We’re deep into winter, and Punxsutawney Phil just predicted six more weeks of it. It’s snowing here in Boulder, my family back in coastal New England has just been hammered by two storms with more snow on its way. Your vitamin D levels are probably dropping. Your serotonin may be as well, with low natural light exposure. People are passing colds back and forth. Time for Winter Wonder Foods! Eat to carry you through to sunnier, warmer times ahead. You will replenish nutrients and antioxidants that your immune system and mood will appreciate. These are among my favorites for this time of year. Most are readily available and in season, with prices that may be better than in other months.
Turmeric Root – A standout in 2014, people seemed to notice turmeric all of a sudden this past year. For a long time now, the functional medicine community has suggested this powerful antioxidant in supplements. Both turmeric and its popular component curcumin have been extensively studied. Curcumin comes from turmeric root. Many families of kids with autism are reporting happy outcomes by supplementing curcumin – read testimonials here, and there are undoubtedly more around the web. For my practice and my family, I love turmeric for its antiflammatory properties, supportive digestive action, and potential as an anti-microbial. When we have colds, I juice fresh peeled turmeric root with fresh peeled ginger root, whole lemon (skin and all), apples, celery, and cilantro. We also use it liberally in cooking. For curries, I like to mix at least a tablespoon of turmeric powder with a heaping tablespoon of cumin and another of curry powder, plus some red pepper flakes or powder.
Ginger Root – More fibrous and tough than turmeric root, ginger root works in a lot of places in your healing kitchen! Peel fresh root and mince into vegetable sautés: Carrot sticks seared to tenderness with fresh minced ginger and a dash of curry powder, cooked in a blend of toasted sesame oil, coconut oil, and a small dab of local raw honey, makes for a more nutritious, healthful, and interesting version than plain old steamed, without much more effort. Mince ginger into curries, simmer slices of it into chicken soup stock (remove before eating), or pour boiling water over sliced root for a tea to open sinuses and soothe an inflamed throat. Ginger’s benefits are legend, and recent work in mice showed that it reduced inflammation in ulcerative colitis. Another showed ginger’s components to be neuro-protective by lowering inflammation and inhibiting memory loss.
Brussels Sprouts – Finally! My favorite vegetable has dropped to a low of $4.19/lb for organic at my local grocer (still crazy expensive if you ask me). February is when prices drop on these and I have been waiting all fall. You knew these were good for you, but did you know how good? Check into these benefits: Brussels sprouts contain compounds that are protective against cancer, calcium loss and bone fractures, diabetes, and more. They also contain sulforaphane, a compound that created significant improvement when supplemented in young men with autism in this initial clinical trial.
Your kids hate these? Don’t give up. They may be won over with roasted rather than steamed Brussels sprouts. This brings out some of the sweetness while minimizing the strong bitter flavor. Rinse the sprouts and cut into halves or quarters. Toss with melted ghee, sea salt, or garlic salt. Add fresh minced garlic if that suits you, and some toasted pumpkin seeds or pine nuts. Roast at 400 degrees til fork-soft, 18-20 minutes. Go longer for a crispy-chip texture on the leaves. You can also pull sprouts into leaves and roast into chips that way, until brown and crisp, with ample salt, ghee, olive oil, or coconut oil.
Pink Grapefruit – Sounds summery, but winter is grapefruit season. At this time of year, grapefruit is tastier, cheaper, and more available. Obvious bennies are lots of vitamin C, lycopene, potassium, antioxidants, and bioflavonoids. All of these nutrients are helpful for immune function in one way or another. Even cholesterol levels appear to be directly improved just by eating pink grapefruit. The ultimate convenience food – peel and eat. Put peeled cut sections in your kids’ lunches if they’re too busy during the school day to pull these apart themselves.
Cod liver oil – One of the best sources going for natural vitamin D3, the biologically active form, is cod liver oil. I suggest children under 40 or 50 lbs use 1/2 to 1 teaspoon daily; more is okay for bigger kids under usual circumstances but check with your doctor if you aren’t sure. Fish oils vary for vitamin D content, and for processing, which can have negative impacts on the delicate fatty acids in these oils. Since CLO also contains healthy fatty acids plus some vitamin A, I prefer it over drops that only give vitamin D3 (though drops are useful in some cases too). I skip supplements entirely that only give vitamin D2. Foods that offer it are a bit scant: Fatty fish, egg yolks, beef liver, and cheeses. Debate about the vitamin D content of certain mushrooms leaves me inclined to suggest supplementation for vegans.
Our understanding of the many and diverse things that vitamin D does is far from complete. More hormone than nutrient, virtually every tissue in our bodies has receptors for vitamin D. It regulates genes that control immune response, blood sugar, cell growth, and many other functions. It’s not just about bones! In late winter, many of us lose vitamin D stores as we have less sun exposure. This may be a factor in depression. Increasing vitamin D level by just 10 points improved depression in young men in this study.
Fermented or not? This is a big debate. The Weston Price and GAPS communities won’t have it any other way but fermented cod liver oil. Some families I work with won’t go there. My next best pick is Pharmax, which processes fish oils more gently than other manufacturers, and has liquids that are palatable for most kids I’ve worked with.
Garlic – Eating fresh garlic daily (2 cloves or more) appears to reduce susceptibility to colds and flu. There are many ways to do this. You can:
• Mince and add to sautéed or roasted vegetables and stews.
• Place peeled whole cloves in 1/4 inch of olive oil, and heat gently for 10-15 minutes (until soft but not browned). Eat these whole. You can add salt if you like, and save the olive oil to drizzle on salad, veggies or bread or drink it down.
• Place raw peeled cloves in a blender with 2 cups water, a whole lemon, and 1-2 tablespoons olive oil. Blend until smooth; strain, and drink. This pungent drink taken daily will encourage liver to expel toxins and will keep colds and flu at bay. For an extra liver purgative and to make it taste a little easier, add a teaspoon of pure inositol powder.
• Try high potency allicin capsules when eating the cloves is not your thing. My top pick is AlliMax Pro, which gives 450 mg of allicin powder per capsule. Allicin is the active ingredient in garlic that has been shown to have antimicrobial and immune protective activity.
When eating fresh garlic, do so quickly to get the most from the active allicin component, which has a short half life once you crush the garlic.
Sweet Potatoes – Here’s a food most kids like, and it’s easy to prepare: Heat oven to 4oo degrees. Put in potatoes. Bake 45 minutes. Done! Of course there are other yummy ways to eat sweet potatoes, but start there if you have too much to juggle at dinner time. Add butter, ghee, ground cashews or macadamia nuts, and a little maple syrup for extra glamour.
Seriously though, sweet potatoes give vitamin A as beta-carotene, which is another crucial immune helper. In fact, the recent mania about measles should be talking more about vitamin A than vaccines: Even the World Health Organization and UNICEF have protocols that engage high dose vitamin A for children exposed to measles. Vitamin A has both therapeutic and preventive actions against this virus, and dramatically reduces mortality from complications of measles (diarrhea and pneumonia). For detail on the many ways in which vitamin A supports our immune systems, click here.
If baked sweet potatoes are too boring, you have a lot of options, depending on how ambitious you are. Sweet potato pancakes from scratch are delicious if you have time to make them. Quick breads, pies, and cookies are too, when made with leftover sweet potato. You can drop left over bakers in a smoothie (remove the skin first) to give a sweet and creamy texture. Or, just serve them mashed, with some orange zest or even orange juice added.
You may feel like hibernating for a few more weeks, but if you do, enjoy these foods that are in season in February and may have better prices than in other months – just in time to carry you through the last of colds, flu, and winter blues.