Homes, cars, boats, cabins. These are a few of our possessions we take special care of as winter approaches, to protect them against the elements and harsh weather, and avoid possible damage or breakdowns. So it should be with our bodies! In a season with extra challenges, “winterizing” can help minimize the problems we might experience.
Read on to learn what health issues we’re more likely to deal with in winter, and how a wellness plan designed especially for this season will promote optimal physical and mental health.
Winter can be a challenging season for our bodies and minds.
The cold temps and darkness impact our everyday activities, travel plans, and even our moods. Viruses and illnesses tend to make the rounds as we spend more time indoors with other people, increasing the risk of getting sick.
We may suffer from skin issues, lower energy levels, and weight gain as a result of increased food cravings for richer comfort foods and sweets.
Some of us might develop wintertime blues on occasion resulting from less daylight hours… or a more chronic form of seasonal depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Yep- we may indeed have reasons to dread winter, but it doesn’t have to be this way!
While we can’t control the weather or hours of light in the day, we can focus on a few specific eating tips and lifestyle behaviors that will restore our well-being. We’re not just going to survive winter this year, but thrive all season long!
Let’s review a few of the most common winter concerns and why they happen, and then a wellness plan that will help prevent or diminish the symptoms of these winter-time issues.
Winter Concern: Skin Challenges
Dry, red, flaky, itchy skin is uncomfortable and likely to be more problematic this time of the year.
What’s more, skin issues may increase the risk of infection. How? Skin acts like a barrier and is our first line of defense against viruses and infection. When this barrier is inflamed or cracked, germs and illness-causing bacteria have an easier time entering the body. Cracked thumbnails anyone?!
Risk factors for problematic winter skin include:
- age (~40 years and up)
- a personal history of atopic dermatitis like eczema
- living in a dry, cold environment with low humidity
- spending a lot of time exposed to water (such as dishwashers and swimmers).
Dehydration is a major cause of dry, flaky skin and is just as common in winter as summer, but tends to sneak up on us. Why? We may not sweat as much or feel thirsty as often in winter and therefore drink less than we would on a hot summer day. Need tips to stay hydrated? Stay tuned for the winter wellness plan later in this post!
Winter Concern: Fear of getting sick
Why are we more likely to get sick in the winter?
One reason is that winter conditions are more supportive of viruses spreading. They live longer in the cold, dry air. Also, the time we spend indoors and closer to other people allows germs to spread more easily.
Factors that affect our immune system and how likely we are to get sick include:
- age (the elderly and very young are at higher risk)
- being overweight or obese
- chronic health issues such as diabetes and heart disease
- lifestyle (including stress level, sleep habits, smoking)
- our gut microbiome (the balance of gut bacteria influences the immune system)
Vitamin D levels are also tied to immune system functioning and are lowest in the winter. (1) Blood levels of the “sunshine vitamin” are correlated with time spent outdoors with exposed skin, with the sun being at the right angle. Across most of the US in winter, the sun is NOT at the angle needed to make Vitamin D (and most of us are bundled up or wearing sunscreen anyway).
So vitamin D production goes down in winter months, even in warmer weather states. It’s fairly common to have Vitamin D deficiency, and people with dark skin are at even higher risk because they don’t absorb as many UVB rays needed to convert the vitamin.
In addition, there are just a few select foods that are good sources of Vitamin D, making it more difficult to get from our diet.
Changes in sunlight don’t just affect our Vitamin D levels, they also influence energy and mood. Let’s explore that next.
Winter Concern: Low Energy and Mood Changes
Circadian rhythms (our sleep-wake cycle) and melatonin levels (a hormone that controls the sleep-wake cycle) are disrupted by the shortened daylight hours, leading to an increased sleepiness and decreased desire to exercise.
And if we aren’t fans of winter outdoor activities, we’re more likely to hibernate inside and become sedentary, leading to a further decrease in energy levels.
Some people find their mood is strongly correlated to sunlight and may go through periods of “winter blues” due to several hours of less sunlight each day.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD), a more long-lasting form of winter depression, affects about 5% of the population. It is much more common in women than men, and in those living in northern states. A milder form of SAD affects up to 10-20% of the population. Read more about SAD here.
The good news is there are strategies we can use to minimize the effects of the changing daylight- keep reading for those tips and tricks!
Winter Concern: Unwanted Weight Gain
Did you know weight gain is more common in the winter months? Many studies report a 1-2 pound average weight gain per year, which may not sound like much, but over time it adds up! The holiday season, which can extend from Thanksgiving well into the New Year, is the most common time to put on this extra weight. Check out this 10-point list of ideas to help maintain weight over the holidays.
Usually this weight gain doesn’t disappear when winter is over, but hangs around and is added to in subsequent years. Five years from now, weight may be up a noticeable 10 pounds! Over time, extra weight may increase our risk for chronic disease and impact recovery from infection or illness.
Another reason we gain weight in winter is due to an increased preference for hearty comfort foods and sweets or other food cravings. Who doesn’t love a cheese potato casserole?
Meanwhile, our activity level often goes down which reduces our calorie requirements.
The bottom line: Higher calorie intake + Lower calorie needs = Weight Gain!
A Winter Wellness Plan to help you thrive!
These and other winter challenges might seem overwhelming. However, following this winter wellness plan can help us overcome them and restore us to thriving physical and mental health! Below are 5 important areas to focus on this winter:
1. Include these winter powerhouse foods in your diet often:
*Root vegetables like potatoes, parsnips, carrots, onions, rutabagas, turnips and beets
*Dark leafy greens such as spinach, kale and collard greens
*Other dark green and orange-colored vegetables and fruits
*Citrus fruit, pomegranate, pineapple
*Oily Fish, especially wild-caught salmon
*Extra virgin olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado
*Whole grains like oats, whole wheat, quinoa, brown rice
Plan to eat a fruit and/or vegetable at every meal. They are powerhouse foods because they give us the fiber needed to support a healthy gut microbiome (correlated with overall health and immunity), and are chock-full of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals that support skin, energy and mood.
Choose whole grains more often, which provide vitamins and fiber too. Higher fiber intakes also help to keep us satisfied longer, and less likely to give into those food cravings!
Healthy fats are powerful skin supporters, anti-inflammatory, and may help control appetite too.
2. Drink plenty of water. We shouldn’t wait until we feel thirsty to drink- by then dehydration has already set in. Getting enough water is crucial for optimal body functioning, and for well-hydrated skin. How much do we need? For women, eight (8oz) glasses per day and 12 glasses per day for men.
Bonus points for including more fruits and vegetables! Many of them are very high in water content and contribute to our overall hydration status. Excellent seasonal choices include oranges, pears, pineapple, lettuce, celery, cucumber, green pepper, cauliflower and broccoli.
3. Limit portion sizes of the following foods because they are linked to chronic inflammation, growth of unhealthy bacteria in the gut microbiome, and changes in mood and energy levels:
*Red meat, particularly higher fat cuts (anything “rib” or heavily marbled cuts)
*Added sugars (check this section on the food label)
*Highly processed foods (often they lack nutritional value like chips, crackers, sweets, soda)
*Excessive intake of alcohol and caffeine
Substitute foods high in saturated fat like red meat, fried foods, and full-fat dairy with healthier fats in fish, nuts, seeds and oils help to support skin health as well as decrease inflammation in the body.
4. Consider adding a nutritional supplement over the winter months to support your diet:
*For skin: Vitamins A, C and E, Omega-3 fat (fish oil), collagen
*For overall health and a strong immune system: Vitamin D; Vitamin C and Zinc pre-cold/illness
*For gut microbiome health: Fiber, probiotic/prebiotic
*Follow safe dosing recommendations using the guidelines here or follow the professional
advice from your doctor, pharmicist or dietitian. It’s important to remember that taking high
doses on our own may create inbalance or other problems, so more is NOT always better!
5. Plan to change lifestyle behaviors that promote winter wellness:
*adjust the humidity in your home and your thermostat (for skin and sleep support)
*take shorter showers and turn down the heat (steaming hot water is more drying)
*change your skincare routine- see recommended winter product ingredients here
*get daily physical activity to support energy and mood
*practice healthy sleep habits
*consider lightbox therapy for winter time blues or SAD
A Personal Perspective
I have a love/hate relationship with winter. While I don’t mind the cold, the shorter daylight hours really get to me! Read on to learn 6 diet and lifestyle habits that have helped me enjoy winter again.
1. For a strong immune system, I incorporate more high-vitamin C citrus fruits- I especially love mandarins, clementines, cuties or whatever you call them! I roast a variety of root vegetables once weekly for their gut microbiome-promoting nutrients (see my super simple recipe here).
2. I eat fewer salads in winter; to compensate I add spinach to my pasta dishes (after the pasta is cooked, and just until wilted). When I do eat a salad, I love to add antioxidant-filled pomegranate arils in this season. Buy the whole fruit and use this technique to remove the arils easily!
3. For skin health and optimal body functioning, I strive to increase my fluid intake. There’s a great (free) phone app I use to remind me to drink water since this is a daily challenge of mine. A text chime every 2 hours lets me know it’s time to drink. Seems so much easier!
4. To boost my winter skin health and energy, I take these supplements regularly: Vitamins A and D, and B12. (My choices are based on personal lab test results). I keep Vitamin C and Zinc on hand to take at the first signs of a cold, or when someone in my household is sick. I’m rarely sick!
5. My top winter exercises are riding a stationary bike indoors, supplemented by dog-walking outside. I love to downhill ski on occasion too.
6. Finally, I have found a light therapy box to be very helpful in managing my mood and energy level in the late fall and winter months. If you choose to try one, follow the directions closely for best results.
Getting the support you need
Ready to optimize your winter wellness plan? I’d love to help! Contact me for a free discovery call. As a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, I’ll help you figure out your next steps and craft a customized plan with you. Schedule your free call today!