How to Practice Self-Care Over The HolidaysDr. Miranda Wiley, ND
December 7, 2020
Holidays in the new normal
As we approach the winter solstice with the longest night of the year many of us are experiencing both dread at what the dark days of winter will be like during this historical event, and cautious optimism for the other side of it when the days slowly elongate again and we return to the promise of spring. Around the world different cultures have responded to the increased darkness with celebrations and cultural events that centre around light including Hannukah, Diwali, Christmas, and the Chinese spring lantern festival. In the yin-yang symbol, light and darkness co-exist and are found within each other. Likewise, addressing the simultaneous light and dark throughout this coming holiday season may prove to be the best balance for our mental and physical health.
Acknowledge the dark cloud…
Denying emotional reactions does not make them go away, but instead can trigger them to amplify for acknowledgement. Grief and anger, when expressed appropriately, are not “bad” feelings. They are simply feelings. Real feelings. So watch the sad movies, cry as needed, talk to loved ones about how you are feeling, schedule in an hour or a day to have the pity party you need.
…but Try to look for the silver linings
Nothing is permanent. Everything passes in the fullness of time. One day we shall gather again in droves and will celebrate the sheer joy of simply being alive and connected to other human beings, free to hug and shake hands, to share food and chat without masks! Until that time comes, turn to movies and books that promotes optimism, resilience, and rebirth! Take the time to journal, to meditate, to discuss with others what and who it is that you are missing the most right now. Setting an attitude of gratitude for what we DO have helps to strengthen our ability to always find the good.
Adaptogens – this “new normal” is what they’re there for! If you stand at the bottom of a redwood (or any other very tall tree) you’ll be amazed, and perhaps a wee bit terrified, to see how much they sway. But they have to grow up flexible and able to bend. If a tree grew straight up with no room to give it would be felled by the first strong wind that blew its way. Likewise, stress is not a “bad” element in our lives, so much as a challenge that can help us to grow. Some stress is fun, like exercise or planning a party, but other times stress can be mildly or horribly uncomfortable. We have the capacity to adapt to change, to bend, to be flexible, and when we adapt we are able to grow upwards with more resilience, strength, and grace, better able to withstand the next stress that comes our way. Herbs that support our ability to adapt are conveniently called “adaptogens”. They often work on our brain and adrenal glands (the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) through actions on specific receptors1. Adaptogenic herbs may be taken as “simples” (single herbs) or as a synergistic blend, depending on the preferences of the individual.
Key adaptogens include:
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), which is unique for being one of the few calming adaptogens. If stress is manifesting as anxiety, lack of sleep, overdrive, and tension then ashwagandha is a herb to consider2.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea) is a stimulating adaptogen that can give us a boost physically, mentally, and emotionally. It has been shown to improve mental health/mood, cognitive function, and to improve fatigue1. Because of its energizing effects Rhodiola is best suited to morning or early afternoon use and best to avoid before bed.
Holy Basil (Ocimum sanctum) is another wonderful Ayurvedic herb, like ashwagandha, that supports the body and the mind against a variety of stresses and is best suited to long-term use as a tonic. From blood sugar balance, to cold exposure, to addressing anxiety and depression, to antimicrobial properties, holy basil has your back!3. The blood sugar balance part may be particularly applicable this holiday season!
Another excellent herb for blood sugar balance is Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus) found in the liquid Adrenal Support Liquid Herb from Botanica. St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum) isn’t an adaptogen but I mentioned it above for mood support along with holy basil and rhodiola. St. John’s Wort is wonderful for mood support, particularly in the darker months when Seasonal Affective Disorder can rear its ugly head, but it has a lot of drug interactions requiring caution. Always good to consult a qualified health care practitioner trained in herbal medicine if mental health is a concern, but particularly so when considering St. John’s Wort.
CONNECTION IS KEY
In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) the Liver is in charge of the flow of Qi (energy, movement). In TCM, stagnation, or feeling stuck in life, will lead to impaired liver function, while any insult to the liver organ (excess alcohol, rich foods) will contribute to reduced energy and motivation and feeling stuck in a rut. But the holidays in the Western World are notable for alcohol and rich foods! And in the olden days we were traditionally a bit more stay-at-home so those life observations fit. Cold, wintry weather is not the ideal time for travel so the depth of winter was a time to stay in a connect with ones’ local community, and to connect with each other over stored meals of salted, dried, fermented foods.
So let’s acknowledge our ancestral wisdom of spiraling inwards with our attention and focus over winter, and supporting ourselves and our core inner circles of loved ones. This year those connections will likely involve modern technology with video calls so we can reach out and communicate with loved ones while stay snug in our pyjamas! And let’s support our livers through the season of celebration with the temptation of excess while being mindful of our limits and seeking a balance between treats and self-care.
Key herbs for liver support are milk thistle, turmeric, and dandelion root.
Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum) is probably the best known and respected herb for liver health and improved detoxification4. With no known toxicity4 milk thistle is a wonderful adjunct to this holiday season.
Dandelion (Taraxcum officianale) root has a long traditional use as a bitter herb that supports bile flow and liver health7.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is a well-studied digestive tonic, liver support herb5, and anti-inflammatory6. Daily use of turmeric as a herbal supplement and/or as a spice in foods and beverages is a wonderful adjunct to a healthy routine.
Winter is the season for letting go of the previous year in anticipation of the spring with its new possibilities. It’s been a tough year for most people and there’s an opportunity for solidarity and understanding it that. But spring is coming, and with it a new appreciation for all that we didn’t quite realize that we had before the pandemic. Be kind to yourself and others over the holidays, and be mindful that this process is changing us all, and if we are able to adapt then we can reach for the sun as the days grow longer again.
- Panossian A, Wikman G. Evidence-based efficacy of adaptogens in fatigue, and molecular mechanisms related to their stress-protective activity. Curr Clin Pharmacol. 2009 Sep;4(3):198-219. doi: 10.2174/157488409789375311. Epub 2009 Sep 1. PMID: 19500070.
- Lopresti AL, Smith SJ, Malvi H, Kodgule R. An investigation into the stress-relieving and pharmacological actions of an ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) extract: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Medicine (Baltimore). 2019 Sep;98(37):e17186. doi: 10.1097/MD.0000000000017186. PMID: 31517876; PMCID: PMC6750292.
- Cohen MM. Tulsi – Ocimum sanctum: A herb for all reasons. J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2014 Oct-Dec;5(4):251-9. doi: 10.4103/0975-9476.146554. PMID: 25624701; PMCID: PMC4296439.
- LiverTox: Clinical and Research Information on Drug-Induced Liver Injury [Internet]. Bethesda (MD): National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases; 2012–. Milk Thistle. 2020 Jan 21. PMID: 31644124.
- Mansour-Ghanaei F, Pourmasoumi M, Hadi A, Joukar F. Efficacy of curcumin/turmeric on liver enzymes in patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Integr Med Res. 2019 Mar;8(1):57-61. doi: 10.1016/j.imr.2018.07.004. Epub 2018 Jul 27. PMID: 30949432; PMCID: PMC6428926.
- He Y, Yue Y, Zheng X, Zhang K, Chen S, Du Z. Curcumin, inflammation, and chronic diseases: how are they linked? Molecules. 2015 May 20;20(5):9183-213. doi: 10.3390/molecules20059183. PMID: 26007179; PMCID: PMC6272784.