Today is the first day of Autumn. The day the hours of sunlight are perfectly balanced with those of darkness. A chill is detectable in the air, at least in the morning and evening, and the summer’s bounty of peppers and tomatoes is giving way to squashes and roots.
In another reckoning of the seasons, it’s the beginning of the school year. This means that people of all ages are adjusting to new sleep schedules, new relationships, and new expectations.
Additionally, as some plants die back and others begin to stretch for a winter of dormancy, there are piles of decaying plant matter giving off the spores of their assistants, the molds and fungi that will turn them back into healthy, vibrant soil. And some plants like Ragweed, which trigger allergies in many people, are giving off pollen.
This combination leads to yet another name for this time of year: the beginning of cold season. Now, colds are really not a problem. Our immune systems evolved alongside bacteria and viruses, and actually need the stimulation of occasional infection to keep us robustly healthy.
But that doesn’t mean it’s fun to have a cold. It’s really not. And colds aren’t the only threat to our health at this time of year; our digestion changes and shifts with the season, and if we’re not on our toes we’ll be holding our bellies after meals, wondering why we feel bloated and over-full. And of course, pushing our bodies while we’re unwell, as many people’s work demands, sublimates the harm, which can manifest years later as life-threatening chronic diseases.
What can we do?
The foundation of health is rest and digestion. As the daylight shortens, it’s necessary to turn on electric lights earlier. I find that, once they’re on, it’s tempting to keep them on pretty late. Sometimes, in the heat of Summer, I can just go to sleep when the sun sets and my house starts getting dark. But I’m not going to bed at 7:30.
Setting an intentional bed time can be really helpful. Don’t make big changes all at once–if you’re going to bed at 1 am, don’t suddenly put your PJs on at 10pm and crawl into bed. (Actually, some people can do this. Know thyself.) Just slowly dial your bedtime routine back until it feels right, spending at least a few nights at each new bedtime, and not trying to change it by more than 30 minutes at once. A brilliant musician I used to know always set a bedtime alarm. We’d be hanging out after a show and suddenly, his alarm would go off and he’d head home. While I don’t like the trend of people salivating when their phone rings a bell, I see value in this for some people.
And if your evening routine includes hours of internet or television, that’s the first thing to cut. Those screens emit light on the blue side of the spectrum, which make our brains think it’s daytime. That means that even reading, a common relaxing before-bed activity, can be disruptive to circadian cycles if you’re reading on-screen, or using an LED reading light. Better yet, try 20 minutes of journaling. Getting your thoughts and feelings onto paper can help process the events of the day. And if you keep that journal by the bed, you can write down nagging thoughts that keep you awake, then release them into the ether.
Nourishing your body with wholesome, well-cooked food and tonifying herbs is also clutch. Fall is a season when the element of Air predominates. Drying, rough and ever moving, this element causes the outward signs of aging and creates pathways for disease to enter and take a seat. Counter this by avoiding dry, crunchy foods like raw vegetables and chips and bubbly drinks like seltzer, soda and beer. Instead, throw a buncha veggies and some locally raised meat, preferably on the bone, into a big pot with some filtered, spring or well water, stick a lid on it, and let it cook for hours. The vitamins and minerals will dissolve into the broth and be perfectly available to you and your loved ones.
“But Iris! I don’t have hours to cook! I have to rush from one thing to the next like a crazy person!”
I understand. But you don’t have to babysit a pot of stew. A few minutes of chopping is really a lot more satisfying than a few minutes of agonizing indecision in the chip isle. And then you walk away and come back and your food is ready! If you have a crock pot, they’re awesome for this, because the chance of burning things is super low. But as long as you put in plenty of water and keep the lid on and the flame low, even a pot on the stove is unlikely to burn. After dinner, pack the leftovers into glass jars that are the right sizes for the people in your household to take with them for lunch the next day.
You can increase the healing powers of your soups and stews with the addition of nourishing herbs. Let roots like Astragalus, Ashwaghanda or Burdock cook right in with the foods for as long as you can. Add leaves like Nettle, Dandylion or Violet with about an hour left to cook. And put highly aromatic herbs like Thyme, Oregano and Hyssop in AFTER you turn off the flame. Just stir them in and let them steep as the stew cools to a tolerable temperature.
Then, right before bed, put some steel cut oats into a pot with 4x as much good clean water and let it soak overnight. In the morning it’ll cook up in ten minutes (but you do have to watch and stir during that time) into a deeply nourishing meal that will build your poor, frayed nerves and get you through til lunchtime. It’s fun to experiment with add-ins. My children love raisins or other dried fruit and cinnamon, but my favorite way to eat oat porridge is with an over-easy egg cut in and a sprinkle of salt and pepper. You can even add healing herbs, the same way you would with soup!
The other big thing is staying hydrated. As the weather cools and our lifestyles get more sedentary, it’s easy to slow down on water intake. But it’s a big mistake. Our bodies need water now more than ever to stay balanced. Ice water is taxing to our systems. Imagine your stomach is fueled by a furnace. You wouldn’t throw ice water onto your furnace, it would slow the process immeasurably. Instead, feed your cells with room temperature water and warm teas and infusions. Sugar is NOT what you need right now, as it will feed infection long before it feeds your cells. Even juice is too sweet to have much of.
Nourishing herbal infusions are an amazing help at this time of year. Fill your handy quart jar with an ounce (weigh it, at least until you feel comfortable eyeballing it. Yes, it’s a lot.) of dried Nettle leaf, Oatstraw, Linden leaf and flower, Red Raspberry leaf, or Red Clover flowers. Other herbs are great for tea, but you would only use about a tablespoon of dried herb per quart of water with most herbs, never a whole ounce. Pour a quart of freshly boiled, clean water in a circular motion over the leaves, so that they all get evenly moistened. Put a cover on (it can be the lid to the jar, but the cooling liquid will contract, which may re-seal the lid. A small plate works, too) and wait 4-8 hours.
Then strain the rich liquid through a strainer and drink a cup at a time, keeping the rest in the fridge for up to three days. If you want to warm it up, put just as much as you will drink immediately into a small sauce pan over a low flame. Swirl the pan to stir, and take it off the flame as soon as you see steam rising from the surface. Don’t let it boil, or even simmer! If you want to sweeten it with honey, please add that AFTER you warm it, as cooking honey causes a chemical change which turns it from a healing, nourishing, protective substance to a toxin! Infusions of these particular herbs are nutritional powerhouses, just swimming with perfectly bio-available vitamins, minerals and enzymes that you had no idea you were missing but will be very glad to have!
Finally, keep moving. It’s easy to say it’s too dark/cold/windy to go out, but you’ll be setting yourself up for a rough row to hoe. Go for a walk at lunchtime. Bundle the children up (if they’ll let you. Teach them to listen to their bodies about temperature regulation, and then trust their instincts. But carry a sweater in each child’s size. To build your upper body strength, you understand.) and get out to the park! Collect colorful leaves and seed pods just for the sheer wonder of it. When it rains, or when you can’t get out, stretch, dance and breathe deeply right where you are.
With these simple steps and careful attention to the needs of your unique and beautiful self, you can enjoy an energized, clear journey through Autumn. Please share what works for you, and how you’re handling the challenges that arise in the comments below! And if you’re really feeling stuck, please reach out using the contact form and I’ll be very happy to work with you to help you navigate. Staying in balance in an ever shifting world is tricky, but well worth the effort!