Homes, cars, boats, cabins. We take special care of these possessions as winter approaches to protect them against the coming harsh weather and avoid possible damage or breakdowns.
So it should be with our bodies! In a season with extra challenges, following a few winter wellness tips can help minimize the problems we might experience.
Read on to review common wintertime concerns, followed by 5 winter wellness tips shown to promote optimal physical and mental health.
Winter can be a challenging season for body and mind wellness.
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, and if we’re around other people, increase the risk of getting sick.
We may suffer from skin issues, lower energy levels, and weight gain due to seasonal changes in our environment, activity habits and food choices. Comfort food cravings anyone?
Wintertime blues may develop as winter progresses and daylight hours diminish… or a more chronic form of seasonal depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
Indeed, there are reasons we may not embrace winter, or even dread its approach, but it doesn’t have to be this way! We can’t control the weather or hours of daylight, but we can still feel confident about our well-being by focusing on a few winter wellness tips. Why just survive winter when we can thrive- all season long?!
Next up is a review of common concerns, followed by proven winter wellness tips to help prevent or diminish the symptoms of these seasonal issues.
Concern #1: 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)
- having a personal history of atopic dermatitis like eczema, or psoriasis
- 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. Stay tuned for winter skin hydration tips later in this post.
Concern #2: 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 spent indoors 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 disease, such as diabetes and heart disease
- lifestyle factors (including stress level, sleep habits, smoking)
- our gut microbiome (the balance of gut bacteria influences the immune system)
Vitamin D and Illness
Vitamin D levels are linked 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 just the right angle. Across most of the United States in winter months, the sun is NOT at the angle needed for optimal Vitamin D production.
So, vitamin D levels often decrease 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.
Another contributing factor is that there are just a few select foods that are good sources of Vitamin D, making it difficult to get enough 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.
Concern #3: 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, often 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.
The good news is there are winter wellness tips we can use to minimize the effects of the changing daylight- keep reading for these strategies.
Concern #4: 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 winter holiday season, extending from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, is the most common time to add 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 accumulates in subsequent years. Five years from now, weight may be up a noticeable 10 pounds! Over time, extra weight may increase the risk for chronic disease and impact recovery from infection or illness.
Winter weight gain may also result from an increased preference for hearty comfort foods and sweets or other food cravings. Who doesn’t love a cheesy potato casserole? Meanwhile, a lower activity level reduces our calorie requirements, putting our metabolism out of balance and leading to weight gain.
Facing these and other winter challenges can seem overwhelming. However, the following 5 winter wellness tips are a confidence boost that will help you feel your best all season long.
Winter wellness tips to help you thrive all season long
Below are 5 solutions to help prevent or minimize wintertime concerns.
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
Why are these powerhouse foods? Because they provide fiber and healthy fats 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.
Higher fiber intakes also help to keep us satisfied longer, and less likely to give into food cravings!
2. Drink plenty of water
Don’t wait until feeling 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 water do we need? For women, eight (8oz) glasses per day and 12 glasses per day for men are generally good targets.
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.
Do other beverages count? Yes! But limit those containing added sugars, caffeine, and alcohol.
3. Limit intake of inflammatory foods
The following foods are linked to chronic inflammation and growth of unhealthy bacteria in the gut microbiome, as well as a negative impact on mood and energy levels:
- Red meat, particularly higher fat cuts (anything “rib” or heavily marbled cuts) and processed meat
- Added sugars (check food labels)
- Highly processed foods (many snacks, chips, crackers, sweets and desserts, soda, canned foods)
Substitute foods containing healthier fats like wild-caught fish, nuts, seeds and extra-virgin olive oil to help support skin health as well as decrease inflammation in the body. Eating more plant-based meals is also recommended.
4. Consider a nutritional supplement to fill in dietary gaps
There are several key nutrients that may offer us winter health protection:
- 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 (especially pre-cold/illness)
- For gut microbiome health: fiber (a prebiotic), and/or a broad-spectrum probiotic
Follow safe dosing recommendations using these supplement guidelines or follow the professional advice from your doctor, pharmacist or dietitian. Taking higher doses than recommended may lead to side effects or nutrient imbalances, so more is NOT always better!
Lab testing for micronutrient levels provides guidance on which specific nutrients need a boost. I offer testing through my private practice, see “getting the support you need” below for more information.
5. Modify lifestyle behaviors that promote winter wellness
- adjust the humidity at home and the thermostat to recommended levels (for skin and sleep support)
- take shorter showers and turn down the heat (steaming hot water is more drying)
- change your skincare routine- check out this summary of recommended winter product ingredients
- aim for daily physical activity to support energy and mood
- practice healthy sleep habits
- consider lightbox therapy for winter time blues or SAD
As you can see, there are several ways to thrive in the winter months by focusing on a few key habits and behaviors. Still, some of us may need more guidance. If this is you, keep reading for personalized help.
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 personal winter wellness tips and craft a customized plan with you. Nutritional lab testing is available to help personalize recommendations.
Schedule your free call today!