With the transition to winter comes additional dryness and other vata imbalances. Read on for Dr. John’s Ayurvedic protocol for a healthy and happy fall and winter!
Note: In nature there are three primary harvests: spring, summer, and fall. Since fall-harvested foods are eaten throughout winter, I consider fall and winter to be one season.
In Ayurveda’s primary text, the Caraka Samhita, disease tends to take hold during the transition from one season to the next—called ritusandhi (ritu means “season” and sandhi means “gap” or “junction”). If we don’t stay balanced during these times, we risk illness and setbacks to our health.
Here’s why: at the end of each season, the qualities of that season accumulate, and have the potential to become aggravated or imbalanced if they’re not properly managed. Management tools include diet, lifestyle, and detox.
At the end of the summer, pitta, or heat, accumulates in a process Western science calls thermal accumulation. Accumulated heat can dry out your skin along with the mucus membranes of your sinuses, intestines, and respiratory tract. Winter, which tends to be dry to begin with, can further dry out your mucus membranes, leading to irritation, reactive and excessive mucus production, and the proliferation of opportunistic and undesirable microbes.
So, for example, my doshic constitution, or Ayurvedic body type, has the potential to accumulate even more pitta and kapha at the end of summer and spring, throwing my digestion, skin, mood, and more out of balance. Because of my pitta, I’m at risk of the drying out scenario mentioned above as fall and winter take hold. Properly transitioning from summer into winter is non-negotiable for me.
Eat More Seasonal Fruits to Help Dissipate Heat
Luckily, we have a couple of apple trees on our property that make up a big part of my diet in the fall. Apples, as well as most fruits and veggies when eaten in higher seasonal quantities, will act as purgatives, loosening stool.
Currently I am enjoying harvesting the remaining kale, beets, carrots, and tubers from my garden and turning them into fall soups.
This is nature’s way of helping to dissipate summer’s heat. I used to worry that too many apples would raise my blood sugar, but when you eat the entire apple, you get a healthy dose of phloridzin, a flavanoid found in apple skin that has been shown to reduce blood sugar.
In a 2013 meta-analysis three studies on the consumption of fruit revealed that blueberries, grapes, and apples significantly lowered the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Researchers also found that regular consumption of fruit juice was associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.
For me, this is the one time of year I give myself permission to eat as may fruits as I please, to help dissipate the accumulation of pitta.
As winter sets in, seasonal fruits, especially apples, are also good as a winter vata-balancer when cooked with clove and cinnamon.
Eat More Bread in the Fall and Winter, When Grains are Harvested
Fall is also grain season, which is why I give myself permission to consume more bread–either Mana Bread, which is sprouted with no flour; Ezekiel Bread; properly made sourdough bread, made with only wheat, salt, water, and a starter; or an occasional loaf of a whole grain, fermented artisan bread from a local bakery.
Our ancestors have been eating grains for 3.2 million years and we have evolved to make more amylase in the fall to more easily break down starch in preparation for winter. I am OK with gaining a few pounds this time of the year because it is part of nature’s plan.
The harvest of grains in the fall helps to balance vata, which begins to accumulate in late October or early November.
Grains and seeds provide more soluble fiber in the winter, which balances vata by soothing the lining of the intestines and feeding good bacteria. I make a tea out of LifeSpa’s Slippery Elm Prebiotic, made from slippery elm, licorice, and marshmallow. It goes great with most meals!
If you have trouble digesting bread, consider starting with cooked whole grains as a porridge—they are much easier to digest and make for a great start to a fall-winter day.
Eat Protein to Balance Vata
I learned the hard way years ago, when I was fully vegetarian, that this is the time of year we really do need more protein to balance vata and protect our joints from drying and vata aggravation. There are more than 200 proteins in the synovial fluid that provide joint lubrication.
During the fall, the body begins to store proteins and fats in preparation for winter months. If there’s not an ample amount of dietary protein available, the body will use the proteins from the synovial fluid and the joints can begin to ache or become stiff.
To avoid this now, I do increase my protein intake this time of year. I’ve started eating eggs a couple times a week, as well as a couple of serving of wild caught salmon and a very occasional serving of chicken or turkey. During the summer, I would go for a couple of weeks without any animal protein, but come fall and winter, the rules change.
My primary source of protein in the winter is still nuts. I try to vary them, eating plenty of sunflower seeds (a staple), plus almonds and cashews–which are my favorites–while also adding walnuts, pecans, and pistachios—all raw, unsalted, and organic.
Prepare for the Cold of Winter with Cold Showers
For me, fall is also an important time to start preparing for the cold.
During the summer, I regularly swim in our local lake, but come fall, I replace the lake’s chilly waters with regular cold showers to build more insulating brown fat so I can better tolerate the winter cold. I start with a warm shower and then gradually add cold water and finish with all cold.
While in the shower, I give myself a daily Ayurvedic massage called abyhanga.
There is no better way to balance vata in the winter than with a full body abhyanga.
For this, I use LifeSpa’s Body Butter, which is honestly the best product I have ever used to combat the skin-drying effects of a Colorado fall and winter. The trick is to use very little and apply while in the shower. The water helps spread the body butter. I find that the better I do the abyhanga, the less Body Butter I need to get it evenly spread all over my body.
Exercise and Practice Yoga, Pranayama, and Meditation to Stay Calm and Connected
I still exercise pretty much daily during this season, but I find myself spending more time doing yoga and hiking, and spending a little less time on cardio.
I make a point to walk or get on the treadmill after a big meal. I am a firm believer that the worst thing we can do is eat a big meal and then sit back and watch a movie. We have a Rhythm Fun low profile walking machine that is great in the winter, when an outside walk after a meal is less likely.
When it comes to breathing exercises, I still regularly practice pratiloma and kapalabhati for diaphragm strength, but also shift more time to long, slow pranayama techniques, like slow ujjayi and slow nadi shodhana with kumbhaka (breath retention). These are more vata-balancing and great to practice before meditation or prayer since they calm the nervous system and oxygenate the tissues, allowing greater subtle energy perception.
Remember, vata season is governed by air and space (akasha) which offers greater subtle perception and spiritual access in the winter—so go for it!
For an easy way to get started with a meditation practice, try LifeSpa’s 6-week online Transformational Awareness Technique course.
Supplement with Melatonin for Better Sleep
With winter’s longer nights, we naturally produce more melatonin (although this won’t happen if we are up late staring at a screen or if you are old like me-haha).
The science suggests that we don’t produce as much melatonin as we age. Because I am 65,I take a low dose of melatonin each night. You may find, too, that your body needs a bit more melatonin in the winter than in spring and summer. LifeSpa’s Low-Dose Melatonin has 1 mg per 1 drop. I take about three drops each night.
Studies show that low-dose melatonin can be as effective as a higher dose to both hack the aging process and keep the body’s biological clocks in rhythm with nature’s circadian cycles. A very small amount of supplemental melatonin is need for most folks over the age of 50.
Take Vata-Balancing Herbs and Vitamins
I use ashwagandha and amalaki for winter immune support and bacopa for brain and memory support. Adrenal Boost is loaded with adaptogens that build my nervous system’s winter reserves, so I can better handle stress. I take two of each of the above every morning with breakfast.
I take 1-2 capsules of Gentle Digest before, or even after, a meal if I’m eating late or find myself eating a heavier meal than I normally would.
The seat of vata is in the gut, so supporting healthy digestion in the winter is key to balancing vata and the nervous system. Digestive strength increases in the winter in order to break down seasonally harvested nuts, grains, tubers, and beans, but I find that Gentle Digest, which is just five digestive spices (ginger, coriander, cumin, fennel, and cardamon), keeps my digestion even stronger all winter.
I also take 4,000-5,000 IU’s of LifeSpa’s Liquid Sun, or vitamin D. I also take LifeSpa’s K2 Max, or vitamin K2, ( 1-2 caps a day with your vitamin D3) to make sure calcium is directed to my bones and not my arteries.
Lastly, I take two capsules of LifeSpa’s Essential Minerals two to three times a week to ensure I’m not missing any key minerals–a common deficiency.
Buy LifeSpa’s Winter Herb Kit and get 10% off Gentle Digest, Amalaki, Ashwagandha, Bacopa Boost, and Adrenal Boost.
Winter Words of Wisdom
In nature, winter is a season of rejuvenation. A kind of pulling back of the bow in preparation for an active spring and summer.
I do make a point to go to bed earlier, and since we are now on standard time, it is much easier to get up early during the colder winter months. Getting that extra winter rest not only allows for the body to boost its own immune reserves, but it can also help reset the connection between you biological clocks and nature’s circadian rhythms.
Life is based on cycles of rest and activity. Without balance between these two, regardless of the season, we pay dearly in terms of health, happiness, and longevity.