With the days getting shorter and the air getting colder, we tend to become more susceptible to winter illnesses. This can be due to factors such as lack of sunshine, spending more time indoors with poor ventilation, as well as comfort eating and indulging in alcoholic drinks during the holidays. Most of us will have started the New Year with unrealistic resolutions such as restrictive diets, cleanses and unsustainable exercise routines. However, in doing so we may be depriving our bodies of the nutrients it needs to function optimally, cause unnecessary stress and even some long term damage on our metabolism. Also, the dark winter months are not exactly the time we should be depriving ourselves, are they? The darkness itself can be a stress on our system and our mindset, so we want to be incorporating daily habits which make us feel great and happy.
So what can we do? By nourishing ourselves well throughout the year, we can give our body the building blocks for optimal health and immunity. Trust me, there is no need for extreme dietary and exercise regimes. In this blog post I will outline what I recommend to my clients and what I practise daily myself.
Boost your nutrient status by eating regular meals
Most of us are chronically undereating or not eating frequently enough, so my first point of call is to ensure we are eating enough calories and including a variety of easy to digest carbohydrates (fruits and root vegetables are the best sources) and nutrient dense animal protein (such as eggs, dairy, fish and seafood, gelatin and grassfed meats and organs). When focusing on winter immune health, Vitamin C is a well known powerful antioxidant. My favourite Vitamin C rich foods include oranges and citrus fruits, pepper, strawberries, melon and kiwis. Drinking a freshly squeezed orange juice with breakfast is a great way to start the day and give your body some much needed carbohydrates first thing in the morning. Furthermore, oranges contain a substance called naringenin, which has been shown to have potent anti-inflammatory effects on viral infections including COVID-19 and SARS.
Including zinc-rich foods such as seafood, properly prepared lentils, grass fed beef and lamb can help with immunity provided by your mucous membranes, including the gut lining – which we know is fundamental for immune health. Vitamin A is also important to include for immune health, as well as skin and reproductive health. Liver is a great source of vitamin A, and is one of my top fertility superfoods (more information on why can be found in my blog post here.) Betacarotene is a vitamin A precursor (i.e. it needs to be converted into the body into retinol) and can be found in orange produce such as carrots, butternut squash, pumpkin and sweet potatoes. Remember, eating well cooked vegetables and stewed fruits in the winter helps with digestion and keep us warm!
Reducing foods high in refined carbohydrates (such as processed baked goods, biscuits and pastries) is helpful as these foods will negatively impact your white blood cells (needed to attack pathogens) as well as your microbiome – which we know now is a key player in immunity. I actually find that when clients include more ripe fruits and good sources of carbohydrates into their daily diet again, a lot of the cravings for processed and refined sweets (and even alcohol!) magically vanish – it’s incredible what happens when we give the body the glucose it needs.
Get outside daily, especially first thing in the morning.
Getting some daylight on your eye retina first thing in the morning will lower stress levels and regulate your circadian rhythm. Moving your body daily has a profound effect on immunity. Whilst strenuous exercise has been shown to temporarily suppress our immune function, regular, moderate exercise is beneficial. As little as 30 minutes of walking five times a week can increase white blood cells and antibody response, whilst acute bouts of moderate duration (<60 minutes) and intensity (< 60% VO2max) will positively impact our natural killer cells, neutrophils and macrophages. Walking in nature has also been shown to have a positive effect on mood and mental well being. If unable to go for a walk first thing in the morning, aim to have your cup of tea or coffee in the garden or by an open window 🙂
Open your windows for 10-20 minutes every day
Even in the bitter cold, airing out your house every day will get rid of condensation (which leads to mold), toxins, dust, viruses, bacteria and indoor air pollution, all of which can have a negative effect on our health. Central heating also tends to dry out our mucus membranes, form a mechanical barrier for pathogens entering our bodies. Exposing our lungs to fresh air daily can also help lower our stress and anxiety levels.
Yes, I know I sound like a broken record! Getting a regular eight hours of sleep and finding time for rest and relaxation replenishes the immune system and improves resistance to infection. Lack of sleep depletes many nutrients and can increase the body’s production of cortisol – our stress hormones. If you are struggling with your sleep, look at practising good sleep hygiene such as avoiding screen use 2 hours before bed, dimming the lights in the evenings and keeping your room temperature cool. You may also want to ensure you are eating enough carbohydrates throughout the day and consider having a bedtime snack. I have written a separate blog post about sleep here.
Did you think you could read one of my blog posts and not have me talk about stress? Yeah, I thought so! Stress depletes nutrients important for health defence, such as Vitamin C, zinc and magnesium, as well as affecting your metabolism and thyroid function (also crucial for overall health). Easier said than done, but one important thing to remember is that most stress is a mindset – your brain cannot distinguish from actual stress (i.e. being chased by a bear) and perceived stress (i.e. sitting in a traffic jam) and will activate the same physical stress response system, which can have damaging repercussions on your health. Look at including mindfulness and relaxation in your daily life and working on a mindset shift.
Ensure you are adequately hydrated by drinking mineral rich fluids.
Central heating tends to dry out our mucus membranes, form a mechanical barrier for pathogens entering our bodies. Including plenty of fluids such as herbal teas and infusions, soups and bone broths into your daily diet can replace the ones lost during fevers or from your body making mucous. Remember not to overhydrate – there is no need to be drinking litres of water every day – this can actually cause you to dilute your electrolytes and affect your mineral status which is so important for cellular hydration. Over hydrating can also cause a whole host of digestive issues. Our bodies will remind us to drink by making us thirsty!
Consider taking an immune tonic.
One of my favourite immune tonics for the winter is elderberry syrup. You can make this yourself by simmering some dried elderberries until half the liquid has absorbed and mixing the decoction with equal parts honey (this is a lovely recipe), or you could purchase elderberry syrup (I like Pukka). Echinacea root tincture is fantastic for cold and flu and bacterial infections or for general immune strengthening.
Now, does this sound more inviting than a 10 days raw juice cleanse? I thought so! Hey, I hear you: I used to make unrealistic New Years resolutions which would be very short-lived and unsustainable, causing me to feel guilty and like I’d somehow failed to become the ‘new me’. I now know better and realise that true health means playing the long game – you will find no quick fixes, 30 day diet challenges or magic pills around here! I help my clients feel great by nourishing their bodies daily, not depriving themselves. If you’re ready to feel empowered and back in control of your health, click here to book a free discovery call with me and let’s chat about how some bespoke diet and lifestyle changes can help you flourish this year.
Perspective: The Potential Effects of Naringenin on COVID-19
Zinc and immune function: the biological basis of altered resistance to infection. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9701160
Exercise and the Regulation of Immune Functions https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26477922