Five practices for greater vitality
As we enter the cold and flu season, it is necessary for us to take steps to boost our immunity.
What do we do if we come down with a runny nose, body aches, sore throats, fever or a heavy feeling in the head?
We may be tempted to stay away from those who have succumbed to these symptoms because we think that the more close contact we have with others, the more likely their germs will migrate to us. But not everyone who is in the presence of a sick person will become infected. When we are strong and healthy and when our immune system provides an effective defense, we are unaffected by the germs that continuously surround us. But when our immunity is compromised, we are susceptible to catching even a simple cold. There are many factors that weaken our immune system; chronic unremitting stress may be at the top of the list. Fortunately, there are also Ayurvedic practices that can safeguard your immunity.
Herbs are our Friends
Herbs can be tremendous allies in supporting our immune systems during the winter months. Many herbs play an important role in strengthening, rehabilitating, and enhancing immune system function. Three “must have” Ayurvedic herbal immune boosters include:
Ashwaganda (Withania somnifera) is undisputedly one of the best Ayurvedic herbs for immunity. This adaptogen has a reputation as a strong and sure immune tonic and stress reducer. This herb also has a specific affinity for the nervous tissue. It tonifies the central nervous system and protects it from becoming depleted. It is indicated for any “hyper” symptoms such as anxiety, rumination, insomnia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Ashwaganda is also one of the best rejuvenative herbs for nourishing and tonifying the whole body system. As a warming herb, Ashwaganda is a good choice in a winter months, especially for those with excess vata. To take this herb, use one teaspoon of honey plus two teaspoons of ghee added to a cup of warm milk. A pinch of nutmeg can be added to assist absorption and also promote a sound sleep.
Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum) is another powerful adaptogenic, stress-relieving, and immune-supporting herb. It is a good choice for the winter months as it can be used as treatment for flu symptoms. Tulsi clears mucus from the lungs and upper respiratory tract; it treats fevers and flus by encouraging sweating, therefore reducing body temperature. This diaphoretic effect is amplified when tulsi is combined with cinnamon or lemongrass. In respiratory infections, Tulsi tea can be prepared with the addition of clove, a spice that helps boost respiratory immunity.
A cup of tulsi in the morning supports immunity on a daily basis. As a natural immune-modulator, it boosts anti-viral activities in the body.
Another important action of this healing herb is that it helps to create a positive, peaceful mind.
Another of the great immune supporters in Ayurveda is an ancient formula called Chyawanprash. The primary action of this wonderful elixir is to build ojas (immune strength) by increasing resistance to infectious diseases and building hemoglobin and white blood cells. Chyawanprash is a superb remedy to include as part of a program to recover from illness and stress. It utilizes immune boosting qualities of many herbs, but it relies for its success upon Amalaki (Embilica officinales). One of the names of Amalaki is “dhatri” meaning mother or nurse indicating that this herb is the ultimate healer. Amalaki has a massive vitamin C content which also serves as a powerful antioxidant. Amalaki is also renowned as a rejuvenative and adaptogen herb famed for slowing the effects of aging. This is due to its antioxidant properties preventing free radical damage to the cells. A teaspoon of Chyawanprash can be taken twice daily, in the morning and in the afternoon, throughout the flu season to support the immune system.
Winter dryness affects us internally as well as externally. What do we do to stay warm when the temperature drops? We turn on the heater and that just further aggravates the dryness. It is important to add water to your body as well as to the air in your home. Low humidity can dry the air and promote airborne germs to linger. Moisture in the air makes these germs grow larger and fall to the ground, so you are less likely to inhale them. The dryness also affects the mucus membranes in the sinuses. When the nasal mucosa is dry, it produces large amounts of reactive mucus to cope with the dryness. Mucus provides the perfect feeding ground for viral and bacterial infections. One solution is to keep your sinuses and the air in your space moist by using a cool mist humidifier.
The most obvious way to hydrate your body is by drinking water. During the winter months sip hot water or herbal teas every 10-15 minutes throughout the day. A general suggestion for hydration is to drink half of your body weight in ounces per day. For example, if you weigh 120 pounds, drink 60 ounces of water.
In the winter months, it is good to lubricate yourself by performing daily self-Abhyanga (full body massage) with warm sesame oil to counteract the skin’s dryness, which is increased during this season. The Charaka Samhita, the most authoritative work on Ayurveda, states that daily Abhyanga makes one strong and least affected by old age. Abhyanga may also influence the skin’s contribution to immunity and hormonal balance. A number of studies have found significant benefit from massaging newborns, such as enhanced weight gain and responsiveness.
You can also lubricate your nasal passages by inserting a few drops of Nasya oil or just putting a tiny bit of ghee (clarified butter) into your nostrils by immersing the tip of your pinky finger into ghee and then rubbing it into your nostrils.
Winter is the season to enhance our immune system and support and nurture our body. Foods that are typically harvested in the winter help the body hold onto fats, proteins, minerals and vitamins. To stay strong and healthy, eat with the seasons. This means consuming foods that are most nourishing during the cooler and dryer months of winter. From November to February, eat more foods that are sweet, oily, moist and hot. The most beneficial foods from the vegetable category will be squash, zucchini, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, beets, avocados, and carrots. Vata-pacifying foods include nourishing grains such as oats, quinoa, amaranth, and wheat. Sweet, juicy fruit such as pears, persimmons, mangoes, grapes, and baked apples promote maximum nourishment.
Generally, eat more soups, stews, and steamed veggies. Drink lots of hot water and herbal teas.
Finally, it is always important to avoid the foods that can cause ama (toxins) to accumulate. Stay away from leftovers, processed food, ice-cold foods and drinks, and heavy foods such as fried foods.
Sleep is very valuable to your well-being. The first step to feeling well-rested is to have a regular bedtime. When you are tired, it is difficult to cope with stressful situations. When the body struggles, it becomes vulnerable to disease.
Ayurveda recognizes cycles in nature that apply to sleep patterns as well. Maintaining consistency will help keep your circadian rhythms – the biological changes that happen every 24 hours – steady. The science of Ayurveda states that it is important to retire around 10 pm, since that is at the end of the kapha time, the time that you are the most grounded. Sleep gained after sunrise will not be as refreshing as the time in deep sleep gained before midnight.
Medical research has shown that keeping unnatural routines, like staying up through most of the night, will weaken the body’s natural immune strength and general effectiveness. Some evidence suggests that night shift workers have more medical disorders, especially digestive complaints. The same study found improvement of overall health of workers when they returned to the day shift.
Cold temperatures are no excuse to slow down your exercise routine. Different body types need different amounts or styles of exercise; generally, the key is to engage in moderate, regular exercise (at least 30 minutes per day) and not to overdo it. Overexertion weakens the immune system, leaving you more vulnerable to illness. Daily walks and yoga postures are good for balancing all the doshas and especially suit vata types, while more vigorous daily exercise is required by kapha types to stay healthy.
When you exercise, you are moving the lymphatic fluid, which detoxifies the body by increasing the return of fluid and debris from the tissues to the general circulation as well as speeding up the circulation of white blood cells, helping to maintain the body’s defensive systems. When there is poor waste removal, the body speaks to us with symptoms that are associated with lymphatic congestion such as swelling or fluid buildup, lack of color or vitality in the skin.
By following these suggestions, you will help create and maintain overall health and vitality and increase your chances of staying healthy through the seasons of colds and flu.
Ala Sudol is a Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist who has been practicing Ayurveda in Los Angeles since 2000 and offers health consultations, various Ayurvedic therapies, workshops and lectures. She has studied with Dr. Vasant Lad, Dr. David Frawley, and Dr. Marc Halpern, among others: ala-ayurveda.abmp.com.