January    |    Warming

Coping with Cold and Winter Elements

George R.R. Martin…summer is the time for squabbles. In winter, we must protect one another, keep each other warm, share our strengths.

In the park where I walk my dogs there once lived an over-sized, thick juniper tree that for some reason the city took out. When first I noticed, my disbelief turned to sadness thinking how many times I had thanked this evergreen for its shelter and perhaps I did not thank it enough. I live on an island where the wind blows cold and intense from November to May. That juniper blocked the icy gusts so I could stand near and feel warmer even on the most frigid days. This, just one example of the botanical relief gained for the winter season I dislike. Externally and internally, plants work in wondrous ways to create warm energy within like the comfort of a sleepy dog curled up at your side and a mug of steamy chai in your hands.

Herbs can dispel cold and drive away chilling influences in the body. The cold effect reaches deep into sensitive places like digestion, muscles and joints, immunity, and circulation. Botanical remedies take notice. Warming herbs may be analgesic, positively affect blood flow and heart function, stimulate digestive and absorptive processes and increase peristalsis. They nourish, speed up metabolism and protect from illness with the capability to support and restore balance.

All systems of botanical medicine from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to Ayurveda to Western herbalism recognize plant energetics as either warming or cooling and utilize this significant characteristic as a fundamental practice principle. The guiding premise highlights the warming herb’s ability to dilate blood vessels. Freer flow of blood results carrying vitality to all body organs and tissues. Ayurveda dubs warmth the fire of life

Nature has no mercy. Nature says, “I am going to snow. If you have on a bikini and no snowshoes, that’s tough. I am going to snow anyway.”….Maya Angelou

Obviously, in winter the need for extra warming accelerates. Despite different tolerances, if exposed long enough, anyone gets chilled. The freeze may lodge in the body and stick around long after exposure. But cold may also result from internal causes such as insufficient activity, inadequate nutrition, or a deeper weak constitution. Constricting cold slows body functions, like digestion or blood flow. For TCM practitioners, cold is a pathogen, an agent that causes illness or disease. In fact, injury by cold possesses such a critical role that a whole philosophy, textbook and practice evolved purely based on frosty invasions. This method of practice dating from the Han Dynasty called Shang Han Lun outlines six stages of cold conditions with specific ways of treating each. As a person passes through the stages, illness becomes more severe and difficult to treat. It is highly complex but the bottom line is pathogenic cold can create serious problems and is a signal that vitality suffers.

Walt Whitman…give me the splendid silent sun with all his beams full dazzling.

More energy equals warmer body. The intricate process of thermogenesis converts the energy we make into internal heat thus regulating body temperature.
Plants contain chemicals and make energy just like humans. For example capsaicin, an active chemical ingredient in chili pepper, has the ability to stimulate cells to turn energy into heat, a drop or two of cayenne tincture will do. Volatile oils and other active constituents in ginger and cinnamon also have the ability to create heat by speeding up metabolism and increasing circulation.

Every plant has a characteristic designation warm, cold, or neutral. Sometimes this is obvious as in warming ginger or cooling mint. Taste gives a clue with pungent, sweet, and sour herbs generally warming; bitter, salty, and astringent herbs cooling. When using herbs for medicine the temperate importance takes center stage as a means of individualizing the best herb for each person. An herb that is too cold given to someone suffering from cold can damage further and vise versa with warm. Think how comforting a hot cup of tea can be after shoveling snow for an hour versus a tall glass of iced water. The opposite of course is the case after a summer day on the beach. All traditional herbal medicine systems incorporate herbal energetics as a vital method for matching appropriate herbs to people and not to conditions. The best herbal formulations yield thermodynamic balance. For example, bitter herbs help digestion, but are generally cooling with the exception of angelica, which is warming and if added to a bitters formula will prevent damage from too much cooling. Still for someone who suffers from extreme cold sensitivity, this bitter formula may not be right and instead a predominantly warming ginger and angelica formula with a drop or two of a cooling bitter may be best.

Charles Dickens…winter is the season in which people try to keep the house as warm as it was in the summer when they complained about the heat.

Herbal medicines that treat cold disorders encompass both cold that attacks from the exterior and cold that is deep rooted internally, translation acute versus chronic condition. Warming herbs that dilate and open blood vessels stimulate circulation. The warming effect takes place as blood flows more freely to hands, feet and places that feel coldest. If blood is circulating in a strong way through the body, we create more internal energy and stay warmer. Herbs for warmth can be added to food, taken as tinctures and teas, used as liniment and oil rubs, or as vinegars and even capsules.

The warming blend possibilities for teas are limited only by preference. Ginger, garlic, and cayenne added to soups or stews represent food as medicine. My favorite warming herbal remedy is cocoa. Perhaps because of the memory of childhood snowmen, sledding and becoming icy cold by choice, warming up with hot chocolate feels monumentally comforting. Theobroma cacao, the chocolate tree, may not seem botanical but cacao is in fact a warming bitter herb. Add cinnamon, cardamom, a pinch of cayenne and a dash of vanilla and voila, the most delicious warming beverage appears. I first came to realize cocoa as an herbal beverage while reading the fascinating teachings of Jim McDonald, an incredibly masterful herbalist. Here is a link to his recipe for cocoa. While you are there, explore the rest of his information packed website, but caution, you may get lost for hours as I do every time I visit.

Cold hands, warm heart

Kindness and compassion, there is always a need for more. Behavior studies show that warmth triggers associations of comfort and safety making us more likely to think of others rather than ourselves. Humans and animals are drawn to warmth which generally feels better than cold. Sun, hugs, cozy blankets, fireplaces, what makes you feel warm and why not add warming herbs to the list?

Warming herbs

  • Angelica
  • Bayberry
  • Black Pepper
  • Cardamom
  • Cayenne Pepper
  • Cinnamon
  • Clove
  • Cocoa
  • Cumin
  • Evodia
  • Fennel seed
  • Galanga
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Horse chestnut
  • Horseradish
  • Juniper berry
  • Mustard seed
  • Paprika
  • Prickly ash
  • Rosemary
  • Sassafras
  • Star anise
  • Turmeric




Maciocia G. The Foundations of Chinese Medicine. New York: Churchill Livingstone, 2004, p691-698.


Chen JK and Chen TT: Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology. City of Industry California: Art of Medicine Press, Inc.; 2012.