It’s easy to underestimate the effect that the seasons can have on our bodies, but think about how much you change throughout the course of the year. Compare the food you crave, your energy levels, your sleeping patterns, your mood and appearance, in the depths of winter, or brightest warmest summer. Ayurveda believes that if we adapt our lives to the seasons we will avoid the inevitable maladies that come when we’re out of sync with the world around us. So we should anticipate what the weather will do. For example, when it shifts from early to late spring – going from brisk to warm – we can start to reduce the amount of hot and spicy foods in our diets, to help cool us down internally. Likewise, trying to stop the body drying out at the end of summer will give you the advantage in autumn when your lungs and skin might become dry (skin conditions such as eczema and dermatitis and dry coughs are common autumnal complaints). For many of us this is an entirely new way of looking at the world, but one with centuries of practice to support it. Here’s how to begin:
We tend to come out of winter, and head into spring, with a lot of dampness in our systems – think of the chesty coughs and mucous colds, and also the lethargy we’re left with after months of darkness. Spring naturally supports change, and Ayurveda places a lot of store in this season, when it’s all about getting rid of the wetness that’s built up within our bodies. Of course spring is not without its typical ailments: whenever flowers start to bloom, hay fever rears its head too, and those who are most prone to colds in winter, will also be most prone to hayfever. We’re also in the process of getting rid of all that stagnant damp energy within our systems: many, many people suffer an annual spring cold at the beginning of March, which is the body’s way of trying to get rid of all the dampness (Ayurveda calls this kapha, and it is one of three main ‘doshas’ which relate to our bodies, and their individual constitutions). This cold is the body’s own bid to spring clean itself, but if you’ve been eating seasonally and ayurvedically throughout the winter there should be no need to spring clean… the body will be given a head-start and will not have built up phlegmy or mucous deposits. To kick-start your digestion and sharpen your mind in spring, start with a cup of fresh, stimulating tea – grate ginger and turmeric root into boiling water, allow to cool and add a small drizzle of honey to taste. Great for kids who still have chesty coughs and colds too! Food-wise you should focus on things that are naturally cleansing, as that’s what spring is all about. Focus on light and fresh meals that are easy to digest – we don’t want to add more stodge to a stomach that’s in the process of shifting winter’s excess. Food should, however, be warm – steamed, poached and grilled foods are all great in spring. Great seasonal meals for you and your family in spring include fresh pea soup, spring greens risotto, asparagus soldiers with boiled eggs, and grilled apricots for dessert.
Early summer takes us from spring’s end up to summer solstice. Late summer leads up to the onset of autumn, and is when the scorching, driest days fall – it begins at a point when the fire in our systems is at its highest and during this time our bodies can also dry out. Ayurvedic advice focuses on cooling the body down to prevent ourselves getting irritable, aggravated and unwell. Though many of us feel healthier and more vital in summer, naturally hot-blooded types (we call them ‘pitta’ in Ayurveda) are especially prone to getting flustered, and suffering the consequent heat and skin rashes and stomach upsets.
If you have the opportunity for a short daytime nap (which would be blissful), sleep with windows open, in a light warm room, and if you know you’ll be getting a good period of restful sleep at night, you can then fall into bed later in the summer without upsetting your body’s balance – 11pm up to midnight is fine. In summer, we can eat more salads than at any other time without it taxing our digestive system (I’m not a fan of all-raw all the time). It’s best to eat them at lunchtime, though, and to make them up of the vegetables that best support your constitution (learn more with The Body Balance Plan). Too much raw food at night is not ideal. Naturally water-rich, sweet and cooling foods – particularly coconut – are wonderful at cooling the internal fire of the body. Mild coconut-spiced curries with basmati rice are excellent. Likewise, hydrating nut and grain milks such as almond and rice balance internal fire well and also offer supplementary minerals and vitamins. Adding a squeeze of lime to your water is another great way of cooling down in the summer, as well as helping the body rehydrate faster. Fruits and vegetables are at their greatest nutritional peak, giving us an abundance of choices that support healthy eating. It is particularly important to avoid overeating, especially as the summer gets later. Foods that are cooling in nature are what the body craves, but don’t have ice-cold drinks. If they are too cold, although the initial relief is pleasant, your system will get a shock – eating too much cold or raw food can actually injure the spleen and stomach, cause headaches, upset digestion and slow metabolism. Stick to room temperature if you can. Meat-eaters should look for lighter flesh – in both colour and flavour – so chicken and both white and oily fish are best in summer. It’s also best to avoid citrus fruits – partly because they aggravate the body’s heat and acid, but also because they’re not summer fruits (they’re harvested in late autumn and winter). Also avoid having too much tomato, chilli, onion and garlic, all of which will increase our inner heat. An ideal summer menu could include green bean and courgette fritters (or courgetti – strings of courgette that resemble spaghetti), carrot and cucumber crudités with borlotti bean hummus, corn on the cob with grilled chicken, spring onion and mint spaghetti, and 4-berry sorbet (whizz strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and raspberries up in a blender with a dash of full fat goat’s milk yoghurt, then transfer to bowls and leave to set in the freezer).
As the days become drier and cooler, the focus this season is on keeping the system warm, moist and hydrated, and one’s mind calm. Comfort is key at this time of year. As autumn becomes colder and wetter, we must once again focus on balancing our bodies, to prevent them getting colder and wetter themselves (when we start to get a bit snotty and mucous-y!). Avoid eating too many cold and raw foods, which create dampness (upping our mucus and phlegm production). Grains are great: they are warming but also cleansing – stock up on quinoa, barley and basmati rice and use as the base for many of your autumn meals. Eat your vegetables warm and soft – steam for best results – and start enjoying seasonal soups and warming, silken stews again. Focus on foods that will ground you, dispelling cold, and making you feel toasty and happy inside. Porridge is a great morning meal; when I was pregnant for the second time (and feeling both poorly and nauseous) my panacea was a cockle- warming Cardamom Chia Spice Porridge (recipe can be supplied). Flavoured with maple syrup, this porridge is sweet, creamy, dreamy stuff, and chock-full of immunity-boosting antioxidants too. Mild sweet curries (made with squash and sweet potato) are great for the whole family. Also try aubergine fritters, mini mushroom pies, fish (Pollack and haddock are both in season) with celeriac chips. Make warm milk, spiced with ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg or cardamom for your children before bedtime.
For most of us, winter is cold, damp and cloudy – consequently, things can feel a bit sluggish. We move more slowly, we wake less eagerly, and many of us wander around harbouring a cough or cold and don’t have that same ‘zip’ in our steps. Look for ingredients with delicate natural spice, sweetness and also a satisfying, nourishing quality, without being too sticky, heavy or wet. Think of healthy, filling foods that are not processed ‘stodge’. Filling foods can be well digested when you focus on wheat-free grains such as spelt, barley or quinoa – eaten with stews and soups. But also add more grain-rich meals in general to your diet – porridge, polenta and risotto (made with brown rice, barley or spelt is a great option) – and seasonal root vegetables, and also add more milk to the diet. If you can’t tolerate lactose, then warming nut or grain milks, spiced with cinnamon, vanilla or nutmeg are the perfect thing to drink before bed. The good news is that we really can eat more in winter. Our digestive fire is always strongest in winter simply because we’re designed to need that extra fuel. Most people’s appetites tend to grow in the colder months and recede again once summer kicks in. This heightened digestive fire therefore makes winter the ideal time to enjoy some red meat once in a while, and all lean meats, particularly turkey and chicken, are fine too. This is also the time of year to start using ghee – a type of clarified butter which is used extensively in Ayurvedic cooking. Ayurvedic doctors praise ghee’s ability to nourish and ‘oil’ the body’s connective tissues, muscles and joints, while also stoking digestion. It is therefore a great thing to keep in your store cupboard in winter (due to its purity, it does not require refrigeration). Enjoy 3-grain risottos (with spelt, barley and rice), make root veg mash with lots of butter for the kids, served with chicken drumsticks and broccoli ‘trees’, finely dice cabbage and wilt with garlic and young goat’s cheddar for a speedy macaroni, and enjoy seasonal cinnamon- and star-anise spiced fruit crumbles with apple, pear, rhubarb and winter berries.