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by David Osborn, MH, L.Ac
Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmas time is here, by golly, disapproval would be folly,
Deck the halls with boughs of holly, fill the cup and don’t say when!

So opens a satirical song on Christmas by Tom Lehrer.  Its tongue in cheek sarcasm captures the way many of us feel about the holidays:  It’s nice to be joyful and festive and pass the holidays with friends and family, but it can be tough getting through them.  Too much eating, too much drinking, and the cold winter weather can take their toll.  What too many people don’t know, or don’t appreciate adequately, is that herbs can be a big help in getting through the holiday season with vigor and gusto to spare.

What most people don’t realize, or appreciate adequately, is that many common cooking spices are also herbs, which are used extensively in herbal medicine.  Gourmet cooks appreciate the way cooking herbs and spices enhance and complement the flavor of fine food, but what most of them don’t realize is that these same herbs and spices are also enhancing the digestibility of those same foods and helping the body neutralize the toxic residues that they can leave behind, especially if they are overeaten.

The herbs and spices traditionally used in cooking Christmas dishes not only complement the food, both gastronomically as well as digestively and medicinally, but they also complement the cold winter season and the kinds of foods our bodies feel a craving for in such a season.

In Greek Medicine, the winter season, being Cold and Wet in nature, is conducive to the production of excess phlegm, or the Phlegmatic humor.  And so, coughs, colds and phlegm congestion in the lungs are common health problems in winter.

In winter, the weather is very cold, and our bodies have to compensate for this fact by burning a lot of caloric energy to keep us warm.  And because we’re expending so much caloric energy just to keep our bodies warm, we tend to crave rich, heavy foods that have a lot of calories.  But these rich, heavy foods are also hard to digest, and can lead to the production of excessive phlegm and other morbid humors if they are not digested properly or fully.

The cooking herbs and spices that predominate in the foods we eat during the Christmas season are Hot or warming in nature, to stimulate the vital forces of digestion, circulation and metabolism.  Their light, dispersing, heating nature is also remedial for the heavy, phlegmatic, calorie rich foods that they are cooked with.

In your hot spiced cider, you have a blend of Cinnamon, Cloves, Ginger, Nutmeg and Allspice.  The piping hotness of the cider, and the heating nature of these stimulant herbs, combine to warm the body, fend off chills, and support the vital forces of circulation and metabolism.  This hot spiced cider can also stimulate the appetite for the holiday meal to come.

Most of these same herbs, plus a little Cardamom, are also used to spice up the egg nog.  The heavy eggs, cream and dairy used in egg nog would be extremely phlegm forming if their Cold, Wet Phlegmatic nature were not remedied or offset by these warming, drying, dispersing and stimulating herbs, which help the body digest the heavy, phlegm forming ingredients of the egg nog.

You find a lot of these same spices in your holiday pumpkin pie.  Its rich, sweet filling would also overburden the digestion if it weren’t for these same warming spices.  Let’s examine each one of them, and their therapeutic properties and virtues, in more detail:

Allspice – Allspice is actually a sweet kind of pepper, combining the flavors of Cinnamon, Nutmeg and Ginger.  It is a stimulant that warms up the stomach and digestion, as well as the circulation and metabolism.  It is also useful to ward off chills.

Cardamom – Cardamom is a fragrant seed pod of the Ginger family, and is a stimulant tonic to the stomach and digestion which disperses thick, turbid humors left behind by a tired or overburdened digestion.  Its fragrant odor, besides dispersing turbid phlegm and dampness in the GI tract, helps in the digestion of sweets and carbohydrates and other rich food.  It is also mildly stimulating to the kidneys and adrenal glands.  Chewing a couple of Cardamom pods after a meal on a regular basis will gradually strengthen the stomach and improve digestion, as well as reduce gas, belching and bad breath.

Cinnamon – Cinnamon is the sweet and pungent bark of a tree that grows in southeast Asia.  It is warming or heating in nature, and stimulates the digestion and metabolism, especially the metabolism of sweets and carbohydrates, since it is sweet in taste, and will help to overcome a sweet tooth with regular use.  There are two kinds of Cinnamon, the Chinese and the Spanish, with the former being a thick bark, and the later a thin, frilly bark.  Spanish Cinnamon, also called Canela, is available in Hispanic supermarkets, and, cooked up as a tea, perhaps with a little grated fresh Ginger thrown in as well, is an old Hispanic cold remedy.  Chinese herbal medicine uses the twigs or branches of the Chinese Cinnamon tree for a similar purpose.

Cloves – Cloves are very Hot in nature, and are a powerful stimulant.  In earlier times, Cloves enjoyed the reputation of being a sexual stimulant, or aphrodisiac.  The heating energy of Cloves will dissipate cold, thick phlegm from the throat and relieve gas and belching.  They also settle the stomach, and are a cure for hiccups.  The essential oil of Cloves has an analgesic or pain killing effect, and will deaden the pain of a toothache; even biting into a Clove with the affected tooth will deaden the pain of a toothache, since about half of the Clove bud is the essential oil.

Ginger – In herbal medicine, Ginger enjoys the reputation of being the perfect stimulant.  Ginger delivers quite a bit of stimulating heat to the organism, yet it will not irritate the delicate mucosa of the stomach or GI tract, as many heating stimulants can do, especially in excess.  Ginger’s harmonizing tonic action on the stomach is legendary, and it is often the remedy of choice in dyspepsia, a weak digestion, nausea and motion sickness.  A little bit of Ginger is often added to an herbal formula to increase the absorption, circulation and metabolism of the other ingredients in the formula, and to guard against stomach upset.  Dried Ginger is a stimulant that warms the interior and disperses chills, whereas fresh Ginger, either boiled up as a tea or used as an ingredient in cooking, will stimulate the immunity and act as a diaphoretic, or sweating agent, to sweat out colds and chills, while guarding the pores to make sure that no new pathogenic factors can enter.  And so, in fall when the weather is changing, as well as in winter, it is a good idea to cook with plenty of fresh Ginger.

Nutmeg – Nutmeg is both a warming stimulant to the stomach and digestion as well as a mild astringent tonic that is a remedy for diarrhea, particularly the diarrhea caused by the excessive consumption of sweets, carbohydrates and rich foods.  And so, it is an essential remedial ingredient in the holiday egg nog.  When consumed in large doses, or in excess, Nutmeg can also be a mild sedative and narcotic.

And then come the holiday meats and viands.  Like the sweets, pies and egg nog, they can also be heavy and hard to digest.  And, perhpas more than any other kind of food, meat generates a lot of toxic residues as byproducts of its digestion and metabolism.  And so, through centuries of empirical experience of trial and error, certain kinds of herbs and spices, or herbal jellies and condiments, have been associated and served with certain kinds of meats as not only being their gastronomic complement in flavor, but also the medicinal remedy, or antidote, for the toxic residues generated by their consumption.

For the holiday ham, there is Cloves.  For the pot roast or roast beef, there is Mustard, Horseradish and Black Pepper.  Sausages, whether they be of chicken, turkey or pork, are often spiced with Sage.  For the leg of lamb, there is Mint jelly.  Most of these spices and condiments are heating and stimulating in nature, to counteract the heaviness of the meat, and some are soothing, cutting or astringent in nature.  What all of them have in common is that they are beneficial stimulants and tonics for the digestion.

Indeed, few there be who can restrain their appetites enough during the holiday season to listen to the still, small voice of moderation and not send down to their stomachs and their digestive fire any more food / fuel than it can handle.  So, if you have overeaten of a certain food, and are suffering the pangs of indigestion and digestive overload, the ideal remedy is to consume more of the same spices that were used to cook or prepare it with, to give added support to the digestion to finish off the digestive process.

In Western countries and European nations, we tend to be subtle and understated in the spicing of our food.  However, the digestion of our food would be better served if we were to spice it more heavily.  In Eastern countries like India, they tend to go to the other extreme, and drown the food in a sea of hot, pungent spices, so much so that the flavor of the original food can hardly be tasted.  Too many hot spices, consumed over too long a period of time, can irritate the delicate mucosa of the GI tract, producing indigestion or irritable bowel.  The optimum, or Golden Mean, lies somewhere in between these two extremes.

If you should catch a chill or get under the weather, a handy remedy is to take a quarter to a half teaspoon of Black Pepper and mix it with enough honey to make a paste.  Eat the paste, washing it down with hot herb tea.  If you should need another dose to really kick the cold out, you can take one a few hours later.  To protect the stomach from irritation or upset, you can mix the Black Pepper 50/50 with powdered Ginger.

So, be convivial yet sensible when you celebrate with family and friends this holiday season.  And don’t forget to enlist a little bit of herbal help if and when you need it.

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