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.