As the days get colder and shorter you are likely to find yourself craving different foods. One of the best ways to find comfort in cold weather is to wrap up warm and enjoy a hearty, warming meal. By incorporating the right foods, you can help your body defend itself from cold weather ailments such as colds, a sore throat and dry skin.
To boost your immune system look for foods high in vitamin C such as citrus fruits, broccoli, berries and dark leafy greens, and foods high in vitamin A such as squash, dark leafy greens, sweet potatoes and carrots. Your immune system also requires healthy blood iron levels to function effectively. Iron-rich foods include meat, poultry, fish, legumes and cruciferous vegetables. Aim to cook with plenty of garlic and ginger, or sip on fresh ginger tea. Garlic has antimicrobial and antiviral properties which can benefit your immune system function. Ginger also has antimicrobial properties and may even lower your risk of infection. If you do have the misfortune of catching a cold or the flu, both garlic and ginger are believed to reduce the associated symptoms, so make sure they are part of your daily diet.
Your immune system is closely connected to your gut, so by maintaining a healthy gut you can make sure your immune system is working effectively. Probiotics, which can be found in fermented foods, keep your gut healthy. To optimise the function of your probiotics, you should also consume prebiotics which are present in legumes, oats, berries, bananas, garlic, leeks and onions.
Including these foods in your diet can be as simple as combining them with spices and broth, chopped tomatoes or coconut milk in a one-pot stew or tossing them in a homemade marinade and roasting them in the oven. Making homemade soup is also an easy and efficient way of packing lots of nutrients into a meal, and is a much healthier alternative to pre-made processed soups. Investing in a blender will allow you to make nutritious soups and smoothies in a matter of minutes. If a prebiotic rich banana, oat and berry smoothie is more appealing for you in summer than in winter, opt for warm porridge with stewed berries or pan-fried bananas with cinnamon instead.
Lying in until the sun finally rises, driving to work in a warm car rather than walking in the cold and avoiding outdoor exercise in general due to bad weather often means that in winter your body becomes deprived of the physical activity it needs. Exercise not only boosts your immune system, it also boosts your mood, making it essential to help combat the physical and mental troubles commonly associated with winter.
Keeping your body moving in winter does not have to mean embarking on a 10km run in the snow or waking up while it’s still dark outside to squeeze in a pre-work gym class. If you know your motivation to work out drops with the falling temperatures, rather than punish yourself or give into laziness, simply try to incorporate physical activity into your day in a different way. Instead of lounging on the sofa while watching TV, practise some yoga flows to stimulate your circulation. Certain pieces of gym equipment can be hugely efficient, for example a single dumbbell can provide you with a full body workout in your own living room! With the wide variety of workout videos and apps available, you don’t need to leave your house to raise your heart rate. Small changes can also be beneficial such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator and standing while working on your laptop rather than sitting. You could even try breaking up your day with regular bursts of activity such as 20 burpees every hour or holding a plank while the kettle boils!
Although indoor exercise will release endorphins, help you overcome the winter blues and have positive health benefits, it is also important to get outside. Whether you decide to layer up for a low-intensity walk or gear up for a high-intensity outdoor work out, make sure to spend time outdoors every day. Your lungs will be thankful for the fresh air and your body will benefit from the vitamin D provided by natural sunlight. With limited sunshine in winter you need make the most of any opportunity to expose your skin to sunlight, as it is the best way to obtain vitamin D. Aim for at least 20 minutes of exposure a day! Vitamin D can also be found in fatty fish, certain mushrooms grown in UV light, fortified milks, juices and cereals and egg yolks. If you are worried about your vitamin D levels you may want to consider fortifying your diet with a vitamin D supplement.
Sleep if just as important for your body as nutrition and exercise. The quality of your sleep determines the quality of your life while you are awake! While you sleep your body works to maintain the health of your brain as well as your physical health. The development of new pathways in your brain, the repair of your heart and blood vessels, the balancing of your hormones, the repair of your cells and tissues and the supporting of your immune system all take place while you are sleeping. Sleep deficiency not only affects your brain function, your emotions and how you interact with other people, it can also increase your risk of diseases such as; obesity, depression, high blood pressure and heart disease.
In winter, shorter days and colder weather can make you feel tired earlier and increase your desire to sleep. This is a natural response to the earlier sunsets which disrupt your body’s circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle) and can affect not only the quantity of your sleep but also the quality of your sleep. To make sure you get the right amount of good quality sleep try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day to establish a natural sleep-wake cycle within your body. Adults are recommended to get 7-9 hours of sleep a night. Too much sleep can actually make you feel more tired, so try to avoid lie-ins and instead opt for a 20 minute nap if your energy levels dip during the day.
You start to become tired as it gets darker due to the production of melatonin in your body. Light suppresses the production of melatonin, so by controlling your exposure to light you can influence your inner circadian rhythm. While you should aim to expose yourself to as much natural daylight as possible while you’re awake, when it nears your bedtime you should avoid bright screens or backlit devices and when you sleep it should be in darkness.
The key to a good night’s sleep is to gradually wind down towards the end of the day and relax. Avoid caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, sugary foods or big meals late at night as these will disrupt your sleep. Deep breathing, stretching and reflecting are all ways in which you can encourage your body and mind to relax. You may find that non-stimulating activities such as light reading or listening to music also help. Gaining a sense of closure with problems you faced in your day putting aside feelings of stress or worry will help you to switch off and sleep throughout the night. The better you sleep the better you will feel when you wake up, even if it is a grey winter’s day!