Internal Flame: Natural Warming Remedies
by Kathleen Christensen

When temperatures plummet, herbs can heat things up

You're waiting for the bus bundled in your thickest wool coat and hat. Or maybe you're riding the ski lift swathed in layers of high-tech fabrics. Still feel a little chilly? That's because when the mercury plummets, your body reacts to preserve its core temperature. The process is as simple as this: Once your brain notes that it's cold out, blood vessels in your skin contract, routing blood away from extremities and toward vital organs. Hence, less blood travels near the surface of your body, where it can lose heat to the frigid air.

Fortunately, winter's frosty temperatures don't have to get the best of you. Time-tested natural warming remedies, which are as close as your kitchen spice rack, may break you of your hot-water-bottle habit and keep your home fires burning.

Spice Science
And the kitchen is the first place to look. Spices like ginger (Zingiber officinale) and cayenne (Capsicum annuum) are nature's warmers. According to Australian researcher Eric Colquhoun, M.B.B.S, Ph.D., they stoke your internal fire by stimulating cells to burn more oxygen. Cells are like tiny little fires: The more oxygen fuel they burn, the more heat they give off.

Colquhoun's research lends support to the longtime use of ginger and cayenne as warming agents. Although data on human use is scanty, Colquhoun has demonstrated that gingerols and shogaols (ginger's active constituents) and capsaicin (cayenne's active ingredient) can increase oxygen consumption in rat muscle tissue (International Journal of Obesity, 1990, vol. 4; 1992, vol. 16).

While one human study revealed no significant increases in metabolic rate after subjects consumed a meal containing ginger, Colquhoun questions the study. He notes that the dose of ginger in the meals wasn't specified and might have been outside the effective range for adequate warming.

Living Gingerly
Ginger has long been recognized as an herb with warming properties. "Ginger is noted for its apparent ability to warm the body and has historically been used as a diaphoretic [a substance known to induce sweating, thus increasing circulation and heat]," says Michael Murray, N.D., in his book, The Healing Power of Herbs (Prima).

Ginger may be taken in capsules, but many herbalists recommend adding freshly grated gingerroot to food, or sipping ginger tea (see "Steeping Warm," for recipe) as a way to defrost. In the wintertime, ginger makes an excellent warming tea, says Steven Dentali, Ph.D., an herb consultant in Eugene, Ore.

Cayenne's Red-Hot Heat
Facing the prospect of a cold walk one morning, Dentali tried sprinkling cayenne pepper in his shoes. By the time he arrived at his destination, he was pleased to note that his feet were extremely warm.

Although this sprinkle-your-socks remedy has long been practiced in folkloric medicine because it works, most of the scientific evidence regarding cayenne cites its benefits for internal rather than external use. One study, for example, reveals that people who eat a meal containing chili and mustard have a higher metabolic rate for three hours after dining than those who eat a bland meal (Human Nutrition: Clinical Nutrition, 1986, vol. 40). And while results aren't statistically significant, another preliminary study in humans shows "an indication of a higher body temperature overnight" after eating a meal containing chili sauce and mustard (International Journal of Psychophysiology, 1992, vol. 13).

The easiest way to benefit from cayenne's medicinal effects is to use it in a dried, powdered form — like that found in your spice cabinet — according to Lalitha Thomas, author of 10 Essential Herbs (Hohm Press). Cayenne is also available in capsule form, but recommended dosages have yet to be determined. Your best bet may still be to sprinkle cayenne on black beans or to mix it into soup and stews.

Rev-Up Remedies
Ginger and cayenne may be the most well-known warming herbs, but a number of other botanicals can help chase away winter's chill. In fact, foods that we associate with the holidays traditionally contain warming spices — cinnamon, anise, rosemary and Italian herbs such as oregano and basil.

When you want to warm up, think winter food such as bread puddings, apple pies, herb stuffings, says Nancy Beckham of the American Botanical Council in Austin, Texas. Paul Bergner, author of The Healing Power of Ginseng and the Tonic Herbs (Prima), and Roy Upton, an herbalist in Soquel, Calif., both recommend astragalus root (Astragalus membranaceus) for its warming properties. A member of the legume family traditionally used in Chinese medicine, astragalus is also used to bolster the immune system. "If you work outdoors or ski, nothing compares to it," Bergner says. He suggests adding one-third ounce of astragalus to one quart of water and simmering the mixture until reduced to one pint of liquid. Drink one cup in the morning and one cup in the late afternoon. Upton also adds astragalus to soup.

People vary in their susceptibility to cold temperatures, but if you have difficulty staying warm or if your extremities rapidly become painfully cold, be sure to consult your health care practitioner. Although herbs can increase body temperature, it's important to pay attention to the larger issue of warmth, says Dentali. This may begin with your diet. "Eat a good diet with enough oils, carbohydrates and proteins," he says. "Wear a wool hat. Get enough sleep. And take warm baths."

If all else fails, Dentali recommends one last warming herb: oak (Quercus spp.), whose application is a little more straightforward. Chop, invite a close friend over, then burn it in your fireplace. It's a great way to add real spice to your life.

Kathleen Christensen is a freelance health and science writer.