Written by Associate Nutritionist Spela Horjak
Checked by Registered Dietitian Nishti
As winter draws near, the temperatures drop and the days get shorter, the common response of many of us is to change our routines and habits … but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Every season brings its benefits and challenges and if we are self-aware and open to change, we can adjust our lifestyles to each season to stay healthy and happy year-round, instead of adopting that all-or-nothing approach.
This article will provide practical tips for staying healthy this winter.
With colder weather, it’s tempting to throw your current exercise routine out the window and wait for better days curled up on the sofa. Research shows our activity levels have a huge impact on our overall well-being including mood regulation (1). The lack of sunlight in the winter puts us at risk of low mood which means we need other tools in the box to alleviate this. Exercise is a great way to boost your mood on dark winter days, in fact, a 2019 study showed that higher levels of physical activity were linked to a reduced risk of depression (13)!
Finding a form of movement (meaning any movement, not only intentional exercise) that you enjoy doing will boost your mood and energy levels – this can be as simple as a brisk walk or a light jog. If you need extra motivation, there are many apps that will help keep you accountable such as the NHS apps Couch to 5K for beginner runners and Active 10 for those that prefer to walk.
Getting natural sunlight
Our bodies work with something called circadian rhythms, a natural process that is built within each of us and that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and repeats about every 24 hours (2). It works as a master clock in our brains. This clock responds to light by sending a signal to the brain to stay awake and responds to darkness by signaling that it’s time to sleep. Mornings are darker and before you know it, you’ll be rolling out of bed just in time for work, then finishing work when it’s dark again, missing out on all opportunities for natural daylight. In order to be more alert, it’s a good idea to get outside in the morning to get enough natural daylight.
Studies show that getting more natural daylight increases our physical and psychological health (alertness, mood, and learning) (3) so we recommend taking a morning walk after sunrise or at least working from the brightest room and perhaps even opening the window for a short while.
We also know that access to more daylight in the work environment has a positive effect on the amount of physical activity and sleep quality of workers (3, 4) – another reason to chase that natural light whenever you can.
Choosing your comfort foods wisely
In colder months it’s common to turn to comfort foods (normally starchy carbohydrates) for that cozy comforting feeling. But comfort foods can stretch beyond cake, fried foods, or pizza – all of which are delicious foods but can be high in sugar, fat, and salt content and might cause us to feel sluggish and not our best selves if we reach for them too often.
While there is room for all foods in our diet, try to incorporate hearty dishes such as soups, stews, casseroles, traybakes, curries, and porridge most often – preferably homemade over ready meals and takeaways. These comforting dishes are often based on seasonal produce such as root vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, parsnips, turnips, swede, celeriac, Jerusalem artichokes, and beetroot.
We might associate winter with depleted soil, but the truth is many winter vegetables are actually high in antioxidants – the compounds found in plants that help us fight disease and inflammation, so be sure to make the most of seasonal produce.
Root vegetables in season and their benefits:
Purple carrots, purple potatoes, and berries – are all high in a group of antioxidants known as anthocyanins that help fight cardiovascular disease, arthritis, cancers, and diabetes due to their anti-inflammatory properties (5).
Carrots and other orange vegetables – all contain carotenoids, another antioxidant that helps protect against free radical damage and enhance immunity (7).
Beetroot – is a source of nitrate (not an antioxidant but a natural chemical) that converts into nitric oxide which in turn helps blood pressure and blood flow by improving the elasticity of vessels (6).
To learn about other products that is in season, check out this calendar of seasonal UK grown produce by The Vegetarian Society to find out what’s in season each month.
Supporting your immunity
Our immune systems are complex and not influenced only by the diet or a single nutrient, but a balance of many factors that are diet, lifestyle and gene related. Eating a balanced diet as per the NHS Eatwell Guide, Vegetarian Eatwell Guide or the Vegan Eatwell Guide will help prevent nutrient deficiencies.
A balanced diet will provide nutrients that are especially important for immunity, such as:
- Vitamin C – an antioxidant that contributes to immune defense by supporting various cellular functions in the body. This vitamin is abundant in fruits and vegetables, especially strawberries, peppers, kiwi, oranges, grapefruit, potatoes, broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, and blackcurrants (14).
- Vitamin A – plays a role in the body’s natural defence against disease and is found in animal products (oily fish, cheese, eggs, milk, yoghurt and liver) but also plants in the form of beta-carotene in orange vegetables (sweet potatoes, pumpkin and carrots), yellow fruits (mango, apricots and papaya) and green leafy vegetables such as kale and spinach (8, 14)
- Zinc – a mineral found in our cells that helps fight off pathogens like bacteria and viruses that invade our bodies. Sources of zinc are meat, shellfish and dairy but also wholegrains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and soya products like tofu and tempeh (9, 14).
- Amino acids – A deficiency in amino acids has been shown to impair immune function and make us more susceptible to infectious diseases; amino acids regulate the T cells and the B cells (major components of our immune response) (10). Protein (made up of amino acids) is a must on your plate, and because it cannot be stored in the body must be obtained with each meal rather than only once a day.
There are many antiviral foods found in nature that, as the word suggests, help us fight a variety of illnesses caused by viruses (11). Some of the best-known antiviral foods are garlic, ginger, cinnamon, turmeric, oregano, and fennel. These remedies have been traditionally used to support the immune system and fight viruses and while scientific evidence here is limited, it is only by trial and error that you can determine which one will be beneficial to you.
Research also clearly demonstrates there to be a connection between our gut microbiome (community of microorganisms in our gut) and our immune system. A varied diet high in dietary fibre (that is obtained from plants) will provide fuel for bacteria in our gut, and when bacteria digest the fibre in our gut, they produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFA) that promote immunity and suppress inflammation in the body (12).
The takeaway here is to eat a variety of plants (wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, beans, pulses, nuts, seeds) and you might also add fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, tempeh and miso which contain healthy gut bacteria – all of these will improve the biodiversity of your microbiome and the amount of SCFA and in turn support your immune system.
Vitamin D supplement
Vitamin D is a nutrient (technically a hormone) that is synthesized in our bodies when our skin is directly exposed to the sun. It plays a huge role in our immunity (and also mood regulation). Due to the lack of sun and food sources of vitamin D is limited, we need to obtain vitamin D through a supplement from the end of September to the beginning of April.
Getting enough rest
It’s worth reflecting on the differences between the four seasons. Nature is dormant in the winter so equally this might be an opportunity for us to wind down a little after a productive summer and let ourselves have that bit of extra rest that we might so desperately need. The key is to strike that balance between being completely sedentary and constantly on the go, rather than going for that all-or-nothing approach. Here’s a lovely article by Readers’ Digest about why the practice of winter rest is just as important as other health measures described earlier.
Staying well in winter requires a holistic approach – rather than focusing on one single habit or nutrient or massive measures, think about how you can incorporate small habits into your day every day and stay consistent.
Today, think about your daily routines and see how you can improve your habits to ensure you maintain your physical and psychological health throughout all seasons, including winter. Need help with your diet or your health? To book a no-obligation consultation please visit the booking page.
Basso JC, Suzuki WA. The Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood, Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neurochemical Pathways: A Review. Brain Plast. 2017 Mar 28;2(2):127-152. doi: 10.3233/BPL-160040. PMID: 29765853; PMCID: PMC5928534.
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Meléndez-Martínez AJ, Mandić AI, Bantis F, et al. A comprehensive review on carotenoids in foods and feeds: status quo, applications, patents, and research needs. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2022;62(8):1999-2049. doi:10.1080/10408398.2020.1867959
Office of Dietary Supplements – Vitamin A and Carotenoids. (n.d.). Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS). https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminA-Consumer/
Office of Dietary Supplements – Zinc. (n.d.). Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS). https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-Consumer/
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