Winter is a time of stillness. Birds, animals, insects and plants all withdraw, leaving us with a quieter, calmer environment. There is gentle activity below the surface, nourishing the roots and preparing the soil for springtime. Our own natural tendencies are also to curl up and slow down, and we would traditionally sleep more and be less active (but not completely stagnant) as the daylight hours recede. This time of natural contraction and rest would ideally give us time to contemplate and take stock of where we’re at.
Most of us live in a world where we are not able to respond to nature’s cycles so freely. It may be that work gets in the way, or family, or both. We often end up pushing ourselves too hard through busy, stress-filled days, perhaps relying on caffeine or sugar to help us through. Work patterns and family/social demands don’t necessarily change from season to season in our current set-up, and so we don’t often have the luxury of calming things down in the winter months.
Something has to give, however, as our resources will only stretch so far. When we push ourselves artificially through our energy barrier, we are using up vital nutrients to produce more energy, and to make, for example, our “fight or flight” hormones. In particular we put a strain on our adrenals, which is why we sometimes call this behaviour “running on our adrenals”. Our adrenals sit on top of our kidneys, and respond to stress by sending out hormones that tell our bodies to prepare for emergency activity.
In this state, we are a coiled spring, ready to jump into action. Blood has shifted from the lower priority areas (such as digestion and reproduction) to the heart and muscles. Oxygen and nutrient-rich blood also diverts from the frontal lobe of our brain, our area of logic and discernment, to parts of the brain where we behave instinctively and instantaneously: we act before we get a chance to think about it.
At cellular level we are equally coiled and contracted. So much so that fluids carrying nutrients, messages and waste in and out of the cells become trapped inside them – water being such a precious commodity, we choose to hold onto it rather than let it flow around, and potentially out of, the body.
This is a very useful state if we are in a life-endangering situation, but to spend time living our lives in this condition can be disastrous on many levels.
Our natural state is a moving picture of cycles within cycles. We ideally start the day fresh, clear, connected and relaxed, fluids flowing freely through the body. As the day progresses our cells get steadily more contracted (and acidic) and all movement slows down; then overnight our cells have the opportunity to gradually open out and cleanse as that flow increases again. Just like flowers open and close, just like the movement of breath, we expand and contract in a 24-hour cycle. We can also plot a similar expansion and contraction through the lunar cycle, and then through the cycles of the seasons (and also through our life cycles, and the cycles of our universe). Summer is our time of outward expression and expansion, and winter is our natural, gentle spiralling inwards.
If we can gently support that movement, then we are more likely to be able to stay healthy within that cycle. So when winter comes, we can help our internal fluids – our blood, our lymph – to maintain a gentle flow, calmer perhaps than in summer, but not stagnant or stuck.
If we try to push against the natural flow, the stress response may be so great that we become too contracted. With our adrenals firing, our activity becomes focussed on priority areas such as the heart, outer muscles, and more instinctive parts of the brain. We may then digest our foods less easily and absorb nutrients less efficiently; we may also experience constipation or other bowel problems; we might struggle with short term memory, or working things out; or fertility may become more difficult.
At cellular level we are less able to perform fundamental, vital functions to keep us healthy. These range from repairing cell tissue to making energy to detoxifying the cells. So we become increasingly acidic, stagnant, toxic, and worn out, and under function on all levels.
In winter, then, it is important that we keep ourselves nourished, rested and hydrated – where fluids are gently flowing around the body. We may not immediately be able to take the stress out of “life”, but we can certainly start by taking the stress out of our foods. Eating seasonally can help us to do this. We have evolved to thrive on the food that naturally grows around us right now. Root vegetables can help to keep us grounded and contain vital nutrients that are less available in the winter months. Dark leafy vegetables such as kale, chard and winter greens help us to alkalise and are also rich in an abundance of minerals and other nutrients.
Slow cooked casseroles and oven bakes gently add warmth and break down the fibrous structure of foods so that we can more easily digest them. Soups and stews keep us hydrated too. While in summer we might soak beans and lentils and then sprout them to match the high vibration of the season, in winter we soak them and then gently cook them for as long as we can.
Fruit also carries a high vibration, and needs a fast digestion to deal with them. Fruits in winter are traditionally dried or cooked so they are not too harsh for our slower winter digestion. Remember that this will also concentrate their sugars, so we need to eat less of them than if they were raw.
A good variety of foods, balancing protein, vegetables, oils and carbs in an appropriate way, can help to replenish the resources being drained by our daily stresses and strains.
Gentle exercise can help to keep the blood and lymph moving without stressing the adrenals, and walking outdoors can enable us to maximise the shorter hours of sunlight available to us. I also use and teach naturopathic techniques to help keep the body flowing, clear and energised throughout the year, but especially in the colder months.
And sometimes we just need to pause for breath – breathe deeply and take in the beauty of winter skies and simplicity of the landscape, before you go about your day.
Published in Holistic Living magazine, September 2010