As the wheel of the year turns and we approach the Winter Solstice - the shortest day and longest night - we can find comfort and nourishment in the wisdom of herbal medicine. The Winter Solstice, celebrated in cultures worldwide, symbolises the rebirth of the sun, a return of light and hope, and is a time of gathering, reflection, shared meals and quietude.
Historically, in Western Europe, the Winter Solstice - or Yule - was marked by feasting, merriment, and the burning of the Yule log. Herbs played an essential part in these celebrations, with people using what was available during the cold months or preserved from earlier in the year. Similarly, in traditional Chinese medicine, the Winter Solstice is considered a pivotal point in the year where the focus is on nourishing the body, particularly the kidneys and adrenal system, with warming herbs and foods.
Let's explore some medicinal herbs that can help support our health during these colder months, embracing the Winter Solstice spirit with recipes that warm the body and soul.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica): High in iron, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin C, nettles are a nutritive powerhouse. Known for their anti-inflammatory properties, nettles can also support joint health and alleviate symptoms of arthritis (Johnson, Foster, Low Dog & Kiefer, 2010).
Recipe - Nettle Soup: Start with sautéed onions and garlic, add potatoes for creaminess, then add a generous amount of fresh or dried nettles. Simmer in stock until everything is cooked, blend until smooth, and finish with a touch of cream if desired.
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus): This adaptogenic root is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to boost the immune system and ward off colds and flu. It's also known for its heart-protective properties (Li, He, Liu & Wang, 2014).
Recipe - Astragalus Broth: Add a large handful of dried astragalus root to your favourite vegetable or bone broth and simmer for a couple of hours. Strain before drinking. This nourishing broth can be used as a base for soups, sauces, risotto or stews.
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra): Packed with antioxidants, elderberries are famed for their immune-boosting properties and have been shown to be effective in fighting colds and flu (Zakay-Rones et al., 2004).
Recipe - Elderberry Mulled Wine: Combine a good red wine with elderberries, a squeeze of orange juice, a touch of honey, and mulling spices like cinnamon, ginger, cardamom, and cloves. Gently simmer uncovered for 15-20 minutes to let the flavours infuse but be careful not to boil. Strain before drinking.
Medicinal mushrooms: Shiitake, Maitake, Reishi, and Chaga are all fantastic immune supporters. They're also rich in minerals and provide excellent nourishment during winter (Valverde, Hernández-Pérez & Paredes-López, 2015).
Recipe - Medicinal Mushroom Risotto: Sauté a mix of medicinal and culinary mushrooms with onions and garlic, add risotto rice, then slowly add vegetable broth, stirring continually until the rice is cooked through. Finish with parmesan for a comforting winter dish.
Cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum): A warming spice that supports digestion and enhances circulation, it's a perfect addition to winter fare (Ranasinghe et al., 2013).
Recipe - Cinnamon Roasted Squash: Toss chunks of butternut squash in olive oil, cinnamon, and a touch of honey. Roast in the oven until caramelized and tender. It's a simple yet delicious side dish that pairs well with most winter meals.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale): A renowned digestive aid, ginger also has warming properties, enhances circulation, and can help alleviate symptoms of cold and flu (Mao et al., 2019).
Recipe - Ginger Infused Hot Chocolate: Combine your favourite milk (dairy or plant-based) with dark chocolate and a good grating of fresh ginger. Gently heat until the chocolate has melted and the mixture is steaming hot. Sweeten to taste.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa): Turmeric has potent anti-inflammatory properties due to its active constituent, curcumin. It's an excellent herb for supporting overall health and warding off winter ailments (Hewlings & Kalman, 2017).
Recipe - Golden Milk: Gently heat your favourite milk with a teaspoon of turmeric, a pinch of black pepper (to aid absorption of curcumin), a sprinkle of cinnamon, and sweeten to taste with honey. This warming, soothing drink is perfect for winding down in the evening.
As the Winter Solstice signifies the rebirth of the sun and the gradual return of more light to our days, it's a potent time to reflect on our own inner light and resilience. Embracing the restorative and nourishing power of these healing herbs can be a profound act of self-care during this introspective time of year.
As we make space for these ancient plants in our modern lives, we're not only nurturing our bodies but also keeping alive the wisdom of our ancestors who once celebrated this sacred time of year with these very same herbs. So, as we gather together to share these nourishing dishes, let's also share the stories, honour the wisdom, and celebrate the deep connection between the earth, our bodies, and the cycles of the sun.
Happy Winter Solstice to you all, and may your celebrations be filled with warmth, nourishment, and joy.
- Hewlings, S. J., & Kalman, D. S. (2017). Curcumin: A Review of Its Effects on Human Health. Foods, 6(10), 92.
- Johnson, R. L., Foster, S., Low Dog, T., & Kiefer, D. (2010). National Geographic guide to medicinal herbs: the world's most effective healing plants. National Geographic Books.
- Li, X., He, T., Liu, Y., & Wang, J. (2014). Astragalus polysaccharides inhibited diabetic cardiomyopathy in hamsters depending on suppression of heart chymase activation. Journal of diabetes investigation, 5(6), 657-665.
- Mao, Q. Q., Xu, X. Y., Cao, S. Y., Gan, R. Y., Corke, H., Beta, T., & Li, H. B. (2019). Bioactive Compounds and Bioactivities of Ginger (Zingiber officinale Roscoe). Foods, 8(6), 185.
- Ranasinghe, P., Pigera, S., Premakumara, G. A., Galappaththy, P., Constantine, G. R., & Katulanda, P. (2013). Medicinal properties of ‘true’cinnamon (Cinnamomum zeylanicum): a systematic review. BMC complementary and alternative medicine, 13(1), 1-16.
- Valverde, M. E., Hernández-Pérez, T., & Paredes-López, O. (2015). Edible mushrooms: improving human health and promoting quality life. International journal of microbiology, 2015.
- Zakay-Rones, Z., Thom, E., Wollan, T., & Wadstein, J. (2004). Randomized study of the efficacy and safety of oral elderberry extract in the treatment of influenza A and B virus infections. The Journal of International Medical Research, 32(2), 132-140.
- Nettle Soup: Inspired by traditional European recipes
- Astragalus Broth: Traditional Chinese Medicine recipe
- Elderberry Mulled Wine: Adapted from traditional European winter recipes
- Medicinal Mushroom Risotto: Original recipe
- Cinnamon Roasted Squash: Adapted from traditional winter recipes
- Ginger Infused Hot Chocolate: Original recipe
- Golden Milk: Traditional Ayurvedic recipe
Remember, while these recipes provide a way to incorporate medicinal herbs into your Winter Solstice celebrations, they're not intended to replace any medical treatment or advice. Always consult with a healthcare professional or a qualified herbalist if you're unsure.