, see your family and friends, and give a few sincere gifts. But what happens is that the gift-giving part is pushed into prominence by retailers, and Christmas especially becomes all about shopping and spending. When all the focus is on the gifts, you get stuck with a lot of stuff you might not want, while frantically trying to find stuff others might like, which you probably can’t afford, and the obligation becomes more powerful than the sentiment of generosity. Then there’s the emphasis on display: you see Christmas wreaths and lights all over the place, which seem more bent on urging you to shop for your own than simply looking nice. Through a strange turn of events, it often seems like the real Scrooge is the one encouraging you to meet all these Christmas obligations. The stress can drive us to eat a ton of sugar and possibly come down with something called Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Some of my suggestions for taking a real holiday:

Celebrate some of the stress-free aspects of Christmas: sing traditional carols and play Christmas music, use your time off to go for walks in the snow or woods, and maybe build a fire in the fireplace.

Spend time with your friends and family. Don’t worry about the gifts part, your presence is much more valuable than anything you could buy for them. Do something fun together that you will remember for a long time.

I actually think that giving gifts is one of the best parts of Christmas. But I just don’t like crowding into the mall with everyone else. Try using your own personal talents, skills, and knowledge when giving a gift: everyone has something they are good at, whether it’s making something with your hands, cooking, writing, music, art, etc. If you’re more technical you could fix someone’s computer, make them a website, etc. You could also write a letter to someone telling them all the reasons why you like them! That’s probably a gift they wouldn’t forget. Sometimes we think we’re not good enough to give someone something personal. It’s embarrassing. But how much more would you appreciate a one-of-a-kind gift than one that you could have bought on your own? Even if your personal skill happens to be making lots of money, how about something such as a museum membership, Netflix subscription, or other gift that “keeps on giving” without requiring more manufacture and waste. (By the way, when I searched for some more ideas online, almost all I found were websites selling “alternative” Christmas gifts. No! I wanted something handmade! More websites selling “handmade” gifts. How about homemade? Plenty of ideas for homemade gifts, but all slanted towards kids. What, adults are too grown up to make something?)

Christmas is supposed to be a “holy day,” celebrated as the birth of Christ. The solstice is also the time of the ancient winter festivals of Yule. The spiritual, not the material, should be the primary focus during Christmas; as such, make sure you get some time to yourself to contemplate the meaning of this time of year.

Cold Weather Living

I actually like the cold, harsh weather and long, dark evenings. They build character. Of course, they also excuse you to bundle up in front of a fire, watch movies, and sleep late. I, however, have to take extra precautions when the temperature drops. In both the Chinese and Indian traditional medicinal systems, every person is said to be born aligned to a particular season, and which season it is can be deduced from the person’s characteristics. People who easily get cold, especially in their fingers and toes, are usually winter types. This means we have an affinity for this time of year, but are also vulnerable to it. Whether you’re the winter type or not, however, here are some recommendations for staying healthy and vibrant throughout the cold:

Dress warmly: Sometimes it can be a pain to break the habit of dressing lightly. However, it’s more of the pain when the cold weakens your body and knocks you horizontal for a week. Think of it as a chance to try on clothes you’ve even forgotten you owned over the last six months. Also, think about where you usually get sick or cold (Chest cold? Ear infection? Sore throat? Fingers fall off?), and focus on covering that area in particular.

Exercise regularly: Wood-chopping is probably the best. Failing that, I recommend anything that makes you sweat, gets the blood flowing, and warms you up internally. It’s great for the heat bills, not to mention your health.

Eat cooked vegetables: Forget that raw food stuff. Cooked foods have had heat imparted to them – they’re warm. When we talk about being warm or cold, what really matters is what’s on the inside. Ever stepped out of a hot shower and been freezing cold? During the shower your body was trying to compensate by cooling down internally. Exercising also warms up your insides. Try the root vegetables especially – they will impart their winter-surviving energy to you.

Cut down on congestive dairy products and sugar: In a dry, hot climate you may crave these foods, but during a cold, wet winter you’re much more likely to suffer from chronic colds and sinus-related problems on a constant basis. This is the first half of the cure for the common cold. It is also the second half.

More protein and fat: Extra fat keeps most animals warm in the winter, and protein is necessary for building strength. Whether it’s grains and beans with olive oil or whether it’s animal products, have a little more fat than you did in the summer and late summer.

Eat naturally preserved foods: For thousands of years we’ve been finding ways to make our food last beyond the harvest season. Eating food that’s been pickled, smoked, fermented, or otherwise preserved will help you continue to get the nutrients and minerals you need through the winter.

Sleep more: If you feel like hibernating, that’s not an accident. Even if you can’t go to bed as early as you’d like, turn out the lights you’re not using and try to cut down on background noise. Don’t eat late, either; try to keep an atmosphere of near-bedtime around you. This is a time of being internal, more of input/study than output/action.

Finally, ginger tea and raw garlic will cure everything if you don’t follow these recommendations. The chicken soup listed below might help too.

Autumn Approaches

It doesn’t feel like it yet – it’s still warm, humid and cloudy here in Virginia – but fall is coming and before my next issue comes out, the weather will have probably turned just cold enough for some people to start getting sick. It’s worth it now to talk a little about why that happens. It will also give us a chance to talk about a very important element of staying healthy: being able to change. Being able to change with the seasons, and with other natural changes that occur in life, is one of the keys to keeping yourself properly nourished. One reason why so many diets fail is because they are rigid. You may need to eat differently if you move, get a new job, enter into a relationship, exercise more, get sick, etc. Many people change their diet and lifestyle if they themselves want to change ( i.e. lose weight or build muscle), but not many do so because of changes forced on them. It’s not as urgent in this world of air conditioning and oil heating, but having the power to adapt is still very important.

Autumn is getting close to the hibernation time, and although we’re not ready to curl up yet, it’s a period where harvesting occurs and projects should be getting near the wrapping-up stage. At the same time it’s a new beginning for things that weren’t feasible in the summer months. It’s a good period for transition towards more “interior” activity like studying, contemplation, and spending time with your friends and family. Daily exercise is also a very good idea for keeping your body warm and your blood flowing. Sometimes the shorter days sneak up on us and catch us still living a summer lifestyle, i.e. leaving the windows open or walking around in shorts. I’d say, don’t try to endure it: it’s only going to get colder. Make some tea and put a sweater on. And, especially, protect your neck. This is the season when the lungs and the large intestine are the organs most susceptible to both healing and to illness. Many people get mucus-y colds and coughs around this time for two reasons: coldness is penetrating the poorly protected body and weakening its immune function, leaving it susceptible to viruses; the large intestine, in its sensitive state, allows more waste to re-enter the system and weaken the body. The latter is more likely in those who are constipated and/or have a “congesting” diet high in fat, dairy products, fried foods, and refined grains – all of which lack fiber and are very hard for the body to eliminate. Eat plenty of root vegetables (there’s a recipe at the bottom), drink hot tea as opposed to anything with milk or sugar, and if you do get sick, try that magical vampire-repellant: garlic. It wasn’t worn around superstitious peoples’ necks for nothing. Garlic is extremely warming and lethal to bacteria. Its beneficial properties come from the essential oil contained within it, which can be extracted and then rubbed on congested chests or the bottom of your feet to help prevent or reduce colds.

To extract garlic oil: peel and chop enough cloves to fill half of a quart jar. Cover with cold-pressed olive oil to about one or two inches above the garlic and place in a sunlit window for five to seven days, shaking once daily. Then strain it well through a cheese cloth, and you have strong smelling garlic oil. The garlic that was soaking can be refrigerated and used in cooking, and the garlic oil will last months and can be used both internally and externally. (This “recipe” comes from Elson Haas’ book Staying Healthy with the Seasons).

Some general recommendations: Eat warming foods, cut down on damp, fried dairy foods, play sports, read books, think about things, finish up old projects, start new projects, watch classic movies, eat raw garlic, and drink tea. Keep your feet and neck warm, and try to get more sleep. And spend some time looking at the leaves changing color! More than anything else, it may help you get in touch with the natural cycle of the year.

The Sunscreen Debate

Yes, so what did I say in my first article? Go out in the sun. But what does that mean?

I was asked to write a little about whether there are healthy kinds of sunscreen. So I obligingly sat down to compose something that laid out the situation, and then realized that I really had no idea what to say, though I had a vague, peripheral sensation that there was a controversy about this. Having since done some research, I now have a very solid view of what I think is going on, and of what I recommend.

Most people in this country use sunscreen. I grew up having it applied to me whether I liked or not, and never really thought about it until college, when I was taking trips to the beach and was just too lazy to apply any. Sometimes I got a little burned, but largely I did not. I would wear a shirt when I felt the sun was getting too strong, but of course I didn’t wear one while swimming. My experience led me to wonder why it was necessary at all. What did people do before it first became widely promoted in the fifties?

Sunscreen contains synthetic chemicals that are capable of absorbing one frequency of the ultraviolet light emitted by the sun (UVB rays), thus blocking them from damaging your skin. Sunscreen makers claim that this radiation is responsible for the skin cancer epidemic that we suffer from in America; that is, that people who do not use sunscreen are not only in danger of getting a burn, but, well, dying. However, it is possible, and has been asserted, that the synthetic chemical compounds in sunscreen are absorbed by your skin and generate copious amounts of free radicals, thus doing more to cause cancer than the sun itself. Is this true? To my knowledge, no scientific study has been carried out to determine the harmful effect of sunscreen on humans, though some have been done on animals. However, I don’t like to resort to scientific studies to make a point, since every article you read has an arsenal of them and it often amounts to simply an argument from authority. Instead, I’d like to call attention to a few things that should be pretty obvious to us all.

The skin is both an organ of elimination and absorption. This is why many medicines and herbs (such as Arnica) can be applied both orally and on the surface of the skin. You are, in a sense, eating a little of anything that you apply to your skin – usually about thirty-five percent. This includes sunscreen. The synthetic chemicals in sunscreen are toxic to the body – not only can they generate free radicals on exposure to the sun, but they are very hard for the body to eliminate, and may get stored away in places that will eventually become tumors. By eventually I mean if you’re slathering it on a lot, every day – I don’t mean to be as alarmist about sunscreen like sunscreen makers are alarmist about the sun. But some people do overdo it, and that could be part of the reason why even though everyone uses sunscreen, skin cancer rates have dropped…not at all.

Another point is that while getting sun is very important for your health, getting sunburned a lot will damage your skin and eventually cause photoaging (that wrinkled, leathery look). Gradually building up to a protective tan (please, not at a tanning salon!) while wearing clothing most of the time is a better idea. Using an organic sunscreen without any reactive chemicals, or coating your skin with olive oil or coconut oil before going to the beach also seems to me like a safer alternative (though it’s true that these substances are not as strong). The process should be even more gradual if you are fair-skinned and have the genetically low melanin levels of a Scandinavian. But all this is aside to the real point: why do most people get so sunburned all the time? You may already know the answer. It is poor nutrition. Yes, your diet!

For most of human history, we were out in the sun a lot, so our bodies adjusted and evolved, and adapted to this circumstance on many different levels. But we also weren’t eating trans fats and refined, processed foods. While it’s true that the sun does do some damage to the skin after lengthy exposure, people who have large numbers of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids in their diet will have not only beautiful skin but a system equipped to repair the sun’s damage quickly and efficiently. Some sources of the fatty acids: fish and fish oil, cod liver oil, flax seed oil, soybeans, dark green leafy vegetables like kale, collards, chard, and parsley, any animal product from an animal that has been grass-fed (such as cow’s milk from grass-fed cows and beef from grass-fed beef), pumpkin seeds, and walnuts. Antioxidant foods (the ones that stop free radicals) include dark green leafy vegetables (again), sprouts, berries, sea vegetables, and really any food that contains high levels of vitamins E, A, C, and B.

In a nutshell, then, my advice is: don’t get burned; don’t use commercial sunscreen; but eat well, gradually work up to a tan, apply an organic oil or sun block to your body, and not only will you be healthy, but all that sun will ratchet up your serotonin levels and you might find yourself quite a bit happier, too!

More on Seasonal Eating (and Living)

Here’s an update on what’s growing right now in the Northeast: almost everything. This can be a bit overwhelming, but if you can find a way to fit snap peas, beets & beet greens, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, collards, corn, cucumbers, onions, peppers, potatoes, radishes, scallions, spinach, summer squash, chard, turnip greens, blueberries, cherries, peaches, raspberries, and plums into your diet, you’ll probably be feeling extremely good. You could live solely on the abundance of fruits and vegetables available now and actually, that might not be such a bad idea. If you work in a freezing air-conditioned office it gets confusing (you might be craving hot soups, hunks of meat and fried food from 9 to 5), but anyone spending any time outside would benefit from eating fresh, raw plant food. Even the harder root vegetables can be juiced or sliced up very thin for a salad. Of course, I recommend getting most of this food locally grown if you can – that’s really the whole point.

What I’m interested in talking about this month, however, is not just food but also other aspects of seasonal living. This will require me to write a little about the Five Element Theory, which is an integral part of the ancient Chinese medical system. Essentially, the theory states that all energy or substance can be categorized according to the above-mentioned five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water), each of which has its own unique characteristics. For example, the five seasons (spring, summer, late summer, autumn, and winter) correspond to the elements above. Summer, being aligned with the Fire element, is naturally the hottest month. The system expands to include bodily organs, colors, foods, sounds, tastes, directions, phase of development, and emotions. The theory comes from centuries of observations of relationships between nature and the physical body, and is applied clinically in traditional Chinese medicine. For example, the wood element, linked to spring, is also the element of anger, the sour taste, the tendons and sinews, and the liver and the gallbladder as well as the eyes. This means that a person suffering from bloodshot eyes or with a lot of otherwise inexplicable anger might be in truth suffering from a stressed liver.

I’ve mentioned this because when I write about the given season we’re in, I’ll sometimes refer to other things that share the same element. The season we are in now – summer – is closely associated with the emotion of joy. This means that summer is really the season when doing things that make you joyful is especially recommended. It’s also the time to take care of the small intestine and the heart, the organs belonging to the fire element, and the time to sweat a lot of things out (each element is also paired with a bodily fluid). It’s no accident that summer is when a lot of weddings happen (a topic that’s been on my mind lately). Some things you can do to be more in tune with this season: wake up early, spend time out in the sun, cook a variety of brightly colored food (but lighter food – for example, if you eat whole grains, try summer grains such as millet or corn rather than wheat, rice, or buckwheat), set up some flowers in your home, go to the beach, play with your friends, watch heartwarming comedies while eating popcorn (don’t microwave it, though). You can make up your own list of things that make you joyful – then go out and do the things on it! And if you are confused about the dangers of being out in the sun – read the last article.

There’s a lot more to the five element theory than what I have space to go into above – but if you’re interested in hearing more, let me know. Paul Pitchford’s book Healing with Whole Foods has probably the best analysis of it that I know, and Annemarie Colbin’s Food and Healing also has a good treatment (aren’t these book titles sounding a little redundant?).

Sneezing Like Crazy: Pollen Allergies

I’ll just come out and say it: I have a loud sneeze. Something about my constitution causes me to really let loose when the wrong thing gets in my lungs. Like pollen. (Thanks to this peculiar characteristic of mine, I’ve been able to do a lot of accidental research on the psychological conditions under which people stop saying “bless you”: usually by the third sneeze).I’ve always had lots of problems with pollen, problems that manifest themselves very visibly as teary eyes, a runny nose, and a general bleary, cloudy feeling of fatigue that on most days last summer left me wading through the pollen-thick humid air half-blindly like a swimmer without goggles in an overchlorinated pool. I prefer not to take conventional medications like Claritin, so for many years I’ve just sneezed my way through the summer with some help from homeopathic medicines. But this year those allergies have been gone. Totally gone.

What did I do differently? Around May, when I started giving sugar blues workshops, I brought along some raw local honey as an alternative sweetener. After a while it occurred to me that, hmm, I’m recommending this to other people, maybe I should try it too. I started eating it right after a workout, the best time to consume refined carbohydrates. Then I started wanting to it more (yes…sugar is like that). After a few weeks I felt like I’d had enough, however, and it was then that I noticed that my allergy symptoms were gone.

Why did this happen? Raw honey contains all the pollen, dust, and molds that cause the allergies – local honey has the specific pollen that’s causing your specific allergies. Eating a teaspoon a day will cause you to build up immunity. I think it’s best if you combine this with some aerobic exercise so that the sugar gets put to some use. Honey also happens to be good for ulcers, bronchitis, coughs, and asthma. But I repeat – don’t get the filtered, processed kind – get the raw honey or honeycomb that is almost solid, and see if you can get some that is made in your state.

General Guidelines for Healthy Eating: Seasonal Eating

What makes a balanced meal? The standard theory shared by most nutritionists and dieticians is that it consists of a certain ratio of protein, carbs, and fats. The government’s website will give you more specific details based on your age and sex. Diet-book authors and diet gurus argue back and forth about whether you should have more carbs, no carbs, lots of protein, less protein, low fat, or gobs of fat. In truth, the amount of each differs for different people. And equally important is what kind of fat, carbs, etc., you eat. But there is much more to the story of balancing a meal than just these categories. There are many, many ways to balance a meal, and all that means is to put together some food that will make you feel good – or “balanced” – in terms of energy, awareness, strength, attitude, and health. You can take into consideration the season, the weather, your lifestyle, job, current state of health, the colors of the food, the tastes, the method of preparation, how hungry you are, even your mood. Is this starting to sound complicated? Well, don’t worry, because the choices you will make when taking these things into consideration are all very simple and intuitive and. Let’s take, for example, seasonal eating.

The theory behind seasonal eating is based on our experience of balance in nature. Plants grow and animals thrive in response to the conditions around them. Melons grow in the hot summer and are proportionately cool. The warming energy of root vegetables sustains them even into the winter. Aside from the fact that they will be fresher (having not necessarily traveled as far) and tastier (having been grown under the sun, not in a greenhouse), the in-season foods that you eat will impart their energy to you and help you thrive in the same conditions in which they grew and prospered. Generally if you eat something out of season it’s been flown halfway around the world – from California or South America – a process that uses up a lot of energy and resources. Now, if these were the best foods for you that would be one thing. But the fact that your body will appreciate the local, seasonal foods more than, say, the tropical foods, is another reason to cut down on consumption of food that has traveled through a change in climate to get to you, regardless of how appealingly exotic it may sound. Most people will agree that whether it’s happening or not, climate change is not such a good thing.

But this is not a hard and fast rule. For example, even though they come from far away, I love avocados. If you’re a vegetarian, they’re an excellent source of fat in your diet. There’s even a recipe for guacamole in this newsletter. But if I eat avocados more often than other fruits, I don’t feel so great. This just shows that there is still a lot of space for personal decisions within these general principles.

We are currently in the month of June (that is, if I get this newsletter finished in time. Originally it was a May newsletter). So what are some options if you live, say, in New York City, like me? I checked the farmers’ market website and here’s what they are harvesting now: asparagus, beets (and beet greens), broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, mesclun, peas, radishes, rhubarb, scallions, spinach, summer squash, swiss chard, turnip greens, and strawberries. There’s plenty of variety there; if you choose to eat more seasonally, it’s a great way to discover new fruits or vegetables that you wouldn’t have an excuse to cook otherwise.

For more information on this kind of topic there’s Elson Haas’ book Staying Healthy with the Seasons, and John Douillard’s Ayurvedic diet book The 3-Season Diet.