Winter - you either love it or hate it!
Some people embrace the chance to wrap up warm, hit the slopes or just snuggle up by the fire during long winter nights. Others feel tired, grumpy, suffer through every round of bugs and need an island getaway to get them through to spring. Regardless of how you feel about it, it's going to be a whole lot better if you manage to avoid being hit by the cold and flus circulating.
Once we are hit by bugs, we are quick to throw money at cold and flu drugs, nasal sprays, supplements and any other magic potions we think may help get us through. If we need to take time off work we incur more costs taking precious sick leave and any medical costs needed. You feel guilty missing work and then when you eventually return you're faced with the additional stress of trying to catch up.
From an evolutionary perspective, our body still responds to the changes in light and temperature to switch us into 'hibernation mode', making us feel more fatigued and maybe a bit 'down' during winter. With less exposure to light, our body makes less of our feel-good hormone - 'serotonin' that helps wake us up in the morning, and more of the sleep-inducing hormone - 'melatonin'.
Prevention is always better than cure, so here are our top tips for staying on top of your physical and mental game this winter.
Build winter worthy immunity
It's common to crave stodgy comfort foods during winter especially if we are feeling a bit tired. We are also hungrier as our body's metabolism speeds up to keep us warm. Eating stodgy, processed, fake food leaves less room for real, nutrient dense food which leaves us open to deficiencies in key nutrients that our immune system needs to protect us. A winter of consuming these foods can lead to unwanted winter weight.
Strengthen your body's defence by filling it with the delicious, real, nutrient-dense and budget-friendly vegetables that are in season. This includes broccoli, broad beans, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, onions, peas, spinach, beetroot, carrots, parsnips, celery, leeks, radish, silverbeet, pumpkin, potatoes, kumara and garlic. This will ensure you're getting enough of the key nutrients needed to support a strong immunity such as vitamins A, C, E, zinc, iron, selenium and antioxidants.
Buy in bulk and batch cook soups, broths, curries and casseroles. Utilise that slow cooker!
Pump up the protein
Try to include a serving of protein with every meal, this will promote production of serotonin which will help you wake up and improve your mood. Animal sources of protein including red meat (beef, lamb), poultry (chicken, duck), seafood and eggs are complete sources of protein as they contain all 20 amino acids needed for growth and repair of the body. Try to include at least two to three servings of protein a day. If you are choosing plant-based sources of protein make sure you include a variety of sources such as legumes, lentils, beans, nuts and seeds.
One serving of protein is typically the size and width of your palm.
Water and herbal teas will help our kidneys to flush out toxins and bugs. Keeping hydrated will also help fight fatigue.
As a rough guide, we should aim to drink 6-8 cups of water a day.
Go with your gut
Looking after your gut health through winter is crucial as your gut is the first line of defence against any ingested bugs or pathogens. It will also help you absorb the key nutrients from your diet to keep your immune system strong. Your gut is made up of good and bad bacteria referred to as your gut flora. Your gut needs the right mix of good bacteria for a strong immune response. When your gut flora has an imbalance of more bad bacteria, it compromises your gut health.
Foods to support a healthy gut include:
- high fibre fruits and vegetables – bananas, apples, oranges, mandarins, potatoes, and dark coloured vegetables, such as broccoli, brussel sprouts and leeks
- greek yoghurt, plain full fat yoghurt
- fermented foods - sauerkraut, kimchi, bone broth, kombucha, kefir
- support good digestion by starting your day with lemon water or a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar
Signs you have compromised gut health could include bloating, flatulence, diarrhoea, fatigue, often feeling sick or rundown.
There is a natural rhythm that guides nearly all of life on earth, but which we humans have a tendency to fight against (as it doesn’t tend to suit our 24/7 lifestyles). One of these rhythms is that of the seasons, governed predominantly by the light and dark cycles of day and night.
In winter, when faced with cold dark mornings, overcast days and early sunset, it becomes very tempting to just hunker down further under the duvet instead of getting out of bed in the morning. And there’s good reason for this; if you were to sleep in line with the seasonal changes in sunlight, you’d be getting more sleep in the winter. But most of us don’t actually end up sleeping more in the winter and thus we can end up feeling like we haven’t had quite enough sleep. If you ignore the cues your body gives you which tell you to take extra rest, the result can be chronic tiredness from sleep deprivation.
There’s a simple way to think about this: light wakes us up and darkness helps us sleep. During the lighter spring and summer months, the brighter, longer days signal to our body to make hormones and other compounds that help keep us awake.
Throughout winter, when the mornings are dark and the sun sets early, this lack of bright light signals your body that it is time to sleep.
Because this is how your sleep-wake system works, you’ll require slightly less sleep over the summer months and slightly more over winter. But most of us sleep like it’s always summer. This behaviour of sleeping like it is summer all year round (in addition to any other behaviour that sees us sleeping less than is optimal) can lead to chronic sleep deprivation which, in turn, can cause:
- impaired immune system
- overweight and obesity
- cognitive decline
- mood and mental health decline
- systemic inflammation
During winter, feeling sleepier can be remedied by giving in to nature's call and going to bed earlier in the evening (going to bed earlier is the solution because most of us are unable to change our schedules in order to allow waking up later). In winter, aim to get closer to nine hours of sleep most nights by going to bed earlier.
Sleep your way to better winter health.
It’s easy to make excuses in the winter for not keeping up your normal habits around movement, sport and exercise. Plans can get derailed by feelings of fatigue, sickness or bad weather. Winter is the time that you need to move more than normal to help support a strong immune system, beat fatigue and the winter blues by giving you that endorphin hit.
To help you stick to maintaining daily movement, practice our healthy habit, ‘Move Slowly Lots’ by incorporating more movement into your day by walking and standing at work and using active travel methods to get to work. Try to pick extra sports and exercise that you actually enjoy and play to your strengths, preferences and lifestyle, including your current level of stress and level of sleep.
The World Health Organisation recommends that adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity throughout the week. A simple brisk 20 minute walk every day will achieve that.
Chances are if you work on a computer, you have anti-virus software sitting in the background, guarding it against viruses and bugs. But who is guarding you against the bugs on the outside of your computer... on the keys, the mouse and desk?
Whilst you are hopefully looking after your own personal hygiene, what happens when you return to your desk and come in contact with your hardware?
Almost everything you touch on your desk has a potential risk of transferring bacteria and other nasties on to you. Contrary to popular belief, we rarely contract viral respiratory infections via an airborne assault from these pathogens. Rather, these viral infections are more likely to make their way into your body via four main points of entry:
tear ducts in eyes
ears (which connect to the back of your throat)
It is very common for an individual to touch one of these entry points at some stage during the day, even if we do it subconsciously.
To boost your protection against these viruses, make sure you give everything you touch on your desk a regular and thorough wipe down at least once per week. This can be done with special disinfectant wipes designed specifically for computers, phones, etc. Or more simply, just use a disinfectant spray and a damp cloth. Some people prefer to use warm salt water rather than disinfectants, and whilst effective, it should be kept for hard surfaces such as desks and not used with electronics. If you give everything a thorough weekly clean, then most things will require perhaps only a quick daily wipe at the beginning or end of the day. Easy!
In addition you may not know that vitamin D forms a powerful antimicrobial helping to ‘debug’ your body. It achieves this by activating a protein in your body known as cathelicidin. This is part of the reason why we tend to see more illness in the depths of winter (June, July and August) as people’s vitamin D reserves tend to run very low around then. Increasing vitamin D stores may be an effective way to boost winter immunity. Unfortunately, daylight hours and the sun’s lack of intensity in the autumn and winter months can be insufficient in some locations to boost our vitamin D stores, and only very small amounts of vitamin D can be obtained via diet.
Boost your vitamin D status with a daily or weekly vitamin D supplement.
Use proper hygiene
Practicing good hygiene is the primary preventative measure recommended by all health authorities. There are a number of things included in this, such as:
Try to avoid any contact with the face (nose, eyes, mouth) if at all avoidable, especially with your hands
Wash hands regularly; use soap, lathering for at least 20 seconds; use a paper towel or your elbow to cut off the water, especially in public
Use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser if hand washing is not available
Cough into your elbow instead of your hands
Avoid contact with public surfaces with your hands whenever possible
Consider using an appropriate respirator (face mask) if you know you will be around those who may have a cold or flu virus or if you are potentially contagious.
Washing your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water is the single most important thing you can do to keep from getting sick.
Manage your thinking
It’s easy to get bogged down by the 'winter blues' as it is typically the busiest part of our working year coupled with less sunshine, less social activities and colds and flus circulating. Less sun exposure leads to lower levels of serotonin our 'feel good hormone', hence why this has been blamed for the cause of 'Seasonal Affective Disorder' or (SAD), the feelings of depression we feel in winter. While you are taking steps to manage your physical hygiene and avoid winter bugs, take some time to consider your mental and emotional health by practising the tips above and below:
Practice mindfulness and gratitude to energise you naturally and avoid negative thinking
Plan activities that excite you and celebrate winter such as a ski trip
Keep connected and organise social activities with friends
Use long winter nights to learn a new skill/complete a course
Book an island holiday or something to look forward to
Meditation is like weight-lifting for your brain, it builds capacity for attention, resistance to distraction or worrying thoughts, and emotional tranquillity.