A Herbalist’s Guide to a Healthy Fall and Winter

Ready or not, fall is here and winter is fast approaching.  Daylight is beginning to dwindle in the northern hemisphere and there is an accompanying nip in the air.  Hopefully, you’ve had the opportunity to burn brightly alongside the carefree summer sun for the past few months and are ready to begin slowing down.

Making the most of the fall in many ways means honing the mind, body, and spirit to prepare for winter.  Before we go there, though, let’s first remember to simply take a breather after the busyness of summer. Our garden plants are slowing their production, the fields and forests no longer drip with fruit and flowers, and the sun slips much earlier behind the horizon giving us less daylight to pack full of work and play. What beckoned us all summer is now disappearing. Nature is giving us permission, leading by example, in fact, welcoming us to slow down and to let go.

I take a breather in a literal sense. I am reminded of the value of a deep breath; of the pleasant spaciousness that remains after I inspire crisp fall air, hold it deep in my lungs, and then let it go. In the 5-element theory of Chinese Medicine, fall is aptly connected to the breath as well as to release. Many lifecycles are coming to an end. Witnessing nature’s small deaths all around us can help us feel comfortable in our own letting go, to perhaps even see the beauty in it. Fall is a time to lessen physical and emotional attachments, to let go of what no longer serves us so that we can go into winter carrying only the essentials. Support yourself this season by incorporating breathing exercises into your daily routine or taking up meditation- both of which can be helpful in letting go.   

In the plant world, perennials are letting go of what they don’t need. Prior to shedding their vegetation, these plants concentrate all of their energy into their roots in order to have the reserves to make it through winter.  Us herbalists take note and head out with our pitchforks, shovels and digging sticks to get down and dirty finagling our favorite roots out of the ground before it freezes. Fall is considered the best time to harvest most roots since they are so power-packed right now.

One of the constituents found abundantly in fall-dug roots is the starch inulin. Inulin is considered prebiotic (aka super food for healthy gut flora). You’ll notice evidence of it in the milky yield of fall dandelion and burdock tinctures or the white liquid that oozes from their freshly cut roots.     

wild-carrot-seedIt’s a good time to shift our herbal preparations towards roots, as well. My daily tea transitions to reflect what’s in season around me. These teas also happen to be just what my body needs in preparation for winter. Instead of whimsical leaf and flower infusions, I begin making heartier decoctions by gently simmering roots and mushrooms alongside a warming spice. These plants are fortifying and they also support my immune system as we head towards cold and flu season.   

Yesterday I threw fresh burdock root, astragalus, licorice, reishi and cardamom into a big pot alongside a pinch of cinnamon, simmered for an hour and was left with a week’s worth of tea.  I chose these plants to support healthy immunity, for grounding and to support all around resilience. However you choose to take it, now is the time to start with immune tonic herbs. In both my personal and clinical experience, it makes a world of difference in how one’s immune system weathers the winter ahead.

I celebrate fall as a chance to regain balance. The equinox signals an exact balance between light and dark, day and night. It’s a chance to recompose before leaning into the cold, dark months of winter. I take the time to enjoy the certain lightness that this state of balance has to offer. I go for more walks, take more deep breaths. I gather roots, but with less haste than my summertime busy work. I harvest seeds from wild carrot and burdock to make tinctures. I prepare fewer salads and more soups. I take the yoga and meditation routines backup that got partially abandoned by summer’s end. I snack on fresh apples and indulge in pumpkin pie. And I ponder and prepare for what I’ll need to keep my body and spirit healthy through the winter months.   

May you enjoy the season’s simplicity and find sweetness in letting go of what you don’t need while tending lovingly to what remains.  May you be prepared to enter winter full of balance, resilience, and spaciousness.   

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