Tis the season…. for the flu! This holiday season there has been a lot of viral infections going around and a particularly nasty one is going around the Asheville area. That leads me to talk about two things – prevention and treatment. There’s a lot to say about both, so I’m going to start out with a blog about prevention.

Each of us have our own health issues, strengths and weaknesses so the most important thing we can do is to be aware of our own body and what makes us stronger and what depletes us. Sounds easy enough, but sometimes that takes both greater awareness and also greater self-discipline. So start the journey now – pay attention to what foods benefit you at what time of day, and at what time of year. AND make extra effort when you are traveling and outside your normal environment and routine.

Since it takes a tenth as much effort to prevent an illness than to treat it. my 4-part winter health program is this:

  • Lots of warming soups made from bone broth
  • Dressing warm, including scarfs even when you don’t feel like it
  • Clean up and clean out – your body, your house, and your emotions
  • Nourish your skin with oil weekly

One of my favorite deeply nourishing foods for this time of year is broth. Karen and I brew up a gallon of broth every week in the winter, and I think it is one of the reasons we haven’t gotten the badness that’s going around. Broth (or stock) is cheap to free to make, takes hardly any prep time, and is one of the foods used throughout the world as the deepest nourishing food available. The only tool you might need is a crockpot, but a soup pot could work just as well.

All you need to do to get started is to keep a container in your freezer and put your vegetable and meat scraps in there. I set aside the tops and bottoms of root vegetables like carrots, beets, and turnips; stalks of mushrooms or mushrooms that are starting to dry up in the fridge (but not mold); and the skins of onions and garlic (awesome potassium!). I find that brassica vegetables like cabbage and broccoli can make too strong a smell, like overcooked brussel sprouts.

As for meat, make sure to get some bones in there and connective tissue. This can be the leftover carcass from a holiday turkey, bones from a rotisserie chicken, or you can buy stock bones at most butchers for not much money. Some butchers might even give you their leftover bones. Many traditions value Ox-tail soup as the most deeply nourishing soup. But of course chicken soup is widely known as “Jewish penicillin.”

Throw it all in a crock-pot and simmer for 12 – 48 hours. To get the minerals out of the bones, add a couple tablespoons of vinegar and cook towards the longer side. Then strain and keep refrigerated for 5 – 7 days, using it as a base for soups, sauces and gravies, or use to cook rice or other grains.

To make it extra medicinal, throw in some immune-enhancing herbs, like Astragalus, an herb used for millenia in the Chinese tradition that has been adopted by American herbalists as well. Or use medicinal mushrooms like Chaga, Shiitake, Maitake, or small amounts of Reishi – a great immune herb with a stronger flavor than the other mushrooms. I often add dried Nettle leaf as well to increase the nourishment factor.

Super-easy to digest both for prevention or during the treatment and recovery phases, broth rocks!!

It’s also important to wear scarfs around this time of year. In Chinese medicine, it is considered vitally important to protect the back of the neck because that is where the wind gets into the body, bringing with it negative climactic influences. This time of year can be confusing with a 30-degree day followed by a 50-degree day, or at least down here in the South – apologies to my friends out in Montana!

The temptation is to under-dress on the warm days, but this can create a lot of vulnerability to illness as well. So be sure, even if you do get to wear a t-shirt in December that you also wear a fashionable scarf around your neck. And if you are feeling cold, make sure your belly and lower back is covered because when we keep the core of our body warm we feel warmer

And although we might think of spring-cleaning more often than fall cleaning, it is just as important. This is the time to cleave away what doesn’t serve us as we enter the dark of winter, both in our home to get rid of all those things that would collect dust all winter, and in our bodies to cleanse and even eat more simply (against the temptation of the season).

I will leave the exact details up to you, and my fall cleansing is usually lighter than my spring cleanse because the natural tendency at this time of year is to build up in preparation for winter – think of our ancestors whose genes we still carry who would need to burn more fuel to keep their body warm at a time when the land was producing the least amount of food. So it is a hard time of year to do raw food or juice fasts; broth or mono-food diets work best.

Where the spring cleanse is more about the liver, the fall cleanse is focused often more on the large intestine. So colon cleansing foods like apples, kale and chia seeds are very helpful, as is the Ayurvedic herbal formula Triphala which is not laxative but helps improve the tone of the colon. Really, just focus on incorporating lots of fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables.

The other factor that can be hard on the lungs and immune system is the dryness, both outside as cold air holds less moisture, and inside as we turn on our heaters and wood stoves. More than just drinking enough water, we can really help our bodies retain moisture by oleating, rubbing ourselves down with vegetable oil. My preferred oil for this time of year is raw sesame oil (NOT toasted sesame oil unless you plan to make a stir-fry).

Raw sesame oil is deeply nourishing for the skin and surprisingly calming for the mind, especially when rubbed on the face. You may be surprised how calming it feels to cover yourself in oil. Once you’re done rubbing it on, sit around in your bathrobe for a half hour to let it absorb, and then you can either take a warm shower to wash the rest off or if you are daring, just rub off any residual with a towel and go to bed or get dressed.

The skin is our first line of defense against the elements, and oleating on a cold day will also create an extra layer of insulation and keep you warmer. A nice benefit!

All these ideas will help keep you healthy through the winter. Next week – what happens when you do get ill? What to do about all these pesky winter viruses?