The flavors and aromas of the holiday season set the mood for celebration, but they also provide some amazing health benefits. Read further for even more reasons to love the healing herbs and spices of winter that make us smile at this time of year…
I’ve always loved the wonderful herbs and spices of the winter season. There is something so enticing about the scent of cinnamon and pine, of citrus and bayberry… all of the aromas that evoke that magical time of the year.
I am referring of course, to the winters that occur in the northern hemisphere, as that is where I grew up. When the first crisp cold mornings start coming in, you know that the days of baking and hot chocolate are on their way! Jay and I have spent many winters in tropical environments, and it’s so different… somehow, a tropical winter holiday season just doesn’t speak to me, so I’d choose a northern holiday season any time.
I remember the first time I spent what I would call a “real” winter season, on the east coast of the USA. Oh, my, compared to the southern Texas winters I was used to, it was amazing! And much as I loved the Texas winter holiday season, I loved the east coast’s holiday weather even more.
Just the other day, Jay and I were discussing the fact that winter gets this huge punch of attention from the beginning of December through New Year’s Day and then…. nothing. No good will, no cheer, no more talk of roasting chestnuts… no nada, zilch. When you think about it, all of the winter scenes with snow and snowmen, ice skating, drinking hot chocolate, and so on, all fade from view after January 1. And that’s strange, because, technically, winter really only begins on the winter solstice, December 21… so it gets a mere two weeks of appreciation and then it’s all down to business again from January 1 and on.
But, really, in most of the northern hemisphere, the coldest winter weather comes along in January and February, often into March and sometimes (depending on where you are) into April!
So I think that we should celebrate the beauty of winter and all that it means for a little bit longer than just a few weeks. Otherwise, we are missing out on the health benefits that the healing herbs and spices of winter bring to us.
Traditional health systems, such as Ayurveda from India, advise us that we should eat certain foods according to the seasons. And for winter, that includes foods that warm and nourish the body, and they are a bit heavier and a bit more oily, to counter-balance the cold, harsh, and often windy weather of winter. With those foods, we also include the warming, healing herbs and spices of winter that stoke our digestive fires.
So, it doesn’t make good health sense that there’s a trend now that promotes starting to diet right after New Year’s and refrain from eating heavier foods in January, when the month of January is really smack dab in the middle of winter.
This trend has been brought on by the idea that many people over-indulge during the western holiday season from late November ‘til January first and as a result, they cut out all sugary, heavy or oily foods after New Year’s Day. I always think that it’s better to take the angle of moderation during the holidays, so we don’t throw our digestion out of balance by bingeing and then cutting off the foods that we need (in a balanced way) as soon as New Year’s Day is gone.
That means we don’t need to feel like pumpkin had its moment before December even arrived (you know what I’m talking about!) and then, after that, it’s passé. That would be a waste of a winter’s worth of fresh pumpkins and winter squash that we could be eating for our good health.
This whole concept got me thinking about the origins of some of the typical wintertime flavors and aromas that we identify with the season. You’ll be happy and maybe surprised to know that those very same herbs and spices that make us feel all warm and fuzzy inside are also very healing! So, I decided to make a little list.
Healing Herbs and Spices of Winter
The most likely candidate for the top healing spice that reminds us of winter days has got to be cinnamon. Even if cinnamon did not bring on the memories of winter that we love, it’s still an incredible healing spice.
The aromatic bark of the cinnamon tree is what we use as a spice, and it varies, depending on the variety of cinnamon tree from which it comes. The most common type, Cinnamon Cassia, is what you will find readily available in most shops and markets. The Sri Lankan variety, however, known as Ceylon Cinnamon, is the most fragrant, because it contains the highest concentration of cinnamon oil. This high cinnamon oil content provides us with the most healing qualities.
Cinnamon is excellent as a digestive aid, as a natural antibacterial to treat stomach disorders, and for coughs and colds. It is also helpful for diabetics, and can be used topically for skin care.
So, don’t hesitate to use as much cinnamon as you want when baking, cooking and mixing up spiced beverages during winter!
2. Anise Seeds (Aniseed) and Star Anise
You’re probably familiar with star anise, that lovely star-shaped spice, which is a regular ingredient in holiday cooking… particularly in mulling spices for wine or cider, and in desserts like gingerbread. Anise seeds, (or Aniseed) those tiny greyish aromatic seeds, are often used in South American and European holiday cookies and cakes.
Both aniseed and star anise, which features in Chinese 5-Spice mixes, have long been used in cooking for their fragrant liquorice-like flavor and for their digestive benefits. Although both of these fragrant spices taste similar because they both contain the same flavor compound, anethole, they are different plants entirely.
Aniseed and star anise have been prominent throughout history in treating respiratory ailments, as a gargle for sore throats, and to soothe digestive problems. Aniseed has long been used to create digestive liqueurs, such as sweet Mediterranean Anisette, Greek Ouzo, or Italian Sambuca.
Additional health benefits of both anises are: helping to relieve insomnia, assisting in milk production for lactating women and fighting bacterial and fungal infections. Plus, aniseed has the ability to treat cataracts and star anise has been indicated as an anti-cancer therapeutic.
Rosemary is an herb that we enjoy in wintertime dishes and the good news is that it is also super beneficial to health. With its anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, it is a great wintertime herb!
The phytochemicals (plant nutrients) in rosemary also counteract depression, which occurs more often in winter months. As with other healing herbs and spices of winter, we can take advantage of the aromatherapy benefits of rosemary oil, as its vapor aids in reducing winter congestion. Additionally, rosemary essential oil can be applied topically to relieve joint stiffness and inflammation.
Ginger, especially in dried form, features widely in wintertime recipes. Gingerbread, ginger snaps, ginger in pumpkin recipes…
Ginger is one of the most fantastic medicinal spices we can include in our diets – especially during winter. With its anti-histamine and anti-inflammatory properties, ginger is great for alleviating symptoms of congestion and sluggishness during winter months, while soothing headaches and body aches.
In particular, dried ginger is useful (more so than fresh ginger) for keeping our bodies warm… useful during winter months (as opposed to fresh ginger, which has the capacity to reduce body temperature).
Aside from its anti-nausea properties which are widely known, ginger is also anti-bacterial, heart healthy, anti-cancer and great for relieving menstrual cramps.
These highly flavorful and pungent little dried flower buds are not only tasty additions to chai drinks and holiday desserts, but they have amazing healing properties as well. Cloves are excellent for digestion and are anti-inflammatory, which helps with joint stiffness that often accompanies dry and cold winter weather. Cloves are also expectorant, which helps us to cough out congestion when mucous develops due to winter colds or flu.
We can also benefit from the omega-3 fatty acids packed into tiny cloves, and from the anti-bacterial and immune boosting properties that cloves possess.
6. Pine and Evergreens
Some of the most amazing and invigorating aromas of winter are the evergreens, which fill the air with rich, strong scents that are not only lovely to the senses, but are also quite therapeutic. In fact, not only can we enjoy the scents of evergreens, but we can also drink pine needle tea and eat pine nuts!
Let’s start with the aromatic health benefits of pine, fir, spruce and other evergreens. Inhaled by breathing in the diffused oil, these evergreens provide a sense of calm and well-being, particularly useful in times of stress. As much as we look forward to the holiday season, many people feel stressed during these times, so utilizing the healing power of evergreens is an easy way to dispel unwanted tensions. Evergreen oils are also useful to relieve sinuses and inflammation, and to energize.
If you have access to natural organic pine needles, it’s a great idea to drink a cup of pine tea. Traditionally used for thousands of years, pine needle tea is excellent for calming nerves and providing mental clarity. It is also a great source of Vitamin C, so is helpful to protect against colds and flu.
Lastly, let’s not forget pine nuts! These precious items are lovingly collected from the forests each winter season and are a real treat… not only for their amazing flavor but for their health benefits. With a fat content similar to almonds, they are high in nutrients that are heart healthy, good for the brain, energy boosting and are also excellent for skin and hair.
Note: Pine needles from most pine trees can be used for tea, excluding Ponderosa Pine and Norfolk Island Pine (Australian Pine), which are considered poisonous. Other evergreens that are safe to inhale as aromatherapy, such as cypress and yew, are not recommended for internal use. Gerry, from Forest Holidays suggests that a good way to know for sure is to avoid the ones with flat needles.
Bayberry is one of those intoxicating seasonal aromas that has long been used for scenting soaps, cosmetics and candles, evoking memories of home and holidays..
Bayberry bark root has powerful anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial actions and is a well known treatment for respiratory and sinus ailments.
Bayberry leaves can also be steeped as a tea and used to aid in stomach issues, to improve circulation and to counteract thyroid issues. It’s the wax from bayberry berries that provide that fantastic aroma in candles and soaps.
So, don’t forget to include bayberry as one of the most useful and inspiring healing herbs and spices of winter.
One of the most powerful scents that we associate with the holiday season is peppermint… from the ever-present peppermint candy canes that decorate displays to the peppermint-infused beverages that seem to go hand in hand with wintertime celebrations. The good news is that peppermint is a powerful natural remedy, so we are actually doing ourselves a favor when we indulge in peppermint flavored foods during winter.
Drinking peppermint tea or chewing on peppermint candies provides a pick-me-up of energy and breathing in the steam of a cup of peppermint tea can help with sinusitis and bronchial ailments.
Peppermint is also good for digestion, as it soothes and calms the muscles of the digestive tract. It is anti-inflammatory, which is helpful for reducing headaches and relieving muscle and menstrual pain.
From peppermint-infused hot chocolate drinks, to teas, mint candies and more, peppermint is definitely one of the best herbs for winter.
9. Myrrh and Frankincense
We can’t really discuss the healing herbs and spices of winter without including myrrh and frankincense, those two resins that feature in biblical stories of old… particularly associated with the Christmas story.
With their anti-bacterial, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties, it is no wonder that these two substances have been of great use throughout the ages, especially in the wintertime.
The essential oils of frankincense and myrrh are well known for their ability to relieve depression and tension. They also create a positive energetic when diffused into the air or burned during religious ceremonies, meditation and prayers.
Both resins are used as ingredients in insect repellents and in healing salves, as well as in perfumes. The resin gums can also be chewed for dental health.
I’ll round out this list by adding in citrus fruits, even though they are not herbs or spices… that’s because tangy, sweet, yummy citrus features heavily into winter aromas and flavorings. Citrus fruits are ready for harvest in the winter months, just in time for us to take advantage of their super-nourishing and healing properties.
Dried citrus shows up in holiday decorations in the form of threaded garlands, and is also used when oranges are studded with cloves for an aromatic tree decoration, like the one in the clove section photo above. (do you remember making one of those in school?)
We also enjoy the sunshine-y bright zing that citrus adds to spiced fruit drinks, desserts, salads and savory dishes during the holidays.
In addition to adding flavor and punch, citrus fruits increase brain health by aiding cognitive functioning. Their anti-oxidant components help to regulate blood glucose levels and fight cancer cell growth. With a hefty dose of natural Vitamin C, tasty citrus also contains a good amount of fiber, which is good for digestion and helps in weight loss.
Even breathing in the aromatic oils of citrus can be calming and soothing during this busy time of year when many people experience additional tension. So, we can be very thankful for the abundance of citrus that is available to us during wintertime.
After reviewing the benefits of the healing herbs and spices of winter, I’d like to propose that we hold off on yearning for winter to end before its time. We can do this by continuing to consume the pumpkins, squashes, apples, citrus, herbs and spices that come along with winter… long after those initial apple and pumpkin pies have made their debuts at our holiday tables.
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