With colder, shorter days & a handful of holidays, navigating health over the winter can be tricky.
Check out tips to staying healthy over the winter in this 3 part newsletter!
Part 1 - A healthy immune system.
Spending more time inside and in group settings means we're more apt to come in contact with viruses that cause flus and colds. While this is pretty well inevitable for most of us, there are things we can do to strengthen the immune system. By strengthing our immune system, our bodies will be better equipped to fight off viruses and our illnesses will be less severe and shorter in duration.
Here are 10 tips to strengthening your immune system:
1) Stay hydrated. Drink lots of water - preferably flat/filtered water. This keeps our cells healthy, removes waste, improves blood volume, and improves the health of our mucous membranes... these membranes protect us from the invasion of viruses and bacteria that come in from our environment.
Better yet - Add fresh lemon to your water or make warming tea using organic ginger, lemon or peppermint tea bags for a boost of anti-inflammatories & antioxidants! Your immune system will thank you.
2) Stay active. It's tempting to sit down and curl up on a cold day, but I recommend physical activity as often as possible over the winter months. Walking, sessions at the gym, pilates, yoga, swimming, etc. Whatever you like to do.. Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity each day. Get your blood flowing, increase white blood cell count, improve antibody count against viruses, reduce inflammation... Activity is essential for a healthy immune system.
3) Prioritize Sleep. - 6-8 hours of good quality sleep (as many nights as possible) is key to a healthy immune system... Similar to staying active, sleep improves white blood cell and antibody count, giving you a stronger fighting chance against viruses.
4) Eat LOTS of colour from fresh fruits and vegetables. Bell peppers, dark leafy greens, citrus fruits, potatoes, sweet potatoes, squash, broccoli, garlic, etc... The more colour in your diet, the healthier your microbiota. Your microbiota controls your immune system. Poor bacteria balance in the gut, on your skin, in your lungs and on your eyes will lead to a weakened immune system.
5) Reduce intake of ultra-processed foods. Swap commercial breads, baked foods, and frozen meals for fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables, fresh red meats, eggs, cheese, fermented dairy (yogurt and kefir), wild-caught salmon, lentils and beans, nuts and seeds, avocados, etc. Ultra-processed foods are filled with unhealthy ingredients such as flavourants, preservatives, gums, stabilizers... They do nothing good for our body and especially not for our microbiota or our immune system.
6) Increase intake of a variety of healthy foods. Whole foods (as listed in #5) are a source of MANY micronutrients - vitamins and minerals, macronutrients - fibre, protein and fats, and phytochemicals - All of these nutrients are VITAL to a strong immune system. Think colour, variety, and abundance!
7) Supplement with additional nutrients. My 'base' supplements are magnesium bisglycinate, Omega 3 fatty acids (or Cod liver oil), Vitamin D3/K2. Depending on the person or situation, a high-quality multivitamin, a B complex, or a Zinc/copper combo may also be required for a healthier immune system. If you're unsure about the best supplement regime, talk to a healthcare provider who specializes in dietary and supplement intake.
8) Get fresh air. A breath of fresh air and time in the colder air is actually GOOD for us! Not only does cold air help to activate our immune system (great for mitochondrial health), indoor air is often MORE polluted than outdoor air! Better yet, if you are able to, try to spend as much time outdoors AND in nature. Live near a park? Aim to go at least a few times/week. Fresh air regrounds us and is important for our immune system. Staying connected to nature is key to a healthier microbiota too.
9) Reduce toxic load. Not disimilar to the 'indoor air is more polluted than outdoor air' comment... Our immune system can only take so much. Avoid the use of toxic cleaning chemicals, try 'Downeast' cleaning product line instead, for example. Avoid the use of synthetic air fresheners, hormone disrupting chemicals such as parabens in skincare products, etc. Use glass instead of plastic where you can, etc. ALL of these steps will reduce your toxic load, improve your microbiota and of course, improve the health of your immune system.
10) Listen to your body. Don't over do it. If you're exhausted, skip the gym... Instead, make a hot ginger tea and watch a movie or read a book. If you're feeling energized, go for a walk outdoors, get to your aerobics class, make a pot of soup... Being MINDFUL and making decisions that work for us based on our needs at any given time will strengthen our immune system. Fatigue, stress, burnout, little rest... all of these concerns will weaken our immune system.
Part 2 - Navigating dietary intake over the holidays.
The holidays are already stressful... Beating ourselves up over some extra meals or treats for a few weeks in total over the winter months is NOT healthy. The shame and the guilt that can come with holiday eating is very stressful and anxiety provoking... It's not worth it.
Here are 5 tips to navigating healthy eating over the holidays:
1) Maintain your 3 meals/day routine. Well-balanced meals of mostly whole foods is the way to go. This will keep you feeling balanced and will help to balance your blood sugars, reducing the risk of binging and overindulging. Although there really isn't anything wrong with overindulging a few times over the holidays (for most of us), the REAL ISSUE is the shame and guilt that come along with it. Shame and guilt leads to the potential 'binge/restriction cycle' that leaves us feeling anxious, exhausted, uncomfortable, bloated, etc.
2) Stay active. The holidays are not really a time to sit around exclusively. YES relax and watch some holiday movies or spend some time listening to Christmas music or calling your friends or family members, etc.... But the thing is, relaxing and being sedentary are not synonymous. If you can go for a nice afternoon walk in the park or with a friend... you can do a pilates or yoga class in the morning before dinner, or maybe dance around your kitchen, etc... You'll feel more mindful, more at ease... you'll feel healthier. No need to go to 5 intense aerobic classes over the holiday or anything, but move your body whenever you can.
3) Drink lots of water. I can't stress this one enough. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Fresh, flat and filtered water is best. Why? Better brain health, focus and concentration, more blood flow, a healthier immune system, better digestion and bowel movements, better detoxification of waste, less inflammation... There is no lack of reasons to drink water regularly. Aim for 6-8 x 250 ml glasses/day.
4) Practice mindfulness. What does this mean anyways? I like to say that mindfulness means to do each and everything with intention. Want the extra cookie? Great! Want a second helping? All the power to you! But these decisions are made MINDFULLY.... not on autopilot... You ASSESS a situation and make a decision based on where you're at. Maybe you're thinking 'That third cookie looks great'.... but you think about it and you're stuffed, you can't handle anymore food. And your mindful decision is 'no I'm good' or maybe 'yes, why not!' - but don't be surprised if you feel bloated or uncomfortable in saying yes.... At least you made the decision with awareness. YOU controlled the situation, essentially. THAT is mindfulness.
5) Practice self-compassion. So you said 'yes' to the third cookie, despite feeling full. Now you feel uncomfortable. The WORST thing that could happen next is GUILT, SHAME, REGRET.... Why? Because with these emotions comes stress and anxiety.... Sometimes these emotions LEAD to unhealthy behaviours such as restriction... It's simply not worth it. Accept you ate the third cookie, grab a peppermint tea to help with the bloat, and move on. (Easier said than done, it takes time and practive to UNLEARN internal guilt/shame).
Part 3 - Mental health over the winter months.
SAD or 'seasonal affective disorder' is a serious disorder affecting millions of Canadians each winter. However, even without 'SAD', many of us have a harder time staying mentally well in the winter. It is NOT uncommon at all to feel 'down' as our mood and energy can plummet.
Here are some tips for staying mentally healthy over the winter months.
1) Sleep 6-8 hours/night and most importantly, aim to maintain a sleep 'routine' by going to sleep similar times most nights and waking up at similar times most mornings. Why? Because our mood and mental state is affected heavily by our Circadian rhythm. Our 24 hour clock. This clock controls hormone and neurotransmitter production and release and controls communication between neurons and cells.
2) Get outside! Yes, spend sometime in nature. Being cooped up in our homes all winter is NOT healthy. Fresh air resets our immune system, resets our mental state... Reduces stress and anxiety... Go for a walk before after work, even 10-15 minutes outside can help.
3) Vitamin D3! Supplement, supplement, supplement. As we are not outside with our bare skin exposed to the sunshine between the months of October and May... We need to supplement with Vitamin D3. Depending on your D3 blood levels, 2000IU/day is suffice for most of us.
Brands matter! Aim for drops from CanPrev, Orange Naturals, SISU, Natural Factors or NOW.
Low Vitamin D3 is directly linked to symptoms of SAD and poor mood in the winter.
4) Stay active! Don't miss out on your walk, gym sessions or your favourite excercise classes just because it's cold and dark out. Physical activity is PINNACLE for reduced cortisol levels, increased serotonin and dopamine, and MUCH better mental health.
5) Eat healthy food! Forgot the ultra-processed, frozen & boxed ready-made meals. Make delicious soups and stews (yes you can include frozen vegetables), make warming curries and hot casseroles.... Ultra-processed foods is not only riddled with unhealthy additives, it also does NOT provide our body with nutrients that are PINNACLE to our mental health such as proteins, B vitamins, magnesium, choline, proteins, fats (especially Omega 3), Vitamin C, zinc, etc. The list goes on.
Thank you so much for reading. I hope the information is helpful for you. Happy holidays and have a wonderful winter!
Nicole Marchand, RD