Expert Herbalist Secrets for Winter Health

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Winter can create an enchanting, snowy wonderland. Yet as the weather changes, your body may experience changes too, resulting in reduced energy and immunity, weight loss or gain, and dry skin. Emotionally, you may experience irritability and depression.

How can you feel your best during the chilliest days of the year? We asked some prominent herbalists and alternative health practitioners how they do it. Each of them emphasizes prevention through a healthy life­style, which involves a variety of practices. While herbs are integral to their self-care, the experts we spoke with tend to use herbs sparingly–mostly for prevention and for treating the occasional illness. In their stories, you’ll find useful tips that will help you keep warm and in prime health this winter.

Name: Daniel Gagnon
Occupation: Medical herbalist;
president of Herbs, Etc.
Age: 43
Home: Santa Fe, New Mexico
Climate: “Santa Fe is 7,000 feet high–our winter is what I call mild, but we do get snow, some slush, and lots of sun.”
Hot tip: Cook with medicinal mushrooms for multiple health benefits.

Honor the body’s signals

Daniel Gagnon, medical herbalist and president of Herbs, Etc., says little things applied on a daily basis make the difference. “If I run around like a chicken without a head, that’s when I get hit,” Gagnon says. “One thing I have found over the years is that I tend to sleep more in winter, and I honor that. In the wintertime things are a little slower and that’s okay.”

Gagnon believes that a combination of rest, exercise, good nutrition, and herbs keeps him healthy. He walks briskly for thirty minutes a day, five times a week because it’s “relaxing invigorating, and oxygenating.” Also, because he struggles with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or depression that recurs as the days grow shorter during the fall and winter, his walks give him regular contact with the sun.

Medicinal mushrooms and herbal supplements also play a role in Gagnon’s self-care regimen.

“I like to use shiitake, which I add in my cooking, and also maitake and reishi,” he says. “These are good long-term builders of entire systems, not just the immune system, but also the heart and kidneys. Also, specifically as a tonifier of the immune system, I take astragalus. Mushrooms are more diffuse in their activity in the body–they are supportive and protective–while astragalus is more specific to making sure that defenses are high.” Beginning in early fall and continuing through the winter, Gagnon takes astragalus extracts in a cycle of one month on, two weeks off.

Name: Rosemary Gladstar
Occupation: Herbalist; author of Herbal Healing for Women (Simon and Schuster, 1993)
Age: 48
Home: East Barre, Vermont
Climate: “We have severe winters that last for five to six months–it’s sometimes minus 20 degrees [Fahrenheit] off my front porch.”
Hot tip: Pickle and freeze pestos to have “fresh” herbs on hand.

Pesto as medicine

“We have long, cold, harsh winters, which is why a lot of people don’t live here” [in Vermont], herbalist Rosemary Gladstar says with a laugh. “I had to make a lot of adjustments. I didn’t know if I would survive the first winter.”

Gladstar, who is “by nature a small person,” felt she needed to gain some weight and develop strategies to cope with the bone-chilling cold. “I had to include a lot more high-quality fats and oils in my diet. Oils add heat. I also take hot and cold showers each day, so that my temperature can alternate between indoors and outdoors.” Gladstar also eats “warming” spices and herbs, including cayenne, cinnamon, and garlic.

Because she doesn’t have access to fresh herbs in the winter, Gladstar uses dried herbs and tinctures that she has made the previous summer. “I’m of the mind that good-quality dried herbs are almost as good as fresh,” she says. “That’s the reason people got into drying herbs in the first place–to store them over the winter.”

Drying works for most herbs, but to satisfy her craving for fresh herbs in winter, Gladstar has developed some tasty tricks. “For a few herbs like nettle, which is my major addiction . . . I pickle them,” she says. “I gather fresh herbs and lay them in vats with vinegar–you can eat that fresh and it doesn’t even sting. I also gather things like plantain, dandelion greens, and chickweed, then mix in culinaries–oregano, basil, olive oil–just like making a pesto. Then I freeze it. When it defrosts, I add pine nuts and Parmesan and have just the most delicious medicinal pestos!”

Name: David Hoffmann
Occupation: Medical herbalist; author; professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco
Age: 46
Home: Sebastopol, California
Climate: “Most of the time the sun shines, but there’s a month of rainy season. So basically, we can pretend we’ve had a winter.”
Hot tip: Eat produce in season.

Eat with the season

“I’m incapable of maintaining anything regularly–it’s just me,” says medical herbalist David Hoffmann. “The closest I come to regularly looking after myself would be consciously breaking all my patterns of regularly not looking after myself.

“That usually means remembering that I can be kind to myself.”

Hoffmann says he tries to “eat with the seasons” because he believes that we are healthiest when eating this way.

“I eat whatever the ecologically dominant crop is that time of the year,” he says. “In the British Isles, that was root vegetables. But in California, root vegetables aren’t appropriate, so I tend to go for the local fruit.”

Hoffmann doesn’t advocate taking supplements because, he says, they merely deplete a body’s health “bank account.”

This belief is what prompted him to move from very damp Wales to his current home in less damp northern California.

“I do have a tendency to lung problems, going back to having had double pneumonia when I was young,” Hoffmann explains. “Rather than taking things to try to make it better, I’ve taken the hint that I need to not live in those climates. Since I moved away, I haven’t had any problems.”

Hoffmann says that, like everyone, he still has to face the cold and flu season. But he applies his philosophy here as well.

“When I get a cold, I respect it, and I don’t treat it. I feel strongly that ordinary colds are a way in which our immune system is being recalibrated for the spring. I would never use echinacea/goldenseal for a cold–I think that’s the epitome of allopathic suppression of symptoms. For a flu, I treat it with the greatest respect.” But he doesn’t mess around with full-blown influenza, which is a killer; for that, he reaches for immune system supports, choosing those that fit his specific needs at the time. For aches and pains, “that deep bone-ache you get with a flu,” Hoffmann takes boneset in a hops infusion.

Name: Amanda McQuade Crawford
Occupation: Dean of the National College of Phytotherapy in Albuquerque, New Mexico
Age: 39
Home: Albuquerque and Ojai, California
Climate: “Ojai is very mild, usually in the 70s, with rainy spells mixed with sunshine. I frequently move from this climate to the harsher desert climate of New Mexico, where it may get down to 10 degrees [Fahrenheit] with snow.”
Hot tip: Boost immunity with angelica and elecampane roots.

A remedy for ‘airport skin’

Amanda McQuade Crawford, dean of the National College of Phytotherapy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, pays special attention to her dry skin problems. Because she travels to conferences worldwide, she has what she calls “airport skin” as well as the typical skin dryness caused by winter air.

“I treat my skin by eating whole grains and seeds,” she says. “And because I live in a region where fruits and vegetables are available in winter, I eat avocados dribbled with lemon juice in my salads. This adds vitamin E, essential oils, and vitamin C to keep my skin strong and soft.”

To build immunity, she supplements her diet with medicinal plants. “I incorporate more medicinal mushrooms, like shiitake, into my weekly home cooking. I also eat more soups because I think that during the winter–with my constitution, the frequent changes in weather that I go through, and seeing sick people in my practice–it is important to keep up my immunity.”

Crawford also adds culinary herbs to her soups because their volatile oils stimulate immune defenses. “They also improve general digestion,” she says, “and a strong digestion at my center is the foundation for adapting to stresses and preventing disease.”

With this preventive base, Crawford takes herbal supplements only when she feels “an imbalance” or wants to avoid falling ill after exposure to a virus. For colds or infection, she usually turns to angelica and elecampane roots.

Name: Steven Foster
Occupation: Herbalist specializing in medicinal and aromatic plants; author; photographer; Herbs for Health editorial advisory board member
Age: 40
Home: Fayetteville, Arkansas
Climate: “It’s unpredictable. We can either receive weather from the Gulf of Mexico or straight down from the Canadian tundra.”
Hot tip: Use fresh ginger in cooking and to make a warming tea. 

Slow down, walk fast, and eat ginger

For herbalist Steven Foster, winter is a good time to slow down, create good habits, and exercise–in short, a time for focusing on self-care. One of his favorite winter pastimes is catching up with long-overdue reading. “I line out all the books that I haven’t had a chance to look at during the summer months,” Foster says. “This is when I learn about health, diet, and herbs.”

To fight off winter’s chill, Foster walks vigorously through the Ozarks, where snow is rare. “In the summertime, it’s just too hot. And at night when it’s cool enough to walk . . . that’s when the nocturnal animals are around–like snakes. So I make it a winter activity.”

Foster also meditates each morning, then practices yoga for twenty to thirty minutes. “I think that the stretching with yoga helps a lot in adaptation to cold and improving circulation,” he says. To further help with circulation, he takes a Ginkgo biloba supplement. “My basic reason for taking ginkgo is to enhance microcirculation to my extremities,” adding that if his memory improves as a result, it’s a welcome benefit.

To prevent a cold or flu, Foster relies on herbal remedies, especially echinacea. But if he succumbs to a full-blown bout with one of these illnesses, he moves on to fresh garlic.

Foster also uses ginger to stimulate his digestion during the winter months.

“Since it’s usually harvested late in the fall, fresh ginger is the quintessential medicinal herb in the winter,” he says. He uses fresh ginger generously in cooking, he says, because it’s both tasty and healthful. To make a good wintertime tea, he grates a quarter-teaspoon of fresh ginger into hot water, sits by the fire, and sips.

Name: Linda Rector-Page
Occupation: Naturopathic doctor with a doctorate in nutrition; author of Healthy Healing (Healthy Healing Publications, 1996)
Age: 56
Home: Carmel Valley, California
Climate: “This is a very moderate climate, but we get a lot of ocean fog, and have two rainy months, January and February.”
Hot tip: Walk to help counter a form of depression known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and to offset weight gain.

Winter weight game

Linda Rector-Page, a naturopathic doctor with a Ph.D. in nutrition, knows how the winter season can mean weight gain. She recommends shifting your diet and supplements to accommodate the season.

“During the summer I love early potatoes,” Rector-Page says. “In winter, that much starch just seems to not allow me to lose weight, so I switch to brown rice, which contains extra B vitamins. I have it for breakfast, sometimes with finely chopped-up carrots or zucchini from my vegetable garden. Or I add shiitake mushrooms for immune balance.”

Because her circulation gets sluggish, she takes ginkgo and hawthorn extracts, and takes a “broad-spectrum green drink or green supplement,” one that includes green grass, sea vegetable, and blue-green algae. “This gives me a feeling of not wanting to eat and yet gives me en­ergy,” she says.

As one of the many who struggle with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), Rector-Page has developed techniques that have nearly eliminated her symptoms, including exercise and using herbal supplements such as St.-John’s-wort.

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