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From eating to support your immune system to using light to lift the winter blues, these tips will help you optimise your health and wellbeing this winter
We might associate cooler days and longer nights with coughs, colds and the winter blues, but dedicating a little time and space to self-care can change all that. Winter brings you the opportunity to slow down, reassess and find creative ways to nourish your physical and emotional health. Get started with our experts’ top tips for supporting your immune health and enhancing your mental wellbeing.
All of the key vitamins and minerals (collectively known as micronutrients) have a vital role to play in keeping your immune system on fighting form through the winter months. It’s always best to get these from unprocessed wholefoods if possible rather than multivitamins. ‘With the exception of vitamin D, we should aim to get these nutrients from food, because food comes with so many other benefits, such as fibre,’ explains immunologist Dr Jenna Macciochi, author of Immunity: The Science Of Staying Well. Try to get your quota from seasonal produce. ‘Our immune systems adapt to the seasons by switching different genes on and off as we face different challenges,’ Jenna explains. ‘Eating a rainbow of phytonutrient-packed fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, pulses and spices is key for gut health and immunity.’
Once you’ve got the basics of healthy eating nailed, you might find it beneficial to add a supplement to your regime. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, it’s usually a good idea to take a vitamin B12 supplement, as adequate amounts can't be found in unfortified plant-based foods. Got the winter blues? Some people find that B12 also helps with SAD and low mood.
Originally used in ancient Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, some traditional herbal remedies (now known as adaptogens) have started to gain in popularity. Adaptogens are plant-based nutrients thought to enhance the body's capacity to withstand physical and emotional stress. ‘There is growing evidence to support a role for these nutrients,’ says Jenna. ‘I see them as the icing on the cake.’
If longer nights and shorter days are getting you down, you're not alone. Three per cent of us are affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder, with many more getting a milder case of the winter blues. ‘We know that a lack of daylight can have a big impact on mood during the winter,’ explains Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind. ‘When light hits the back of the eye, messages are passed to the part of the brain responsible for sleep, appetite, sex drive, temperature, mood and activity. If there's not enough light, these functions can slow down, and gradually stop.’
The key take-home? Spend as much time as you can in natural light. Stephen recommends going for a short walk each day, ideally around midday, spending time in parks or gardens when you can, and sitting near a window. ‘Some people find it helps to use a light box or lamp which gives off a strong white or blue light,’ he adds. ‘Others may benefit from using an alarm clock that simulates dawn.’
Exposing yourself to the right kind of light at the right time will also support your body’s natural circadian rhythms and help you get a better night’s sleep – crucial for mood and immune health.
Staying active can give you a real lift over the colder months – even if it’s the last thing you feel like doing. ‘Physical activity is a very effective way to lift your mood and increase your energy levels,’ explains Stephen. ‘Research shows that doing outdoor exercise like cycling or jogging can be as effective as antidepressants at treating mild to moderate depression, but housework, gardening or a gentle walk can all help.’
Exercise also plays a key role in supporting immune health. ‘Movement is anti-inflammatory, and helps to move lymphatic fluid around the body, which aids with immune surveillance,' Jenna explains. She recommends getting your heart rate up once a day (this can be just a brisk walk) and challenging your muscles with some form of resistance exercise a few times a week. ‘This is quite rejuvenating for the immune system, particularly if you're over 30, which is when muscle mass starts to decline.’
But more isn't necessarily more, so think little and often. ‘It’s important to keep moving our bodies throughout the day, breaking up sedentary periods with movement,’ Jenna explains. ‘Some exercise is good, but too much can actually suppress immune function.’ Swerve the hit by ensuring you’re eating enough to fuel your workouts properly and giving yourself enough time to rest and recover.
While many of us can’t get out as often as we’d like to, bringing a little nature into our homes can have real benefits. ‘Growing food or flowers, or owning houseplants, can help our emotional wellbeing,’ Stephen explains. ‘Completing a small, achievable task like watering your plants creates a feeling of accomplishment too, which may lift your mood.’
Plants also work to purify the air in your home – the Sanseveria (or snake plant) can absorb 107 harmful pollutants from the air and is as low-maintenance as you could hope for – simply pop a reminder in your calendar to water it once a fortnight.
But if spending more time inside is triggering indoor allergy symptoms, it might be time to call in the big guns – an air purifier can capture microscopic pollutants, irritants and airborne bacteria to cleanse the air in your home and help you breathe more easily. A humidifier can also help, as central heating and dry winter air can worsen allergy symptoms.
If you do one thing to boost your health this winter, make it this. As day-to-day demands and seasonal stresses begin to mount, finding effective ways to take the mental load off is crucial. ‘I think we need to take a 360-degree approach,’ Jenna explains. ‘Even if you have the best diet in the world, being stressed can leave you open to infection and illness.’
‘Lots of studies show that human connection, and things like meditation and breathwork, are beneficial,’ she adds. ‘But I think there is also something to be said for people finding the things that bring them joy and take the edge off the stresses of modern life.’
This will look different for different people – it could mean rolling out your yoga mat, pulling on the gardening gloves or carving out a few minutes of quality time with your journal or sketchbook. If you haven't found your ‘thing’ yet, make a date with yourself to try something new – learning a fresh skill can improve brain health, boost confidence and even slow down brain ageing, so it’s well worth taking a step or two outside your comfort zone.
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