(Updated April 1st, 2021)
Now that spring is here, it’s great to be able to finally peel off all those layers and get out there to feel the sun and wind on our skin. People in our society tend to spend a lot of time sheltered from Nature in artificial environments. Nevertheless, we can’t escape the seasonal cycles when we go outdoors. As spring days get longer and warmer our natural inclination is to spend more time outside. Deep down, the primary reason we feel this way is because we need to be out in the world in direct contact with the elements.
Spending more time outdoors and being more active as the days get longer is part of our natural rhythm. There are many reasons for this. One important reason is that during the colder months we tend to huddle indoors more, be less active and eat a heavier diet that provides more calories that we can burn to keep warm and use as an insulating layer of fat. If we continue to live and eat throughout the year according to a lifestyle that is applicable during the winter months only (i.e. less activity, heavier diet), the consequences are weight gain and increased tissue toxicity, and all of the potential health challenges that can result from these. This is not in the best interest of our body. As a result, if we listen to our body our natural inclination during this season will be to spend more time outside, be more active and eat a lighter diet.
We are all acquainted with the kinds of chronic conditions that can result from being overweight: diabetes, heart disease, fatty liver, gallstones, reproductive disorders, osteoarthritis, hernias, sleep apnea, and many others. What isn’t often discussed is that all of these conditions are further aggravated by tissue toxicity and our body tends to be more toxic when we gain too much weight. This is because toxins that tend to be more fat-soluble than water-soluble are more difficult to eliminate from our body and tend to build up in fatty tissues. When we are overweight we tend to be less active, thereby reducing blood and lymphatic circulation which is very important for detoxification. Being overweight also reduces our capacity to metabolize toxins, and having more body fat provides a greater volume of tissue where fat-soluble toxins can accumulate. Increased toxicity in our body fluids and tissues directly or indirectly contributes to the development of all chronic diseases and, along with stress, is the major cause of autoimmune conditions.
Fortunately, those of us who live in a temperate climate tend to want to spend more time outside and be more active as the days get longer and warmer. In addition, many of the foods that become available at this time of year have relatively few calories, are very nutrient rich and tend to be very cleansing. In early to mid spring, the primary seasonal foods are young greens. These foods are extremely nutritious and cleansing. Then from late spring through summer there are a wide variety of fruits, especially berries, that become available. These are not as intensely cleansing as greens, but they are the perfect follow-up to the more intense cleansing that we experience in the spring if we eat a seasonal diet.
So let’s have a look at what constitutes a healthy spring diet and lifestyle.
Exercise – It is essential that we get lots of aerobic exercise. Walking is great and we should walk as much as possible. Weight training is also great (in moderation), as are yoga and tai chi. All of these are excellent, healthy activities and I encourage anyone who is interested in any of them to practice them. However, none of them are a substitute for aerobic exercise. The bare minimum amount of aerobic exercise we should get is about 10-15 minutes per day with longer (at least 30 minute) amounts three to four days per week. The more time we spend doing sedentary activities like sitting in front of a computer, the more aerobic exercise we need.
I work for myself and my work is very diverse, so I have the advantage of being able to do something more active when I feel like I’ve been in front of my computer for too long. Nevertheless, sometimes it is unavoidable. I used to make sure that I got up and did some stretching at least every hour when I was computer bound. Now I not only do stretches, I also jog on the spot for a couple of minutes to get things flowing.
For those of us who don’t get enough exercise, spring is a great time to get started.
Firstly, it is best to implement an exercise regimen very gradually. We also don’t want to create unrealistic expectations because, if we fail to meet them, it’s easy to feel discouraged or guilty and drop the whole thing. It’s also important to do something we more or less enjoy. If we don’t like the kind of exercise we are doing, we won’t keep it up. The environment we do it in is also important. For instance, some people find exercising alone boring. They like the social element of going to a gym. For others (like myself), if they have to take the time to travel somewhere every time they exercise, they’ll never do it. They need to have the appropriate equipment to do whatever kind of exercise works for them at home. Regardless of what we do, gradually implementing a good exercise regimen through the spring and summer months will ensure that it is a well established part of our daily routine by the time winter comes around again and it’s more difficult to get motivated.
Fresh Greens – A good spring diet should consist of less fat and lots of both raw and cooked greens. Fortunately, the first foods of spring consist of a wide variety of green, leafy plants. There are many wild greens that are extremely nutritious and detoxifying. However, we need to be cognizant of the fact that harvesting wild species can lead to the depletion, and even extinction, of local populations. The recent trend towards eating local, wild foods has resulted in their becoming available at local markets and more recently even in major supermarkets. The commercial wild harvesting of food plants is absolutely unsustainable except for a few extremely plentiful wild greens such as garlic mustard, dandelion and chicory. In the case of the latter two plants there are cultivars available, making commercial wild harvesting unnecessary.
I strongly discourage purchasing wild foods from commercial sources. However, learning how to identify and harvest them is a great way to spend some quality time in Nature and bring home some tasty, nutritious and detoxifying foods – as long as we only harvest them in areas where they are plentiful and we don’t over-harvest them.
Here are some examples of wild greens that are available in our region:
DANDELION GREENS can be eaten raw or cooked. They are best harvested in April after they’ve had an opportunity to grow some new leaves but before they go into flower. The larger leaves can also be harvested in June after they are finished flowering, but they are more bitter at that time and are best mixed with some milder tasting greens.
CHICORY GREENS are very similar to dandelion. They should be harvested in April or May before their flowering stalk starts to develop. Available from commercial cultivars are both dandelion and chicory that have larger, less bitter leaves.
YOUNG NETTLES are not as bitter as dandelion and chicory. They are harvested in April or May when they are about 4-6 inches tall. It is important not to harvest more than 25% of the young nettles in any given area.
WILD LEEKS are similar to garlic when eaten raw, or to onions when cooked. They have been over-harvested and wiped out in many areas. To help maintain their population the bulbs should not be harvested. Each plant produces two or three leaves. We only harvest one leaf per plant; otherwise the plant will die.
GARLIC MUSTARD is a somewhat invasive species that lives in open woodlands and transition areas. It is virtually impossible to over-harvest. The top 50% of the plant is harvested in late April or early May just as it’s coming into flower. The leaves are delicious raw in salads. As a cooked green it is similar to rapini, but more bitter. It is best mixed with other, milder tasting greens.
Anyone who has a garden knows that as soon as you till the soil there are a lot of plants that sprout up all over the place. Several of these are great late spring edibles and it’s a good idea to let them grow between the rows of whatever we are cultivating until they are big enough to harvest. PURSLANE is a creeping plant that often pops up in gardens. It is best eaten raw in salads. PIGWEED and LAMB’S QUARTERS are excellent cooked greens. They are best harvested in June when they are about 6-8 inches tall. I love all cooked greens, but lamb’s quarters is my favorite. It tastes like a stronger, wilder version of spinach.
Of course, no discussion of wild foods would be complete without mentioning FIDDLEHEADS. They are the unopened leaves of the ostrich fern. Commercially available sources are almost always wild harvested and I don’t recommend purchasing them. If we are harvesting fiddleheads ourselves, it is important not to harvest more than 2-3 fiddleheads per fern because they only produce a limited number of leaves and harvesting too many of them will stress out or even kill the plant. Fiddleheads should not be eaten raw. Although they are very nutritious, even cooked, it is best not to eat too many because they can be toxic when consumed in excess.
We may or may not have the opportunity to harvest any wild greens, but there are plenty of cultivated greens to satisfy our needs. Among the raw greens that are great are any edible sprouts, mixed green salads, arugula, baby kale, spinach, radicchio and Belgian endive (which are actually cultivars of chicory), and watercress. Cooked greens can include spinach, chard, beet leaves, collard, kale, rapini, mustard greens, as well as culinary cultivars of dandelion and chicory.
It is important that we eat a decent amount of bitter greens as these are the most detoxifying. We can adjust the level of bitterness by mixing raw or cooked bitter greens with varying amounts of non-bitter greens to make them more palatable.
Non-starchy root vegetables are also very detoxifying. Along with common root vegetables like carrots, beets, turnips and Jerusalem artichokes, the young roots of dandelion, chicory and burdock are also excellent additions to soups and stews. They taste like a stronger version of Jerusalem artichokes. Coffee substitutes made from roasted dandelion and/or chicory root can also be helpful.
Onions and garlic are also in the detoxifying camp, along with spices such as turmeric, ginger, celery seed, fenugreek and asafoetida.
No discussion of detoxifying foods would be complete without considering juicing. Many of the greens and roots that I mentioned are great additions to fresh detoxifying juices. The young grass of wheat, kamut, spelt, barley and oats are also excellent. People with gluten intolerance usually don’t react to the juice of these grasses.
Of course, if we want to do a good spring cleanse, getting lots of exercise and eating a detoxifying diet can be supplemented by taking detoxifying herbal teas or tinctures. Some of the better herbs that are great to take at this time of year are: dandelion root, leaf and flower (Taraxacum officinale); chicory root and herb (Cichorium intybus); burdock root (Arctium spp.); nettle herb (Urtica dioica); horsetail herb (Equisetum arvense); cleavers herb (Galium aparine); red clover top (Trifolium pratense); and yellow sweet clover herb (Melilotus officinalis). We can create a simple formulation consisting of several of these herbs. It is best taken 10-15 minutes before each meal.
When it comes to juicing there are a few cautions: Firstly, juices are very concentrated and it is possible to consume much larger quantities of greens and other fruits and vegetables when they are juiced. This means that we can easily overdo it. Too much of a good thing is not a good thing any more. Generally speaking, two to four ounces of concentrated green drinks is plenty for one serving. It’s also a good idea to drink a water chaser so that it is not too concentrated in the gut.
Secondly, some fruits and vegetables contain a fair amount of sugar. This can also get pretty concentrated when juiced. Juices tend to be absorbed very rapidly and can send our blood sugar soaring if they are too sweet. This is another reason to drink small quantities of juices and drink them with at least an equal amount of water.
Finally, plants from the Mustard family have thyroid suppressing properties, especially when raw. It’s easy to consume a lot of these, especially when juicing. Anyone who has thyroid issues should minimize consumption of raw Mustard family plants. Of those that I’ve mentioned, the ones from the Mustard family are garlic mustard, arugala, kale, watercress, collard, rapini, mustard greens and turnip. Also from this family are broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi. All of these latter vegetables along with kale are actually cultivars of the same plant (wild cabbage)!
Whether using foods or herbs or both, anyone who is pregnant, nursing, taking prescription medications, or has a serious illness should be cautious about detoxifying. If you fall into one of these categories or if you are doing some kind of detox and you experience any unusual symptoms, it is best to consult with a qualified herbalist or other practitioner familiar with the use of these foods and herbs.
Although I love all of the seasons, I love spring the most. It’s such a magical time as the plants and animals wake up from their long winter sleep, and many bird species return from the south. There’s so much going on that I don’t want to miss getting out in the woods for a walk even a single day, otherwise I miss so much! Fresh air, sunshine, long walks, and lots of amazing green foods: it’s a great time of year to cleanse and regenerate. It’s also a great time of year to get back on track if we’ve strayed a bit. There’s no better time to clear out the gunk and establish some new, healthier habits.
Have a great spring!
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