by Guido Masé RH (AHG) – Chief Herbalist, Urban Moonshine
Have you noticed that, when the seasons change, our food preferences change too? It’s a bit harder to tell now that fixed fast-food menus serve up unchanging fare, but humans have always eaten differently during the colder months. We have more meats, root vegetables, and rich dairy products than in summer when we can indulge in an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables. In Vermont, hunting season is in November; squash, turnips, onions and potatoes are ready; and farmer’s market features celebratory cheeses and rich canned sauces, jams, pies and sweets. I look forward to this time: it’s more focused on the hearth; it turns us indoors as we come in from the crisp air, and we gather around the family table to spend time with folks we haven’t seen all year.
One of the goals of herbal medicine, and of traditional culture in general, is to help us live more in harmony with these types of seasonal change. There’s good reason for this: it can be hard to adapt to the more hearty fare that’s available in the darker months, and folks sometimes feel sluggish, uncomfortable, and maybe even upset from eating big servings of meat, starchy vegetables, and pie. Add in a gathering of family members, often with wildly divergent interests, and it’s easy to see how disharmony develops.
So what can be done? Some attempt to keep the same food patterns of summer all year long – all raw food, lots of fruits and vegetables – in an attempt to resist seasonal change. As always, there is some wisdom to this: I wouldn’t want to return to the Vermont of yesteryear when winters featured an endless repetition of venison, cabbage, turnips and leeks. But to deny that there’s a change at all seems to echo our obsession with the endlessly regimented 40 hour work week. We cut ourselves off from a whole world of delicious, local, nourishing foods. And this strategy may not contribute to harmony at the family table.
Others support their system using artificial sources of digestive secretions, like enzymes, hydrochloric acid, or bile. This is like driving to your friend’s house, instead of walking or taking a bike. It may get you there, but in the long run won’t make you any more likely to be in harmony with seasonal change. In fact, clients I see who have been taking pills like digestive enzymes for more than a few days have an incredibly difficult time tolerating food without them. Similarly, once you get used to driving somewhere, you’re much less likely to bike. And I guarantee your body will suffer.
Fortunately, it works the other way too: try a walk, or a bike ride, and you’ll find it’s not too hard and it makes you feel great! Engaging our bodies always leads to health and harmony, while artificially doing the body’s work for it always makes things worse. That’s why I am so grateful that seasonal change offers an abundance of bitter roots and greens, from gentian to dandelion, frisée and arugula. It is these bitters that herbalists and traditional systems of cuisine use to help our systems respond and enjoy new, heartier, more indulgent fare. Bitters help the body secrete its own digestive juices so it doesn’t have to rely on artificial sources. Bitters help control sugar cravings and moderate our appetites, so weight gain becomes less of a problem. Bitters are harvested during fall, before the ground freezes, just at the right time to help. It’s like nature is watching out for us: harmony.
When you join your friends and family at seasonal celebrations, bring bitters along. You will be bringing the gift of smooth, healthy digestion and a balanced relationship to sugary treats. And your family is much more likely to recognize bitters as a legitimate addition to the feast: they are traditional this time of year, much more so than a bottle of pills. Folks you love may even share in your gift - bitters are a great conversation piece, they encourage conviviality, and can be home-made. Try some in an after-dinner cocktail to enchant even the most skeptical. When you bring bitters, you encourage an easy transition into heartier fare, all by working with the body, with plants that are ready and available this time of year. This is how it works: wherever there’s food, whenever you’re hungry, think bitters. Your reward – harmony in your belly, and at the family table.
Guido Masé is a clinical herbalist, herbal educator, and garden steward specializing in holistic Western herbalism, though his approach is eclectic and draws upon many influences. Guido works clinically and teaches at the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism (vtherbcenter.org), holds the position of Chief Herbalist at Urban Moonshine, is a professional member of the American Herbalists Guild, and is a part of United Plant Savers and the American Botanical Council and author of The Wild Medicine Solution: Healing with Aromatic, Bitter and Tonic Plants --- This article is brought to you by Urban Moonshine, makers of Organic Digestive Bitters in Original, Maple, Citrus and now Chamomile flavor!