Winter Wellness: 7 Ayurvedic Tips To Strengthen Your Immune System
Ayurveda divides winter into two parts. The first half of winter relates to Vata dosha whose qualities are light, dry, cold, rough, windy and changeable. The later part of the season, however, is more Kapha in nature, accentuated by the qualities of damp, cold, heavy, slow, stable and smooth. When balanced, Kapha blesses us with warmth, abundant energy, restful sleep, good digestion and a sense of contentment.
On the other hand, excess Kapha frequently leads to lethargy, congestion, constipation and depression, often in the form of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) Other signs of a Kapha imbalance include:
- Excess mucous and difficulty breathing
- Slow, sluggish bowel movements
- Excess weight and a tendency toward “emotional overeating”
- Sense of feeling slow, foggy, dull or heavy in mind and body
- Excessive napping and difficulty rising in the morning
- Complacent or stubborn
- Excessive sentimentality, possessiveness or attachment
When the qualities of Kapha dominate, it’s important to balance the heavy, cold and immobile traits of Kapha with its opposite– namely foods and routines that are active, light, warm and dry.
To keep your immunity strong, here are seven (7) strategies for optimizing wintertime health:
Tip #1: Start Your Day Right
Dark winter mornings often find us lingering in bed. Sunrise to mid-morning is kapha in quality, so your body may resist getting going. To prevent a sense of lethargy and heaviness settling in, avoid oversleeping and endeavor to rise by 7AM. Upon rising, scrape your tongue to remove the dead bacteria and yeast that accumulate overnight before brushing your teeth. Metal tongue scrapers can be found in most pharmacies in the care aisle.
Tip #2: Flush Out Toxins
Within ten minutes of rising, drink a glass of warm or room temperature water to stimulate elimination. Adding a squeeze of lemon juice to your glass increases your Vitamin C intake, important for good immunity, and jump starts digestion for the day. Then take five minutes to meditate or write in a gratitude journal before breakfast.
Tip #3: Eat a Warm Breakfast
It’s important to eat a warm, nutritious breakfast that nourishes your digestive fire. If breakfast typically consists of toast and yogurt, consider eating a warm bowl of oatmeal, barley or quinoa spiced with cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger a few days a week. Make use of your slow cooker or Instant Pot to speed up preparation time. Use natural sweeteners, such as maple syrup or honey, adding raisins or chopped dried figs for additional sweetness.
Tip #4: Exercise Early
To compensate for cold weather induced lethargy, commit to exercising every day. Kapha stagnates easily and one of the best ways to reinvigorate it is to engage in physical activity that increases circulation and makes you break into a sweat. Ideally, schedule a 20-30 minute walk or engage in another form of vigorous exercise between 6-10AM. Walking outside provides the added benefit of absorbing vitamin D from the sun. An important nutrient for both bone health and immune system function, other good sources of vitamin D include fortified cereals, eggs and oily fish, like salmon and sardines.
Don’t want to brave the cold or can’t get to the gym? Practicing five or six Sun Salutations. A series of twelve poses, Sun Salutations, or Surya Namaskara, brings strength, flexibility and tone to the legs, shoulders, and chest while also lubricating the joints.
For videos of Sun Salutation versions you can do using a chair, check out Wisdom Tree’s Premium Video Membership here.
Tip #5: Winter Warming Diet
As the days grow shorter, our appetites seemingly grow larger. As our internal fire, or agni, increases, our immunity receives a boost from the warm glow within, setting us up for immunity throughout the year ahead. Favor foods that survive and thrive in the cold winter months and boast of the elements of earth and water, such as root vegetables and apples. In addition, eating meals at regular times benefits the nervous system and aids good digestion. This means consuming a warm, nourishing breakfast before 10AM, your largest or main meal around midday, and a light, warm dinner by 6PM.
In terms of food choices, Ayurveda recommends eating warm, cooked, slightly oily, well-spiced foods, favoring a balance of the six tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. Here are some examples of foods for each that are readily available during the colder months:
- Sweet: turnips, sweet potatoes, carrots, dates
- Sour: citrus fruits such as oranges and pickles
- Salty: sea vegetables, rock salt
- Bitter: dark, leafy greens like kale, collard greens and Brussel sprouts
- Pungent: garlic, leeks, spinach
- Astringent: chickpeas, lentils, black beans, bananas
- Warming spices: cinnamon, ginger, garlic, black pepper, cayenne
Particularly nourishing is Kitchari (pronounced kich-uh-ree), the traditional cleansing food of Ayurveda. Considered a superfood for its nourishing and balancing effect on the body, kitchari combines rice, mung beans (also called dal) and spices cooked into soothing, easy-to-digest porridge. Recipes abound on the internet, but for an excellent guide to Ayurvedic cooking for each season, I highly recommend Kate O’Donnell’s book, The Everyday Ayurveda Cookbook: A Seasonal Guide to Eating.
Tip #6: Winter Skin-Care
Winter is a perfect opportunity to indulge in self-care. It is the season when our immunity is strengthened through rest and increased metabolic activity to build ojas. Ojas, which in Sanskrit means “life-essence” or “vigor,” is the subtle energy of the kapha dosha. It is the container that holds our abundant energy and rules our immunity, strength and happiness. Mindful self-care through diet, self-massage, yoga and meditation nourishes ojas and keeps us healthy and strong.
An excellent self-care practice during the winter to rid the body of toxins and promote ojas is dry brushing, or garshana (pronounced gar-shun-uh). Garshana promotes lymphatic cleansing and removes ama, or cellular waste products from the body. Traditionally done using raw silk or linen gloves, you can use a natural bristle body brush. Garshana is best done in the morning before bathing. Using circular strokes on joints such as the elbows and knees, and long strokes on the arms and legs, massage from the feet up toward the torso and head.
You can follow dry brushing with an oil self-massage, known in Ayurveda as abyhanga. Because our skin tends to be much dryer in the winter months, performing abhyanga, even a few times as week, works wonders to nourish the skin. Additionally, self-massage calms the nervous system, supports lymphatic health, and promotes a sense of overall comfort and well-being.
For winter, use almond or sesame oil, adding essential oils for added sensory enjoyment. Winter fragrances to choose from include rosemary, ginger, grapefruit, pine, clary sage, and bergamot. While typically done before bathing, I like to keep my bottle of oil in the shower and slather my skin post-shower to seal in moisture. Before dressing, allow the oil to soak in while you perform other self-care tasks such as brushing your teeth.
Tip #7: Time to Reflect and Destress
Nature shows us that winter is a season of letting go, of endings. It is the season in which the natural world withdraws and turns inward. Similarly, we feel winter’s pull towards stillness, quiet and solitude. Winter’s dark evenings invite us to indulge our desire to withdraw from the hectic pace of life and curl up under a cozy blanket. Too often high levels of stress lead to illness, so embracing the quiet of winter evenings offers us the opportunity to build immunity, rest and reflect.
To ensure a restorative night’s sleep, spend at least an hour of distraction-free time before bed. Turn off electronics and use this time for reading, journaling, a hot bath, listening to music or whatever else soothes your spirit. Aim for bedtime by 10pm.
The calm, peaceful nature of the winter can, at times, seem a bit oppressive, leaving us feeling weighed down, stagnant and uninspired. Fortunately, Ayurveda supplies us with guidelines and routines for making the most of this season. I hope these ideas empower you to stay healthy all winter long. Be well!
Sending love and light,