In Chinese elemental theory, fear is the emotion associated with the Winter season. When observing the winter time, we see that things slow down and even freeze. The natural world is in a state of contraction and condensation. It is a time for conserving energy.
While the world outside us is slowing down, we are often hustling around as folks are apt to do during the holiday times: preparing for gatherings, navigating busy shopping centers, all on top of the year-round responsibilities of life, and perhaps fearing that we don’t have enough time in the day to do it all.
Although a joyful time for many, the holidays can also be a time of increased stress. In response to this stress, we are more likely to be tempted by sugary foods and drinks. We are often surrounded by them at various celebrations, making it especially challenging to not cave in. Our gut instinct often tells us that these choices will drain our energy in the long run, while in our heads swarm inspirations for New Year’s resolutions. When it’s all said and done, it seems as though most of us are seeking some rejuvenation after the hustle and bustle of these busy times.
What if we took the opportunity this season to tap into our gut instinct and make choices that support our health and wellness? Having an awareness of the natural world and appreciation for seasonal philosophy can help us return to our own element of balance.
In Chinese philosophy, water is the element that is associated with Winter. While the energy of water is prone to hardening during the season, becoming passive and inward, water energy when balanced is fearless and directed. Water knows where it is going and has the innate intelligence and drive to get there. Balanced water also knows its limitations, having the wisdom to retreat instead of wasting energy.
So, let’s start by slowing down. It’s wintertime after all! Taking a little time to retreat can help create the space and energy to commit to a wellness plan that is unique to you. Journaling is a wonderful way to destress and also refocus one’s intentions. It can also be nice to bundle up and get some time outdoors—go for a winter walk and then warm up with a cup of herbal tea!
When it comes to rejuvenating the body, gut health is a great place to start. Many people these days are aware of the benefits of probiotics and the importance of a healthy gut microbiome on our overall health and wellness. Digestive health has always been a focus of traditional Chinese medicine—and with good reason!
The importance of gut health to overall wellbeing has been evident since the time of the ancients. Hippocrates stated that “all disease begins in the gut.” The gut actually has its own nervous system, referred to as the enteric nervous system. Some people refer to the gut as the “second brain.” Researcher and founder of The UltraWellness Center, Mark Hyman, writes that “Ninety five percent of the body’s serotonin (…the happy mood chemical) is produced by the gut nerve cells, and every class of neurotransmitters found in the brain is also found in the gut.”2
The science proves that focusing on gut health can improve mood, behavior, and cognition. Studies have shown that a healthy microbiome creates for lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), a decrease in symptoms such as depression, anxiety, anger/hostility, OCD, phobias, paranoia, and improvement in sleep.2
Luckily, there are also herbs that can help support us on our wellness journey! There are a number of herbs that are known for enhancing gut health, along with other benefits. Let’s take a look at some that really stand out!
Triphala, which translates to “three fruits” is considered a polyherbal.3 It is a combination of three fruits: Amalaki, Haritaki, and Bhibitaki. In herbal medicine, multiple herbs are often used together in formulas to unlock powerful synergistic effects. This is certainly the case with Triphala, which is an ancient Ayurvedic polyherbal that has stood the test of time.
Safe for people of all ages and constitutions (which refers to an individual’s unique energetics), this polyherbal is considered a tonic—it is rejuvenating and safe for long-term use. Overall, Triphala is a balancing herb.
Triphala has long been a pillar of gastrointestinal health. Animal studies have shown that it is helpful in preventing diarrhea (which is indicative of gut imbalance). It also has gut protective effects, which are likely due to its high antioxidant content. A clinical trial on humans showed that this polyherbal can help improve gastrointestinal disorders. People in the study reported a reduction in constipation, mucus, abdominal pain, hyperacidity, and gas. In turn, they experienced improvement in stool, which displays better digestion.
Triphala also contains phytochemicals such as quercetin and gallic acid, which are known for promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut (Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus species). These beneficial bacteria inhibit the growth of harmful microbes such as E. coli.3
If you’ve eaten too much sugar during the holiday season, check this out! Triphala has been studied for its antimicrobial effects against oral bacteria (yes, the type that leads to cavities!). Various controlled clinical trials on humans show that this polyherbal significantly reduces oral bacteria, dental plaque, and gingivitis.4
When it comes to stress, Triphala has your back. Animal studies show that it is protective against cold-induced stress. Perhaps it is the perfect herb for the chilly winter! These studies have also displayed that Triphala can reverse the behavioral and biochemical changes that come along with stress, making it a true rejuvenating polyherbal.3
It is now known that chronic inflammation is a root cause of many chronic health conditions. Triphala is also anti-inflammatory and one study shows that it is better or equivalent when compared with standard drug treatments.3
How does one take Triphala?
- Triphala is traditionally taken as a tea. Simply mix ½ a teaspoon of the powder into a cup of hot water. Stir it up and let it cool until it is at a comfortable temperature to drink. It may taste somewhat unpleasant at first, but over time one’s perception may change as the body becomes more balanced. Traditionally taste is an important aspect of the healing process.
- Take Triphala on an empty stomach. It is typically taken in the morning for its rejuvenating effects and at night for its cleansing effects. Experiment and see what feels best for your body.
- If you have a hard time with the flavor and still want the benefits of Triphala, you can try incorporating it into smoothies. It is also traditionally taken as a medicinal ghee. Add ½ a tsp of the powder into a tbs of ghee.
- Try making your own mouthwash with Triphala using ½ a teaspoon of the polyherbal powder to ½ a cup of warm water. Swish around your mouth and enjoy the benefits of a healthy mouth microbiome!
- Triphala: https://lostempireherbs.com/product/triphala/
Gynostemma pentaphyllum, also referred to as Jiaogulan in traditional Chinese medicine, is touted as “The Herb of Immortality”. Its medical use dates back to 1578 AD, when Li Shi-Zhen, a well-known herbalist wrote about it in his classical book, Compendium of Materia Medica. In the 1970’s, during a census in China, it was recognized that there was a lower incidence of chronic diseases of the elderly in regions where Gynostemma was historically used and grown. Since then there have been over 300 scientific paper published, and Gynostemma is considered an adaptogenic herb.5
According to herbalist David Winston, “Japanese researchers looking for non-caloric sweeteners stumbled across this plant. While investigating the chemistry of this plant they discovered that several of the constituents known as gypenosides were actually chemically identical to ginsenosides found in the unrelated Panax spp. [Chinese or Asian ginseng]. This is rather remarkable as ginsenosides had never previously been found in any plant that is not a member of the Araliaceae family [which is the ginseng family]”6. Panax spp. is a well-known adaptogen and the ginsenosides are credited for much of the medicinal effect of this herb. Gynostemma, which we now know contains these same phytochemicals (and in an even higher amount!), is easier to grow, making it perhaps more sustainable.
Adaptogens can be a wonderful ally in helping to recuperate after a busy holiday season. Adaptogens are particularly wonderful because they have an overall balancing effect on the body, and are safe for long-term use; they work on the HPA-axis and directly reduce stress.
Gynostemma is traditionally recognized for increasing yin and supporting yang– having an overall rejuvenating effect on the body. It has been used for supporting the immune system and reducing inflammation, which can help to support healthy functioning of organ systems—including the digestive system.5
David Winston likes to use the herb for “Type A” individuals who have stress-induced hypertension, anxiety, or insomnia.6 Sipping on some Gynostemma tea may just be the perfect remedy to help one recover from the holiday rush.
How does one incorporate this herb into everyday life?
- Traditionally Gynostemma is taken as a tea. A general dosage is 4 grams of herb steeped in 12 oz. of hot water for 3-4 minutes.
- You can get creative and make a nervous system support tea blend, combing Gynostemma with other nervous system supporting herbs such as linden, lemon balm, tulsi, and chamomile (these herbs are also great for the gut!).
- You can even grow this wonderful herb in your own home, giving you some verdant company in the depth of winter. Gynostemma is hardy to growing zone 6, and also makes for a great houseplant. Just place it on a sunny windowsill.
- Gynostemma Tea: https://lostempireherbs.com/product/gynostemma-tea/
Digestive bitters combined with carminatives can be supportive to enhancing and reestablishing digestive health. These herbs can be taken as tinctures or in tea form. Traditionally, a few drops of a digestive bitters formula are taken before/after meals to help with digestion.
- Elettaria cardomomom (Cardamom), Cinnamomom cassia (Cinnamom), and Zingiber officinale (Ginger) are supportive carminatives, and are also tasty. These herbs also improve circulation and can help with cold extremities.
- Some bitters I would recommend: Verbena hastata (Blue Vervain), Taraxicum officinale (Dandelion), Arctium lappa (Burdock).
Creating a gut-repair tea can be a fun way to experiment with different herbs and help heal the gut. Also, warm tea is so comforting during the chilly days of winter, making this a great seasonal practice. A good rule of thumb is to use 1-3 tablespoons of herb per cup of water. To make your tea: Bring your water to a boil. Pour the water over your tea blend/herb. Cover and let sit for at least fifteen minutes-overnight (if you want your tea extra strong).
Here are some suggestions of what to include in your formula:
- Anti-inflammatory Filipendula ulmaria (Meadowsweet), Glycyrrhiza (Licorice)
- Carminatives/Orexigenics Elettaria, Cinnamomom, Zingiber, Citru, Angelica archangelica (Angelica)
- Immune-modulatingMatricaria recutita (Chamomile), Achillia millefolium (Yarrow)
- VulneraryCentella asiatica (Gotu Kola), Plantago (Plantain), Calendula officinale (Calendula)
- NutritivesAvena sativa (Oats), Urtica dioica (Nettles), Rubus idaeus (Red Raspberry)
By taking the time to connect with our guts, we empower ourselves to make choices that enhance our health and wellbeing. The nature of winter reminds us to slow down and refocus. Let us honor our gut instincts!
- Elias, Jason, and Katherine Ketcham. The Five Elements of Self-healing: Using Chinese Medicine for Maximum Immunity, Wellness, and Health. New York: Harmony, 1998. Print.
- Hyman, Mark. The UltraMind Solution: Fix Your Broken Brain by Healing Your Body First: The Simple Way to Defeat Depression, Overcome Anxiety and Sharpen Your Mind. New York: Scribner, 2008. Print.
- Peterson, C. T., Denniston, K., & Chopra, D. (2017). Therapeutic Uses of Triphala in Ayurvedic Medicine. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 23(8), 607–614. http://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2017.0083
- Bajaj, N., & Tandon, S. (2011). The effect of Triphala and Chlorhexidinemouthwash on dental plaque, gingival inflammation, and microbial growth. International Journal of Ayurveda Research, 2(1), 29–36. http://doi.org/10.4103/0974-7788.83188
- Dipasquale, ND, RH (AHG), R. (2017, February 1). THE HERB OF IMMORTALITY: GYNOSTEMMA PENTAPHYLLUM. Retrieved November 10, 2017, from http://ndnr.com/botanical-medicine/the-herb-of-immortality-gynostemma-pentaphyllum/
- David Winston’s Center for Herbal Studies. https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=10155208650108692&id=139321718691