I am a huge fan of dairy. Specifically pastured dairy products like raw milk and cultured items like yogurt and kefir. I believe it is a nutrient-dense food that, for many, can provide the body with much-needed nutrients such as calcium and vitamin K2. These nutrients that make dairy so unique and desirable are even more important during periods of growth and development, such as pregnancy and breastfeeding, childhood and adolescence. Many athletes and bodybuilders, also with very high nutrient needs, rely heavily on dairy for their special nutritional needs. But dairy consumption in recent years has seen a steep decline, despite how much it has to offer. Due to allergies, intolerances, and even dietary fads, many people today are removing dairy from their diets for, some with success and others not so much. This guide is meant to help those who wonder if dairy may actually be doing more harm than good in their diet, helping to determine if dairy is actually the culprit and, if it needs to be removed, how to do that without missing out on the nutrients missing with eliminating dairy.
Do I think everyone needs to go dairy-free, or that dairy is somehow "unnatural" to the human diet? Absolutely not. When Weston A. Price traveled the world to study indigenous diets and healthy outcomes, he found many cultures that consumed dairy. This was not always from cow's milk, however. People from all over the world figured out how to use dairy as a good source of nutrition thousands of years ago, which came from goats, sheep, camels, yak, reindeer, and more, in addition to cows. There is now evidence of humans consuming dairy from different species for over six thousand years, proving that human resourcefulness in harnessing the nutritional power of dairy is nothing new, and is frankly just as "natural" to us now as farming, raising livestock, gardening, fermentation, cooking, and many other dietary practices not seen in other animals.
Of course, I only advocate consuming dairy from animals that are treated well, are raised outside, are fed a natural diet on pasture, and are not given unnecessary chemicals. When cows are raised in this way, they are not only happier, but their milk is more nutritious. Then, when left raw and/or allowed to ferment to create yogurt and other products, it is even more healthful. Real milk contains calcium, potassium, phosphorus, vitamins A and K2, many B vitamins, protein, healthy fats and cholesterol, iodine, and even probiotics, so it clearly cannot be all bad.
However, it is true that not all people can tolerate dairy and some, in fact, are allergic. This is not everyone, but it is very common now in many dietary circles and paradigms to hate on dairy. As I showed above, dairy is not necessarily a dietary villain, and automatically assuming it should be eliminated is not always the right thing to do. So, do you need to go dairy-free? And, if so, how can you do this healthfully? Here is a guide to get you started.
First, off figure out if dairy is actually a problem for you. How will you know?
Consider your ancestry. As mentioned, many cultures had dairy, all over the world. Depending on your particular ancestry, you very well may tolerate dairy just fine. Dig into traditional diets, such as those studied by Weston A. Price, to see if dairy foods, from whichever animal, is something you genetically are set up for.
Get allergy testing done. Figuring out if you have an actual allergy is a good first step. If you are truly allergic, then eliminating dairy is absolutely necessary. However, if you get allergy testing that comes back negative, consider testing then for lactose intolerance. If both come back negative, but some types of dairy still don't seem to work for you and symptoms persist, keep doing your dietary detective work. Aside from testing, if you already know you get a distinct reaction, perhaps in the gut, sinuses, skin, etc. right after consuming dairy, then you already know taking it out is appropriate and you can move on to the foods section below.
If a true allergy or intolerance isn't "proven" by lab tests, but you sense you may not tolerate dairy, start by eliminating only processed dairy, such as pasteurized, homogenized milk and cream. Especially avoid ultra high temperature (UHT) pasteurized milk, filtered milk, and any products made with these such as half and half. In this step, start by keeping in butter, ghee, raw milk and cream, full fat yogurt, kefir, and aged cheeses. Try this for 2-3 weeks.
If you still notice an adverse reaction to milk, or have symptoms without an identified cause, try other species of milk, such as goat and sheep, instead of cow's milk. Raw goat or sheep milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, and kefir are all available either directly from farmers or at health food stores. Try these dairy products from animals other than cows, to see if symptoms improve or you generally start to feel better.
If you find you have a poor reaction to raw, unprocessed cow dairy and dairy from other animals, then elimination may need to be the next step. In this case, take out all dairy from all species for 4-6 weeks to see if total elimination begins to improve symptoms. The cause for an inflammatory response to dairy, unless explicitly allergic or lactose intolerant, is usually found in the gut. Leaky gut can cause a negative to reaction to dairy, though it is itself a harmless food. So, during this elimination phase, start to work on gut-healing. This may include getting lots of probiotic foods and supplements, if fermented foods aren't tolerated, as well as generous amounts of bone broth, organ meats, egg yolks, and pastured animal fats. Look at how other lifestyle factors may be damaging your gut health as well, including stress, sleep, exercise, chronic dieting, and lack of time spent in nature. Consider using a gut-healing protocol such as the GAPS diet or working with a practitioner in person as well, who can help work on your unique body. These are only general guidelines, not meant to diagnose or treat anyone; if you feel some serious healing needs to happen, find someone to work with you can help you specifically.
After this period of elimination and gut healing, see if you have healed enough to add in dairy again. Start gradually, adding dairy back in step-by-step to see if it is well tolerated again. Begin by adding in goat or sheep milk and dairy products, then try raw milk or cultured cow dairy products. If you find you tolerate any of these, great! You may be able to eat dairy again, especially in its natural form, either raw or fermented. If symptoms come back with adding in these foods again, it may be best to keep it out indefinitely, perhaps trying again in a year or so after doing more gut healing.
Whether during the 4-6 week dairy-free time, or if you are compelled to leave out dairy indefinitely, there is more to be considered once you take this out. For those whom dairy is not an option, extra attention must be given to some other areas of the diet. You cannot just eliminate an entire food group, especially one that provides some very necessary nutrients, and not replace them. I see so many people not getting enough calcium because they took out dairy without mindfully replacing what it gave to the diet. I am very concerned there will be an increase in cases of osteoporosis when the current generation of young people, eschewing dairy, start to age. This is an important issue to address now, as bone health is best taken care of proactively, not when a bone breaks or tooth decay begins.
Mindfully including foods and/or supplements rich in calcium and other minerals, along with fat-soluble vitamins, will ensure that your diet remains nutrient-dense and complete, and also relieves the burden dairy may have on your body if not well tolerated. If you are going to consume dairy alternatives, such as when no animal's dairy works for your body, be very picky and read labels closely. Most milk alternatives, like soy or oat milk, are extremely processed and provide very little nutrition. Yes, some are enriched with synthetic vitamins, but even these do not fully replace all that whole, raw, grass-fed dairy can offer in the diet. If you decide to consume these, I recommend you only use them on rare occasions, and select brands that are soy-free, refined oil-free and as minimally processed as possible. Those made from nuts and seeds, rather than grains and soy, are better choices. Still, they are not nutrient-dense, real foods, so you must be sure you are replacing what is missing by taking out dairy.
So, if you aren't eating any dairy, what might you be missing? Here is a list of foods you will need to emphasize in order to replace dairy's nutrients.
Nutrients of Concern and Foods to Replace Them
Calcium: I would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't know dairy is a good source of calcium, so this one is pretty obvious. However, this is a huge gap I see in the nutrient intake of almost anyone who decides to remove dairy. Our bodies still need 1000-1500 mg of calcium per day, whether we tolerate dairy or not. A lack of calcium in the diet is associated with poor density, including risk of osteoporosis, as well as tooth decay, irregular heartbeat and more.
What to eat instead: Fish with edible bones (a major source of calcium in traditional diets that did not contain dairy), such as sardines or salmon, which are the best non-dairy source of calcium and should be included at least twice a week in the diet. Besides fish bones, some plant foods offer bioavailable calcium, but most are in amounts that are much lower than animal sources. These plants include: cruciferous vegetables and dark leafy greens, and absorption is increased if the vegetables are cooked; beans and nuts; winter squash; seaweed; and blackstrap molasses. No matter what combination of foods you use, they need to add up to around 1000 mg per day of calcium, or up to 1500 for pregnant and nursing women.
Potassium: Needed for healthy blood pressure, heart rate, muscle contraction, and electrolyte balance, potassium is actually difficult for many to get enough of in the diet. Dairy is a surprisingly good source, so if you start to take this out, begin to replace it with the other main sources in the diet: fresh fruits and vegetables.
What to eat instead: Especially good sources are potatoes, sweet potatoes, bananas, avocado, berries, tomatoes, greens, plantains and coconut water. Lean meat will also supply some, but I encourage relying on fresh fruits and vegetables for this, as I encourage meat with fat on it for the other nutrients it provides.
Vitamin K2: Pastured dairy is a fantastic source of vitamin K2, which is needed for calcium signaling, sending it to the bones rather than soft tissues and arteries. This promotes healthy bones and teeth, while protecting the heart, brain, kidneys and other tissues from calcification. While butter and cheese are delicious and easy sources of K2, not everyone can consume these and, luckily, there are some other great sources available. Because this is a fat-soluble vitamin, eating plenty of fat is needed to absorb this properly, no matter where you get it form.
What to eat instead: Poultry livers, such as goose, duck, and chicken are some of the best sources of vitamin K2. Two servings of liver per week is adequate to meet many of your body's needs, emphasizing poultry livers for the K2 if you don't consume any dairy. Natto, a fermented soybean product, is also rich in K2, while other fermented foods can provide trace amounts.
B vitamins: B vitamins are needed for numerous functions in the body, including energy metabolism, nervous system function, and methylation. Dairy is a good source of many of the B vitamins, including B12, B6, B2 (riboflavin), and B7, pantothenic acid (when raw), so these deserve some attention if dairy is out. For vegetarians and vegans, or those for whom meat may not be readily available or in their price range, these may need to be supplemented with a good B complex as well.
What to eat instead: B12 is not always an issue when going dairy-free, as it is present in all animal foods, so getting plenty of meat, organ meats, and eggs can supply plenty of B12. However, if you have limited meat or egg intake for various reasons, then pay special attention to B12 and consider supplementation. B6 is abundant in unprocessed foods, so eating enough of these will help meet your needs. B6 is rich in meat, organ meats, beans, and legumes, and in smaller amounts in some vegetables and fruits. B2, also known as riboflavin, is rich in raw milk, as it is susceptible to damage by heat. Non-dairy sources of riboflavin include meat, fish and shellfish, organ meats, legumes, and whole grains. Dairy is not necessarily the best source of B7, pantothenic acid, but it is a contributing source for many. If removing dairy, be sure to consume plenty of seeds and nuts, liver, meat, fish and shellfish, eggs, and generally unprocessed foods. Clearly, all the B vitamins that would be provided by milk are able to be found in other foods. Give extra attention to liver and organ meats, bone broth, muscle meat, fish and shellfish, eggs and whole grains to ensure all of your various B vitamin needs are met sans dairy.
Iodine: While we typically think of foods from the sea as the best sources of iodine, dairy foods actually contribute a good deal of iodine to the diet, especially for those not consuming iodized salt. If you are excluding dairy and don't eat iodized salt, which I recommend to avoid, then getting adequate iodine must come from sea foods, both plant and animal in origin. Iodine is essential for healthy thyroid function and hormone balance, especially for fertility and pregnancy, so it cannot be overlooked.
What to eat instead: Consuming two servings of fish or shellfish and two servings of seaweed per week should be adequate to meet your iodine needs without dairy. Many fruits and vegetables will contain trace amounts, but seafoods are definitely the most dense source of iodine, and the fatty fish like sardines also provide selenium, also needed for a healthy thyroid.
Cholesterol and Healthy Fats: Cholesterol and fat are essential in the diet, and full-fat dairy can be a great source of these in the diet. All full-fat dairy will contain cholesterol and arachidonic acid, while grass-fed dairy not only supplies these, but also has small amounts of omega 3 fatty acids. Dairy also provides conjugated linoleic acid when full-fat and grass-fed. Without dairy supplying these in the diet, it is necessary to consume plenty of animal fat from grass-fed animals in its stead to replace these health-promoting fats. These fats needed for hormone protection, healthy inflammation response, satiety, healing and wound repair, brain health, skin health, and even absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, like D and K. With so many essential roles in the body, we must get plenty of other fat when dairy is out, and "non-dairy milks" will simply never replace dairy in this category, so other animal fats must fill this role.
What to eat instead: For cholesterol, eat at least 2-3 eggs per day, along with animal fat like tallow or lard. These also provide arachidonic acid, as will fatty cuts of meat and fat-rich bone broth made from pastured animal bones, along with conjugated linoleic acid. For omega 3 fatty acids are abundant in fatty fish and shellfish, so two servings of these per week will be beneficial. Other fats to include to replace butter and dairy fat include coconut oil, avocado oil, and olive oil, but emphasize rendered animal fats and egg yolks for even more benefit when dairy is excluded.
Because the absence of dairy can leave such a huge nutritional gap in the diet of many, that dairy-free milk replacements simply cannot compare to when used to replace it in the diet, supplements may also be needed. Getting plenty of the other foods discussed above to ensure your body is getting what it needs is of course the first step, but adding in food-based supplements can also be needed, especially if your diet is limited in any other way besides excluding dairy.
Probiotics from cultured dairy like yogurt and kefir
What to eat instead: fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kim chi; small amounts of cultured soy like tempeh, shoyu, miso, and natto; fermented vegetables like kvass, water kefir, and kombucha; non-dairy yogurt on occassion, made from cashews, coconut milk, or almond milk--avoid soy- or oat-based yogurts
Some supplements to consider when going dairy-free include:
Bone meal: This provides a bioavailable source of calcium, and can be taken in powder or capsule, form. I recommend this highly if you remove all dairy and are not able or willing to regularly consume fish with edible bones (such as canned salmon or canned sardines) and do not eat a lot of beans, nuts, or green vegetables, such as a low-carb dieter.
Vitamin D3 with K2: These fat-soluble vitamins work together with calcium and several other minerals to ensure good bone health. If you aren't eating dairy and don't want to eat liver 1-2 times per week, then adding in this supplement is a must. If you live in a Northern climate, this is probably a good idea to supplement with, even if you do eat dairy, during the winter months.
Liver Capsules: If you don't eat any liver, adding in a desiccated liver capsule supplement can also help meet some of your needs, especially if you can't get them from dairy. It provides B vitamins, iron, and small amounts of vitamins D and K2. Unlike the supplement mentioned above, it also contains vitamin A that would be missing without liver or dairy.
Cod Liver Oil: Cod liver oil supplies vitamin A and omega 3 fats, both found in full-fat pastured dairy, so it can be a great supplement for the dairy-free folks. This also supplies small amounts of vitamin D. Be sure to purchase a good quality brand for your cod liver oil, looking for extra virgin or fermented virgins if it fits your budget.
Kelp: I only recommend adding a kelp-based iodine supplement if you are dairy-free and also don't regularly consume animals and/or plants from the sea. If you don't eat dairy but get two servings each of fish or shellfish and seaweed, you may not need to supplement with this. If both dairy and seafood are off the table, you need to supplement with iodine in this case.
A traditional, nutrient-dense food like quality dairy, from many different animals, is such an important part of many diets. Unfortunately, modern processing practices, poor gut health, immune dysfunction, and the assault on our bodies from environmental toxins make it so not everyone can enjoy this food with good health outcomes. In this case, be sure to take extra care to meet your body's unique nutritional needs, and you can live a happy, healthy life, all while being dairy-free!
I am always looking for new flavors of sauerkraut to make, and I just so happened to have some extras of these goodies that needed to get used up in my fridge. Inspired by a juice blend at a health food restaurant and juice bar I worked at in college, the delicious combination of carrots, apples, and ginger add a nice sweetness to balance out the tart and slightly bitter flavors of the sauerkraut itself. Adding fruit to fermented vegetables is nothing new, and is a common addition to some types of kim chi in Korea, which also sparked inspiration for this combo.
When adding fruit to your ferments, be sure to keep a closer eye on your jars than usual, as the higher sugar content of this kraut may tend toward mold or kahm yeast. Keep everything submerged below the brine to prevent this, shorten the fermentation time a bit, and you are good to go. Feel free to use red or green cabbage here and scale the recipe up or down as desired, always keeping the ratio of salt to vegetables 1 tsp to 1 lb.
Serve this kraut on a brat, alongside breakfast sausage, on a toasted ham and cheese sandwich, mixed in with coleslaw, tossed in a green salad, or even use as a post-cooking addition to crispy roasted potatoes. Anywhere you want to add both sweet and tart flavors, this is your guy.
Makes 2 quarts
1 medium head cabbage, about 2-3 lbs, shredded
1 lb carrots, grated
1/2 lb apples, finely diced
2" fresh ginger root, grated (or to taste)
4 1/2 tsp sea salt (may need a bit more or less; use ratio of 1 tsp salt per lb of vegetables)
In a large mixing bowl, set on top of a kitchen scale and tared, combine the cabbage, carrots, apples and ginger. Based on this weight, add the corresponding amount of salt, using the ratio 1 tsp fine sea salt to 1 lb of vegetables.
Stir in the salt and massage into the veggie mix. Massage the salt in for 5-10 minutes, until the cabbage softens significantly, the volume of the veggies reduces by about half, and juice is easily wrung out of the mixture when squeezed.
Pack the salted cabbage mix into glass jars or a ceramic fermentation crock. Press the mixture in tightly, allowing you to fit as much as possible in the vessel, while also removing any air bubbles present. Pack and press until the jar is filled to its shoulders, not all the way to the top, and until a distinct layer of brine rises above the vegetables. If not much brine is present, continue with the process and check the jar after 24 hours. By this time, the salt will likely have pulled more water out of the vegetables and fruit, creating plenty of brine.
Place a fermentation weight on top of the mixture, keeping it submerged well below brine throughout the fermentation process. Put a non-reactive lid on top, screwing on very loosely to prevent breakage.
Set on your counter at room temperature, out of direct light or extreme temperatures, and let sit to ferment for 5-10 days. Check regularly for mold or yeast, pressing the weight to keep the veggies submerged if needed.
When done fermenting, remove the weights and transfer the kraut to the fridge. It will keep for about 1 year under refrigeration.
Having clear, glowing skin is a outward sign of good health, and something most of us probably strive for. But really great skin is made from the inside out, and requiring a nutrient-dense diet and other healthy habits. A wide range of issues can cause skin to be less-than-optimal, including: acne, rashes, psoriasis, eczema, rosacea, puffiness, redness and more. Certainly, food allergies and sensitivities can be at play for some people, in which case removal of these foods for a time or forever may do the trick. For many, however, the key to better skin lies in what is missing in the diet. While all having varying root causes, all of these come down to three basic issues that can be fixed with a more traditional diet: inflammation, hormones, and the microbiome. Here are some nutrients and foods to include to help improve these three key ares, especially if you are looking to achieve clearer, better looking skin.
Fat-soluble Vitamins: Fat-soluble vitamins, which need plenty of fat for proper absorption, are essential for robust hormone health. The fat-soluble vitamins A and E not only help with improving hormone balance, but also act as antioxidants to protect skin from damage, including from the sun, and from inflammation. Vitamin A helps keep skin moist and smooth, and vitamin E is needed for healthy cell membranes, protecting skin from the outside world. All of the fat-soluble vitamins, especially A and E, from traditional foods are a must in any skin care regimen.
Foods to include for fat-soluble vitamins: liver from pastured animals and extra virgin or fermented cod liver oil for vitamin A; eggs for vitamin A and cholesterol; nuts, seeds, olive oil, and avocado for vitamin E
Healthy fats and Cholesterol: Skin issues are often linked to an imbalance in reproductive hormones, all of which are built on a backbone of cholesterol. Other fatty acids also help with decreasing inflammation, as well as ensuring adequate of the vitamins mentioned above. EPA and DHA are omega 3 fatty acids that promote healthy skin and decrease inflammation, which arachidonic acid, an omega 6 fatty acid, is needed to prevent eczema and other inflammation in the skin. A low fat diet is not going to bring you the best skin possible, but healthy, traditional fats certainly will!
Foods to include for cholesterol and healthy fats: eggs yolks, pastured meat and wild-caught shellfish for cholesterol; wild-caught fatty fish like sardines or salmon, as well as cod liver oil for omega 3 fatty acids; eggs, dairy, and animal fat such as tallow or lard for arachidonic acid.
Address the gut and the microbiome: Much of what comes out in our skin starts in the gut, so keeping our microbiome diverse and balanced, teeming with beneficial microbes will help us break down and digest our food better, prevent inflammation, and keep skin happy. Including plenty of fermented foods and probiotic supplements adds to the beneficial bacteria in the body, while soluble fiber acts as prebiotics, feeding those bacteria to thrive and grow. If your gut is very sensitive and high fiber foods cause GI distress, try adding more fermented foods that aren't vegetables, such as cultured dairy, legumes, or beverages. It is also necessary to include bitter herbs that promote liver detoxification, which not only supports digestion but also helps balance hormones. Of course, removing inflammatory foods like refined flours, oils, and sugars will also help to improve the gut as well.
Foods to include for microbiome: sauerkraut, kim chi, beet kvass, and other fermented vegetables; root vegetables, dark green leafy vegetables, alliums, fruit, legumes, nuts and seeds, sprouted or soured grains; yogurt, kefir, and other cultured dairy; raw milk; bitter herbs like dandelion root, sassafras root, burdock, or yellow dock root.
Consider the thyroid: Hypothyroidism, or an under-active thyroid, can be an underlying cause of some skin issues such as acne. If blemishes and other skin problems persist for you, consider having your thyroid checked by your doctor. To promote healthy thyroid hormone production, be sure to include adequate amounts of iodine, selenium, magnesium, vitamin D, B vitamins, and zinc in the diet. Stress also impacts the thyroid, so this may be another area to address along with diet if your thyroid is not functioning optimally.
Foods to include for thyroid health: wild-caught fish and seafood, and seaweed for iodine; fish, shellfish, nuts, seeds, and beans for selenium; meat, organ meats, whole grains, and fresh produce for B vitamins; green leafy vegetables, properly-prepared grains and legumes for magnesium; sprouted seeds, red meat, liver and oysters for zinc; and wild-caught seafood, pastured pork, full-fat dairy, and plenty of sunshine for vitamin D.
Collagen-rich foods: Skin and connective tissue all need collagen to be strong and supple, so including plenty of collagen-rich foods is essential for healthy, youthful skin that is more resistant to wrinkles, aging, stretch marks and more. Traditional diets that include all parts of the animal are the best way to get in these foods. Our bodies can also synthesize some collagen as well, which we make from vitamin C. Nose-to-tail eating and plenty of fresh produce ensures you get the collagen you need to have radiant, youthful skin.
Collagen-rich foods to include: Bone broth, organ meats, meat or fish with skin and bones present; berries, cabbage, citrus, peppers, cherries, and other fresh fruits and vegetables for vitamin C.
Vitamin B3 (Niacin): One of the main symptoms of a vitamin B3 deficiency (also known as pellagra) is dermatitis, which can be as mild as a rash or can become more severe with a prolonged deficiency. There are many risk factors for insufficient B3 in the diet, s be sure you are getting enough of this vitamin or consider testing if you experience frequent rashes, painful, itchy, swollen or red skin. A supplement may be needed if the deficiency is severe, in which case consulting a healthcare provider is the best course of action.
Niacin-rich foods to include: Fatty fish like sardines or salmon, liver, nutritional yeast, peanuts and other nuts and seeds, pastured meat, fresh vegetables.
Water: It is a no-brainer that adequate water intake is needed for good looking skin. When skin is well-hydrated, it looks more supple and is less likely to dry or crack. Get enough water to meet your body's needs without over-hydrating. Start with at least 64 ounces of water or other beverages per day to see if your skin doesn't start to look better. Caffeinated and alcoholic beverages don't count toward your 64 ounces, but herbal tea, mineral water, or kombucha will all count, helping keeping you hydrated.
Beverages to include: At least 64 ounces daily of spring water or purified water, mineral water, herbal tea, kombucha, or water kefir
Topical considerations: While healthy, clear skin begins by improving the diet and decreasing inflammation, some topical treatments can be helpful for improving symptoms while your body heals from the inside out. If you have sensitive skin, or if the skin is irritated or broken out in anyway, don’t clean with soap or cleansers. Simply rinse with water and pat dry, which helps keep your body's natural oils in place to act as a barrier for the skin. If you must use soap, try to find one containing tallow as the main fat source for the best moisture barrier.
If acne is present, you can use clay masks or occasional gentle scrubs, but only if you see improvement after using them and they don't cause further irritation. For almost any skin condition, a topical probiotic spray or cream can help, by improving the microbiome of the skin. Products like Mother Dirt are great for providing balance to the skin while you consume probiotics in the diet as well. Avoid lotions or creams with any petroleum-based products in them, such as mineral oil. Animal fats are the preferred type of oil for human skin, as we are animals, too! If you need a soothing topical application, consider beef tallow or emu-oil containing balms and salves, which are much more nourishing for the skin than plant-based oils. Vintage Traditions and Texas Tallow are two tallow balm brands I have tried and enjoyed, and Montana Emu Ranch makes really nice emu oil-based products. The only plant oils that I would recommend are cocoa butter or shea butter due to their fatty acid makeup, and products containing jojoba in combination with animal fats will also work well.
Other lifestyle factors to consider: Whether increasing inflammation, affecting hormone balance, or influencing the body's natural detoxification processes, there are other health habits that can impact skin health besides diet. Of course, always look at nutrition to start, but also consider these other areas if diet alone does not improve your symptoms, which is a very likely possibility. Other areas to address for better skin include: sleep, stress, sweat, and sun.
Here's the basic breakdown for these factors:
Sleep: more is better
Stress: less is better, of course
Sweat: This helps your body detox and decreases inflammation...passive sweating via sauna or active sweating via exercise are both beneficial here
Sun: adequate sun exposure not only provides vitamin D for hormone health, but the UV light can actually improve some conditions, such as eczema, and UV light therapy is even used by some dermatologists
This may be a lot of information to digest, so I will whittle it down to a list of ten essential foods to include if you are looking to improve your general skin health and appearance, or to address specific conditions. Of course, there are many things to consider, including allergies, environment and other health conditions, as well as the four lifestyle factors mentioned above. But, adding these foods in is a great place to start. I didn't include water here, so just drink more of it, ok?
Top 10 foods for Skin Health:
1. Liver: Eat 3-4 ounces of liver from any pastured animal, once or twice a week to get the nutrients you need. This is basically a multivitamin all by itself. Liver provides vitamin A, B vitamins, vitamin D, zinc and copper, and supports methylation. If you aren't down with liver, consider adding in a freeze-dried liver supplement, such as those made by Ancestral Supplements.
2. Eggs: Eat 2 pastured eggs or just the egg yolks per day. These provide vitamins A and E, B vitamins, arachidonic acid and cholesterol for hormone health.
3. Fatty fish: Just two servings of fatty fish or other seafood will give you plenty of EPA and DHA, essential omega 3 fatty acids. These foods also provide collagen if the skin and bones present, such as in canned sardines or salmon. Fish also provides B vitamins, protein, iodine and selenium for thyroid health. Be sure to get wild-caught instead of farm-raised. If you aren't able to get fish in the diet regularly, consider supplementing with an extra virgin or fermented cod liver oil to provide the omega 3's you might be lacking.
4. Extra virgin olive oil: Real, good quality olive oil is a great source of monounsaturated fat and vitamin E for healthy skin and hormones, and it provides antioxidants such as polyphenols to decrease inflammation. Use it in dressings, dips, sauces and more, but be sure what you're buying is the real deal to actually get the nutritional benefits EVOO offers. Avocado oil is a good substitute, especially if using in a recipe where you want a more neutral-tasting oil.
5. Fermented vegetables: I love and recommend all fermented foods, but for the skin, fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, kim chi, and lacto-fermented pickles give you so much of what you need. Because they are fermented, they are full of probiotics, but are also prebiotic, feeding those good bacteria with their fiber, and they also are a good source of vitamin C for collagen production.
6. Bitter Greens: The bitter compounds in foods, including vegetables like arugula, collards, mustard greens, radicchio, and frisee, promote liver detoxification and digestive health. They are also rich inf fiber for the gut microbiome, and are good sources of magnesium and folate as well. Toss these with some olive oil and lemon, and you have a skin-healing side dish ready to go.
7. Bone broth: What healthy, traditional food list would not include bone broth? It is one of the best sources of collagen for supple, youthful skin, and it is healing for the gut and decreases inflammation. Broth provides glycine for methylation, as well as minerals and B vitamins for hormone health. If you have something going on with your skin you would like to improve, see if adding at least one cup of bone broth (sub meat stock cooked for less time if your gut is super sensitive) per day doesn't start to make improvements.
8. Raw and/or Fermented Dairy (full-fat): Raw milk is superior to pasteurized milk, as its B vitamins and minerals like potassium are undamaged and still intact. Along with B vitamins, raw milk is also a good source of vitamin A and healthy fats for your hormones. Raw or fermented, both forms of dairy will provide gut-healing probiotics as well. For the dairy sensitive, substitute cultured coconut milk, such as yogurt or kefir, or try dairy from animals other than cows, such as sheep or goat instead.
9. Pumpkin Seeds: Pumpkin seeds are rich in fiber for the gut, vitamin E, B vitamins, healthy fats, and are a great source of zinc, all needed for skin health. Any nut or seed, especially when soaked or sprouted, are important to include, but pumpkin seeds are particularly good. If you are allergic to nuts or seeds, oysters are an even better source of zinc; just be sure to include more beans and legumes to get plenty of soluble fiber if nuts are out for you.
10. Beef tallow or Lard: Rendered animal fats are superior to processed industrial seed oils like soybean or canola in so many ways. Seed oils are pro-inflammatory, not something we want for skin health, while tallow and lard are nutrient-dense and unprocessed. These provide arachidonic acid, which is needed to prevent issues like eczema, as well as saturated fat and cholesterol for nutrient absorption and hormone health. Plus, beef tallow is commonly used as a topical remedy, making it great for skin both internally and externally.
This method for making kim chi starts with soaking the napa cabbage in a salt water brine, then massaging the vegetables, mixing with a chili garlic paste, and packing the vegetables into jars to ferment. I was inspired by the book Fermented Vegetables by Kirsten and Christoper Schokey for this method, then put my own twist on it to taste. This essentially combines the dry salt method in making sauerkraut with the brine method used for making pickled vegetables, in that you do make and use a brine, but most of it is drained off before massaging the cabbage and packing it into jars. This is certainly not the most authentic kim chi recipe out there, but it is super delicious, still full of probiotics, and is easy to both obtain ingredients for and to put together, especially for beginners to fermentation or specifically to kim chi.
The bright red color for kim chi is known comes from a special type of Korean chili flake called gochugaru. You can find these in specialty stores, Korean markets, health food stores or online, but do try to use this if you can both for color and flavor. They aren't as hot as crushed red pepper flakes, and they add a bright, fruity flavor as well. You can increase the heat here to taste by adding fresh or dried hot peppers if you like. Be sure to massage and pack using food safe gloves to prevent burning your hands if you can find some.
I use fish sauce, usually Red Boat brand, in my recipe, but feel free to omit it or substitute shrimp paste instead.
Adjust the fermentation time to your taste preference. I suggest 2 weeks here, but if you like a milder flavor, let it sit for less time. Once fermented to your liking, transfer to the fridge, where it will keep for up to a year.
Kim Chi with Napa Cabbage
Makes 2 1/2 quarts
1 large head napa cabbage, cleaned and halved
Brine: 1 cup salt to 1 gallon filtered water; will need about ½ gallon here
2 medium daikon, thinly-sliced
4 medium carrots, thinly-sliced
1 bunch scallions, sliced
4" ginger, coarsely chopped
6-8 cloves garlic, chopped
1 hot pepper, sliced
1 Tbs Korean chili powder (gochugaru) or 1 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
2 tsp fish sauce
Dissolve salt in warm water to make brine. Place cabbage in a large mixing bowl. Completely cover with the prepared brine and place a plate on top to keep the cabbage fully submerged. Let this sit at least 4 hours or up to overnight in the brine at room temperature. The cabbage will begin soaking up the brine during this time, which is why no more salt is added to the recipe for fermenting.
Remove cabbage from the brine, draining in a colander. Save the brine aside for later.
Chop cabbage as coarsely or finely as you like (I prefer bigger chunks, but either way is fine) and add to a large mixing bowl. Mix in sliced daikon, carrots and scallions. Massage well to begin softening the vegetables, about 5 minutes.
In a blender, combine the garlic, ginger, hot peppers, chili flakes/powder and 1 cup reserved brine. Puree until well-mixed, creating a thick paste. Mix into vegetables with gloved hands.
Pack the vegetable mixture into jars or a ceramic crock, pressing vegetables down until all air is remove and the brine rises above them in a solid layer.
Place a weight on top of the vegetables to keep submerged during fermentation. Cover with a lid, screwed on not too tightly if using jars, and let sit at room temperature for 5 days, up to 2 weeks.
Transfer to the fridge when fermentation is complete, where this will keep for up to 1 year.
Curtido is a fermented cabbage slaw in the style of sauerkraut, but hailing from El Salvador rather than Europe. I love that so many traditional foodways included different forms of fermented cabbage...not only does it unite us, but they are all so tasty and easy to make! Besides the typical shredded cabbage, this ferment also contains lime, jalapeno, carrots, onion, garlic, cilantro, and oregano. This delicious blend of herbs and veggies add acidity, heat, and texture to the usual cabbage-based kraut, while still providing lots of probiotics and prebiotics to help improve the microbiome.
Traditionally, curtido is served on pupusas, thick masa tortillas stuffed with meat and/or cheese. It is also wonderful on tacos or other Central American-inspired dishes, scrambled eggs, mixed in with salsa or sour cream for a chip dip, grilled meats, or salads. As always, this ferment is also perfect eaten straight out of the jar. Feel free to decrease or increase the amount of hot pepper or use a different pepper besides the jalapeno, depending on how much heat you like or what peppers you have on hand. I always use red cabbage for my curtido, but green cabbage will work just as well here. Once fermented, curtido will keep for about one year in the fridge, so you can make a big batch and eat it over several months.
Curtido (Salvadoran-Style Sauerkraut)
Makes about 3 quarts
1 large head red or green cabbage, shredded (about 3 lbs) *Save outer leaf aside, keeping whole to act as a carrier
1 large red onion, small diced
3 large or 6 small carrots, grated (about 1 lb)
6-8 cloves garlic, minced
1-3 jalapeno pepper, sliced (seeds removed to reduce heat if preferred)
1 bunch cilantro, stems included, minced
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1 1/2 Tbs dried oregano
3-6 tsp fine sea salt, based on weight of vegetables
3 quart-sized glass jars with plastic/non-reactive lids or 1 gallon ceramic crock
Fermentation weights for each vessel, optional
Cutting board and knife
Wooden spoon or "kraut pounder" for packing jars
Kitchen scale and measuring spoons
1. Place a large mixing bowl on a kitchen scale and tare to zero.
2. Place the shredded cabbage, onion, carrots, garlic, peppers, cilantro, lime, and oregano in the bowl. Stir to combine.
3. Add the sea salt, the amount depending on the weight of the vegetable mixture. Use 1 tsp sea salt per pound of vegetables; this should use about 2 Tbs of salt, but adjust to the exact amount you have.
4. Massage the salt into the vegetables, squeezing them to break the cell walls and release their stored water. I recommend wearing food-safe kitchen gloves for this, due to the hot peppers. If these are unavailable, follow the next step omitting the pepper, then add it after massaging to protect your hands. This softens them and allows them to be packed more tightly into jars for fermentation. This step may take up to 10 minutes; alternately, you can let the salted cabbage sit on the counter for a few hours to start to soften. This will help to minimize the amount of time spent massaging the cabbage. The vegetables are ready to pack into jars if you can easily squeeze liquid from them and the volume has reduced by about half.
5. Now we pack the salted, massaged veggies into jars or a crock for fermentation. I use 3 quart-sized jars for this recipe, but a ceramic crock will also work. For either method, fill your vessel with vegetables to the top, then use a wooden spoon or "kraut pounder" to pack the mixture tightly into the jar. This removes air bubbles and allows the brine to rise above the vegetables, keeping the fermentation anaerobic. Continue this process until your jar is filled to its "shoulders," where it begins to curve toward the mouth of the jar. Do not fill all the way to the top, or it will overflow as it expands during fermentation.
6. Press the vegetables down until a layer of brine rises to the top. Place the saved whole cabbage leaf over the top to keep smaller pieces of vegetables from floating and possibly molding. Put a fermentation weight, if using, on top of this, which helps to keep the vegetables submerged in the brine throughout the fermentation process, also preventing molding and promoting anaerobic fermentation. Cover with a non-reactive (such as plastic) lid, not screwed on too tightly. Repeat with two more jars, or until all of the vegetables are packed and ready to ferment.
7. Let sit at room temperature for 5-14 days to ferment. It is "ready" when it has fermented to your liking. It will become more sour and "fermented" tasting the longer you let it sit, so adjust the time to your taste preferences. I find the sweet spot to be 14 days for taste and probiotic content, with an ambient temperature of about 68 degrees. It will ferment more quickly the warmer your kitchen, so keep this in mind when fermenting. There is no right number of days for fermentation, it is ready when you are; taste it after a week or so and see if you like it as is or want to ferment longer. Some people let it go up to 21 days, but 14 days is about where I usually stop the fermentation process.
8. Remove the weight and transfer to the fridge, where it will keep for about one year.
Soup season is in full swing here in Southwest Wisconsin. While I typically prefer a hearty, meaty stew, sometimes you want a smooth and creamy soup instead. This pureed soup combines collagen-rich bone broth with sweet winter squash, lentils, and the tangy, creamy flavors of goat cheese and sour cream. Packed with vitamins, minerals collagen, fiber, and amino acids, this is extremely nutrient-dense as well. This soup can become a main dish paired with some crusty sourdough bread and butter, or serve as a side to a grilled cheese sandwich or big salad.
If you already have lentils soaked and some prepared bone broth on hand, this makes a great weeknight dinner. If not, this is an easy meal to prep for a day ahead of time. Simply soak the lentils and cook the bone broth the day before you want to make this, and it will come together easily when you're ready to cook. The result is a pureed soup that is creamy, filling and comforting that the whole family will love.
I puree my soup using an immersion blender, but you could serve this as a chunky soup if you prefer something with a bit more texture or don't have an immersion blender.
Winter Squash Soup with Lentils and Chevre
2 Tbs butter or other cooking fat such as duck or beef fat
1 medium yellow onion, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
3 lbs winter squash such as delicata, butternut or buttercup; peeled, seeded and diced
2 quarts bone broth (chicken or beef would work great)
1 sprig fresh rosemary
2 cups lentils, soaked 12-24 hours before cooking
1 tsp sea salt
Black pepper, to taste
8 ounces chevre goat cheese
1/2 cup sour cream or full-fat Greek yogurt
In a medium stock pot, heat the butter or cooking fat. Once melted and hot, add the onion to the pan and saute for 5-10 minutes until cooked down and becoming golden brown. Add the garlic and winter squash, cooking for another 5 minutes to begin to soften the squash.
Add the bone broth, rosemary, lentils, salt and a bit of pepper to the pot. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce to low. Let simmer for about 30 minutes, until the squash and lentils are cooked thoroughly and are very soft. Stir regularly to prevent sticking during the cook time, adding extra water or broth if needed.
Stir in the chevre and sour cream until melted in, about 2-3 minutes. Carefully blend using an immersion blender* until smooth and creamy. Season with salt and pepper to taste before serving.
*If you don't have an immersion blender, I don't recommend trying to blend hot soup with a regular blender, as this can cause burns. In this case, either serve as a chunky soup or let the soup cool and puree using a standard blender, perhaps making this a day ahead of time. Then, reheat the pureed soup before serving and dinner is ready to go.
Transfer any leftovers to the fridge, where they will keep for approximately 5 days.
This is a dish I made on New Year's Day yesterday, as black-eyed peas are traditionally eaten on New Year's to bring good luck and prosperity for the year. Who couldn't use a bit more of that? This was one of the food traditions I remember from growing up and have held on to myself. Not only is this a fun tradition, but it is so delicious and comforting on a cold January day. This dish is also packed with nutrients, which is really what brings prosperity, right? Black-eyed peas are a good source of folate and fiber, the greens are rich in vitamin K, folate, calcium, and magnesium, and the bone broth is full of glutamine, glycine, collagen and plenty of minerals. Pair this with a fermented vegetable or hot sauce to balance out the rich flavors and add some probiotics, and you have started your year in the best way possible. Here's to 2020!
Black-Eyed Peas and Greens in Pork Broth
1 lb dried black-eyed peas
Pinch of salt and dash of apple cider vinegar
1 Tbs bacon fat or lard
1 medium yellow onion, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
4cups pork bone broth (see below for instructions)
2 cups water
1 tsp sea salt
Black pepper to taste
Meat removed from pork bones
1/2 tsp paprika
1/4 tsp cayenne, or to taste
2 Tbs apple cider vinegar
A few dashes of hot sauce, to taste
The day before making this dish, prepare the peas and broth:
To start the peas, begin by soaking 24 hours before you want to begin cooking them. Rinse the dried black-eyed peas and put in a medium bowl. Cover with warm water and add a pinch of salt and splash of apple cider vinegar to begin the fermentation process. Set aside until the next day.
To make the broth, place about 3 lbs of pork neck bones, pork soup bones, pig tails, or smoked pork hocks in a slow cooker and cover with water, about 4 quarts. Add a tsp of salt and 1 Tbs of apple cider vinegar. You can also add other ingredients like herbs, spices, onions, etc. to your preference. Turn to low and let cook 18-24 hours, then strain out the bones before using in this recipe. Remove the meat from the bones and set aside to add to the beans.
To prepare the dish:
Heat the bacon fat or lard in a medium stock pot. Once melted and hot, add the onions. Saute for 5-8 minutes until softened and beginning to brown, then add the onions and saute for 1-2 more minutes. Add the bone broth, water, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil then cover and turn the heat to medium. Let cook about 45 minutes.
Once the beans are cooked most of the way, add the greens, paprika, cayenne and meat. Cover and let cook another 30 or so minutes, until the black-eyed peas are fully cooked through and soft. Add the apple cider vinegar and hot sauce, if using, and let cook on low another 5 minutes.
Serve hot with cornbread and plenty of butter.
Beefy Beet Borscht with Bone Broth
For the broth:
3 lbs beef soup bones, with plenty of meat on them
6 quarts water
1 sprig fresh rosemary or other fresh herb such as thyme
2 Tbs apple cider vinegar
3 bay leaves
2 tsp sea salt
Fresh black pepper
Combine ingredients in a slow cooker and set to low. Let cook for 24 hours. Let cool, then remove the meat from the bones and set aside. Strain the remaining broth to remove bones and herbs. Refrigerate until ready to use or immediately make into soup using recipe below.
For the soup:
2 Tbs butter or other cooking fat like tallow or lard
1 large yellow onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 lbs beets, scrubbed and diced
1 lb potatoes (I used red or blue), scrubbed and diced
3 quarts beef broth, made with soup bones (see above)
1-15 ounce can diced tomatoes
2 Tbs tomato paste
1 ½ tsp Hungarian paprika
1 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp dried dill
1 ½ tsp sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Meat from soup bones (if using store-bought broth, sub 1 lb cubed stew meat)
To garnish: full-fat sour cream and fresh dill
In a medium stock pot, heat the butter over medium heat until melted and bubbly. Add the onion and garlic; sauté 5-10 minutes until softened and translucent. Add the beets and potatoes, cooking for 5 more minutes.
Add the broth and bring to a boil. Cover and turn to medium heat; let simmer 30 minutes until the beets and potatoes become tender. If using stew meat, add at this time.
Stir in the tomatoes, tomato paste, paprika, cumin, dill, salt, pepper and soup bone meat if using. Keep heat on low and simmer for 20-30 more minutes until the soup has reduced and thickened slightly.
Season to taste and serve with sour cream and fresh dill.
Laab (also spelled laap or larb) is a Thai meat-based salad that combines flavorful ground meat and fresh vegetables, served in lettuce cups. This is typically served with sticky rice, but we will often make rice noodles to go with them instead if we are looking for a quick-cooking dinner. You could leave the rice or noodles out if you follow a grain-free diet, however, and just add more vegetables to the filling.
Laab has become a staple at our house, as it is comes together quickly and easily, creates a nice vessel for organ meats, and is seriously just so delicious. This is probably the most-requested meal from my partner, which I would say is a glowing review! If you love Thai flavors like ginger, fish sauce, and fresh herbs like cilantro and mint, I encourage you to give this one a try. You get a meal that is full of fresh vegetables, as well as protein and healthy fats, plus it is easy to serve to a crowd and they can make their own lettuce cups. If you have nice lettuce leaves available you can serve the meat-and-veggie mixture in those, or try the filling in napa cabbage leaves during the cooler months when lettuce isn't in season. We have also made this filling and put it into spring rolls or mixed it with rice noodles to make a pack-able lunch as well. Another modification is that, if you don't eat pork, you could make this with ground chicken instead, using chicken, beef, or lamb organs. Feel free to make this to suit your dietary needs; it will still be delicious.
The addition of organ meats is certainly optional here, but I would encourage you to try and add them in if possible. Organ meats are more nutrient-dense than muscle meat, providing more vitamins and minerals in your meal than when just cooking with muscle meat alone. Liver is high in fat-soluble vitamins A, D, and K2, as well as vitamins B12 and B6, choline, iron and folate. Some of these nutrients can be difficult to get, even in a "whole food-based" diet, unless adding in liver or other organs 1-2 times per week. Hearts are also very nutritious, offering the antioxidant Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), known for benefiting heart and brain health, but with few dietary sources. Chicken hearts, chopped into small pieces, work great in this recipe. With all of the flavors and textures, you can hardly tell they are in there, which may be preferable for family or friends who want to eat organ meats but aren't huge fans of the taste and texture. Liver or other organs chopped or ground will also incorporate well into the seasoned ground meat, and is such an easy way to get your 1-2 weekly doses of organs. Using organic and/or pasture-raised sources of organs is important, both to avoid hormone and antibiotic-laden conventional meat, but also to ensure a higher nutrient content and better quality of life for the animals used for their meat. Check with your local health food store or local farmers to purchase high-quality organ meats, as they are likely not available at conventional grocery stores.
Pork Laab with Organ Meats
For the meat filling:
2 Tbs coconut oil
1 small red onion, diced
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
1" fresh ginger, minced
2 tsp toasted rice powder, optional--available at Asian grocery stores or online
1 lb ground pastured pork
4 ounces chopped hearts or liver
1-2 tsp Sriracha hot sauce, or substitute red chili flakes to taste
1 1/2 tsp fish sauce (I use Red Boat brand)
2 Tbs lime juice
For the vegetable mixture:
4 cups shredded cabbage
2 medium carrots, grated
4 scallions, sliced
1 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1/2 cup fresh mint, chopped
~1 tsp fish sauce
2 Tbs lime juice
1/2 cup peanuts, chopped
Garnishes: extra chopped fresh cilantro, sliced scallions, lime wedges, and chopped peanuts
Sriracha or other hot sauce
Fish sauce or organic soy sauce
Sticky white rice or cooked rice noodles
Butter lettuce leaves or cabbage leaves
In a medium skillet, heat coconut oil over medium heat. When melted and hot, add in the onions. Saute 5-8 minutes until softened and beginning to brown, stirring regularly. Add the garlic, ginger, and toasted rice powder (if using) and cook for 3-5 more minutes.
Add the ground pork and chopped organ meats to the pan. Break up the meat as best you can, so it can cook evenly and begin to brown. Cook, stirring regularly, until all of the pink is gone, about 10-12 minutes. Then, continue to let the meat cook without stirring often to allow the meat to brown and crisp.
Add the hot sauce, fish sauce and lime juice to the browned pork, letting the liquid de-glaze the pan and stirring to get all of the crispy meat bits off the bottom of the pan.
Remove pan from the heat and set aside until ready to add to the vegetable mixture.
While the meat is cooking, prepare the vegetable mixture and lettuce cups.
Combine the cabbage, carrots, scallions, cilantro, and mint in a large mixing bowl. Wash and dry the lettuce or cabbage leaves for serving, then set aside.
When then pork is cooked, add to the cabbage mixture. Season with the rest of the fish sauce and lime juice, to taste, then stir to combine. Toss in peanuts just before serving to keep them crunchy.
Serve with cooked rice or rice noodles in prepared lettuce cups, garnishing with extra herbs, peanuts, and sauces as desired.
The meat and veggie filling can be made ahead of time, but is best when served fresh and warm. Leftover filling will keep for several days in the fridge, and makes great leftovers mixed in with rice or noodles for a quick salad to bring for your lunch!
Winter is hard. At least it is here in Wisconsin. The days are short, it is bone-chillingly cold, and there is not as much going on in general. During the winter, we tend to get lonelier, sick more often and have more seasonal depression, but I do not think it has to be so tough for us. To me, having some special routines is key, and not treating the cold months the same as warmer months. This is a time for extra self-care, prioritizing social interactions, and getting more rest than we think we need. If we can employ a few self-care strategies and treat winter as the restful, special time that it is, I believe that we can achieve more health and happiness, and actually thrive during the winter, rather than just trying to survive it.
warmin Nutrition and Supplements
Taking care of our nutrition in the winter is essential, especially to keep up our immune systems and to help with seasonal mood changes. Because of the longer nights and less time spent outdoors, we do not get enough vitamin D in the winter. Even if you were outside a lot during the winter, you likely aren't getting enough vitamin D from the sun because your skin in covered with clothing, and at the latitude where I live, not much D would be available even if you went outside naked. It is below zero today, so don't even try it. I recommend that everyone take a vitamin D supplement in the winter, though you can get your levels checked to be sure that it is appropriate for you. Getting enough vitamin D will help with mood and energy in the winter, as well as immune health and more.
Along with vitamin D, supporting your body with other fat-soluble vitamins, A and K2, is also important. I use cod liver oil to get my supplemental vitamin A (naturally-occurring) as well as extra omega 3 fats for inflammation and immune boosting properties. Some people find adding in a zinc supplement in the winter can improve their immune system, especially if they are prone to getting whatever bug is going around. Chris Masterjohn, PhD, has a great post about supplementing with zinc, which you could check out to find what type is right for you.
Herbs can be really beneficial during the winter to help with the immune system as well. For those who work around a lot of people, such as a school or large office, taking astragalus during the winter can help with keeping those office bugs at bay. It is an immune tonic, which can be taken daily for long periods of time to improve the immune system. This is available in capsules, tinctures and glycerites, or can be added in its dried form to broths, teas and soups. Elderberry is another potent herb with anti-viral properties, that I always take at the first sign of a potential cold. These can be in lozenges, tinctures, or syrups, which I prefer, as it is delicious and usually mixed with other warming, immune-boosting herbs. Warming herbs or foods can be helpful for stimulating the circulation as well, such as ginger, cinnamon, hot peppers, and garlic. Fire Cider/Fire Tonic/Dragon Tonic, an herbal infusion of garlic, onion, ginger, horseradish, and other immune-boosting herbs into apple cider vinegar and honey, can be a great daily tonic as well. This is hot and sour and full of nutrients that are beneficial in keeping you healthy in the winter. Other herbs you may find useful are echinacea or reishi, both of which can be used in supplemental forms for fighting off bacteria and viruses.
Supplements and herbs, while essential during the winter, are not enough to keep up truly healthy during this time of year. Giving extra care and attention to our food during this time is important as well. Though the holidays are over, winter tends to be a time for extra indulgence in general, be it in alcohol or sugar or processed foods. Prioritize seasonal fruits and vegetables, like squash, cabbage, citrus, and apples, to ensure you are getting adequate vitamin C, potassium and fiber, which are usually lacking in our produce-poor winter diets. Our immune system also needs plenty of probiotics, available in fermented foods like sauerkraut, kim chi, kombucha, and yogurt. Vitamin D is available not only in supplements, but in foods as well. Pastured pork, especially with fat and/or skin, liver, and seafood like sardines are good sources of vitamin D that can add to what you supplement in other forms. And of course, the most important food for staying healthy in the winter: soup! Soups, stews, and curries made from bone broth or meat stock are not only warming and comforting, but also offer an incredible amount of nutrition. Minerals, vitamins, amino acids, and collagen are available in these broths, helping support the immune system, digestion, and even preventing dry, cracking skin during the winter. It can be hard to get enough water in the colder months, so sipping on warm broth can help keep you hydrated as well. Whether you sip it, make rice with it, or turn it into a lovely soup, stocks and broths should be in heavy rotation in your kitchen this winter.
Supplemental Light and Heat
Where I live, the winter months can start to wear on you emotionally and physically, as it just stays cold and dark for such a long period of time. This is where supplemental light and heat sources (not just for heating your home) can really be beneficial. In the mornings, especially on those dreary, grey winter mornings, I like to use a light therapy box, such as a Happy Light. This simulates the light from the sun, helping with mood and energy, which can feel really nice when it has been gloomy for a few days in a row. 10-20 minutes of this in the morning, such as while you are eating breakfast, is all it really takes to get some benefit from these light therapy lamps.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, are the more warming, relaxing light and heat sources. Infrared saunas offer warmth and relaxation, as well as detoxification and other health benefits, and can feel really nice on a freezing winter night. If an infrared sauna is not available to you, finding a spa or even a friend with a traditional sauna can be a wonderful warming experience as well. This has the added benefit of sauna-ing with others, helping abate the loneliness many feel in the winter. Hot tubs, hot springs, mineral baths and even an epsom salt bath at home can be a great part of your self-care routine to bring some warmth, moisture and relaxation to your wintertime. Of course, sitting by a roaring fire with a book or your loved ones (or both!) are classic ways to warm yourself when it's cold outside.
Getting Outside and Enjoying Winter
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to get outside during the winter. We must to do this, as getting fresh air to help prevent illness, soaking up whatever sunlight is available to boost our moods, and ensuring we interact with nature, even when it is cold outside, help to keep us healthy during this time of year. So much of what we hate about winter can be improved, though not necessarily fixed altogether, by simply going outside more. Where we live, winter can be beautiful, from snowy woods to ice caves, and would never be appreciated by staying indoors. Certainly, being wise and safe regarding temperatures and conditions is important. I probably won't be going on a hike today with a windchill that is -20F, but on those days when it is in the 30's or even 20's, adequate clothing and gear can keep me safe and warm for enjoying all of the beauty the winter has to offer here. Perhaps you are stuck inside working all day and want to get some of this benefit; in this case, I would encourage you to even open your windows at home or work for a few minutes to let in some fresh, cold air to purify the air indoors. The stagnant, stale air inside during the winter makes us more likely to get sick, and unless we periodically let some freshness in, we are stuck with this air until it is "nice" out again. We must be willing to interact with our natural world, even when it isn't totally comfortable for us, in order to keep our mental and physical health up during the colder months. If you aren't acclimated yet, start with a short 5-10 minute walk, bundled up well, and increase your outdoor time and is safe and appropriate for you. There is much beauty to be seen, even this time of year!
Outdoor time also gives us what most people desperately lack in the winter time: movement. Just as the air in our homes gets stagnant, so do many of our bodies. This is another reason people get depressed and sick more often in the winter. Movement is essential for the functioning of our lymphatic system, which helps with our immunity. It also is essential for our mental health as well. Going on a hike, snowshoeing, winter fat tire biking, cross-country skiing, or even shoveling snow in your driveway can all be ways to interact with our natural surroundings, but also get our hearts pumping and muscles working.
If outdoor exercise isn't going to be a part of your regular winter routine, then finding an indoor movement practice that you enjoy should be a priority. Especially during the winter, I recommend a movement class as opposed to an individual workout. This could be a crossfit/HIIT class, yoga class, martial arts class, dance class or even a natural movement-focused class, but the group setting gives the benefit of solving two cold-weather problems: too little movement and too little socializing. Classes often help with consistency as well, so you will be more likely to show up regularly if there are folks who expect you to be there. The winter could be a time when you try a new movement class or group, which could be something to look forward to, both for a new movement challenge and for possibly meeting new people. Or, combine the best of both worlds, and start a winter hiking group, so you all get to move together and get outside! If you are a solo workout type of person, then find an indoor activity and space, such as a bouldering/climbing gym or indoor lap pool, that could meet your physical movement and alone-time needs...in this case, you could try something new as well!
I mentioned attending group exercise classes in the movement section, because much of the unhappiness we experience during winter has to do with our isolation and loneliness. There are usually fewer social functions happening, especially after the holidays are over, and we often don't feel like going out as much in general. But, the computer or television are not good substitutes for the social interactions we need as humans. While we may be more interested in solitude and contemplation during the winter, we must go out of our way to ensure we get adequate time with our people. This could be family, friends, co-workers or even meeting new people, but we can't get complacent in the winter and just expect to wait to hang out with our people in the spring...this will not lead to happiness during the cold, dark time of the year. My best advice is to combine social time with one of the other self-care strategies already discussed: attend a workout class or start a winter hiking group, go to a sauna with some friends, host a game, craft, or movie night, or call an old friend if you are snowed in. My favorite winter group activity, of course is cooking and/or eating together. Make a big pot of soup and share it with your favorite folks, bake a batch of sourdough bread or maple-sweetened brownies and bring them to someone dear, or host a winter-stinks-so-let's-hang-out potluck dinner party. Everyone will be healthier for it!
Rest and Relaxation
Traditionally, life in the winter would not have looked like life in the summer but just indoors. However, this is often how we live today, as technology has made up capable of this. But when we live without rhythms and seasonality, we often lose the lesson that each phase can teach us. In the winter, giving more attention to our self-care, to rest, to relaxing and going inward, can be valuable for our overall health. Longer nights might be letting us know we should be sleeping more in the winter, and less time spent outdoors may be telling us to spend more time reading and meditating, or even drinking herbal tea and taking hot baths. With fewer obligations post-holidays, we can take this time to keep ourselves healthy and reset in a way that keeps up feeling good, even when it is brutal outside.
Above all, creating a routine of self-care is what is most important in the winter. Different supplements, foods, movements and activities may need to be incorporated depending on where you live, your health status and even personality, but keeping a consistent routine is what I see as the way to maintain well-being over these winter months. Winter is a strong force, making us rest, recharge, and slow down, but also challenging us more in our minds and bodies as well. Giving winter the reverence it deserves by appreciating its beauty and carving out time for taking care of ourselves can help us to not only stay healthy this winter, but also look forward to winters to come.
Brine & Broth
I am a nutritionist in Southwest Wisconsin, focused on traditional, nutrient-dense foods. My goal is to provide you with simple and delicious recipes that fit into real life, and information for choosing healthful real foods. Enjoy!