Here in Ireland we are well into the depths of winter with colder temperatures and shorter day light hours. So how is our health often impacted in the colder darker months compared to the brighter warmer seasons?
Less hours of sunlight
Indoors more often
Do we move less?
Do we eat less fresh produce?
Our immune health
The immune system is both reactive and adaptive to our environment. There is evidence linking light exposure and melatonin production to our immune function, coupled with sunlight and immune-regulatory effect of vitamin D. I guess we could infer that this may prime our immune system to be less resilient during the darker months. Furthermore, research* is showing that different influenza viruses have their own seasonal variance (lie dormant at certain times of the year/seasons), meaning that they may be more virulent during the winter.
Spending more time indoors potentially with less air filtration, potential chronic stress or low mood, festive season demands etc, coupling these biological and seasonal theories it is not surprising that some individuals are more vulnerable to colds and flues during the winter months.
During the darker months in Ireland our exposure to sunlight is reduced to the point that even on a sunny day we are not likely to make any vitamin D. Vitamin D is shown to support normal immune function, is crucial for bone health as it facilitates calcium absorption, fertility, muscle, kidney and heart health, cognitive function and our mood. This in part can be related to low mood or seasonal affective disorder in susceptible people. World Health Organisation now recommend we all take 10mcg (200IU) per day from October to March.
Move towards feeling better:
Physical activity supports mental health as it helps produce and balance brain chemicals (neurotransmitters), that help us feel good, improve self-esteem, helps sleep, balances hormones, and help with energy levels. So, moving out side in ways we enjoy and are able to, helps with natural light exposure and feel-good associated benefits.
Recent data shows that many urbanites spend up to 90% of there time in doors. Set yourself aside certain amount of time each day to be outdoors- what ever the weather and preferably, depending on your mobility, move in a way you enjoy. Think about what access you have close to you that you can make use of that allows you to be under the sky. Are there green spaces such as a park, tree lined paths or have you the option to walk along a beach or seafront? Even if you live/work in a busy urban area with traffic, it is still beneficial you try and access outdoor time as we are now learning how office environments with carpets, soft-furnishings, artificial lights from screens and constant wi-fi is negatively impacting our health.
Sense of Connection:
Social contact is integral to our health**. When it’s cold and dark outside or we’ve been unwell, we may feel less inclined to seek social connection. Consider whether this is relevant for you and if factoring more positive social contact during the winter months may boost or maintain sense of connection and wellbeing.
With colder weather we may be drinking less water, but our body still needs adequate hydration, especially with the more frequent use of central-heating. Herbal teas contribute to our fluid intake so see if you can exchange the afternoon coffee with a cup of herbal tea and aim to keep a water bottle topped up.
Isn’t Nature Amazing?
I’m always both delighted and in awe of how nature gives us resources to help us with our health. When it comes to supporting our wellbeing as the colder weather approaches seasonal foods in autumn become available to us with nutrient profiles that have been linked with supporting normal immune function. Black berries, elder berries, autumn-fruiting raspberries, walnuts, hazelnuts, figs, apples, pears, pumpkins, kale, beetroot, rocket, leeks, broccoli, garlic are all wonderfully nourishing foods. You don’t have to eat them all every day, but are there ways you could incorporate them into your weekly meals and snacks? Here are some options you may like to try.
Ready to vamp up your broccoli sides?
Melt some butter or coconut oil in a pan, add a crushed garlic clove and the tip of a fresh chilli, and add pinch of salt and pepper. Next add the broccoli florets and a splash of water. Lid on and steam for 3-5 minutes stirring occasionally.
Need some colour on your plate?
Grate one raw beetroot, one raw carrot and a small bunch of fresh parsley. Toss together with sesame seeds, olive oil and some lemon juice. Season to taste.
Like apples, pears, lemon and cinnamon?
They make a delicious combo all together! Slice the fruit, add to a bowl and squeeze on half a lemon and sprinkle of cinnamon to take these fruits to the next level!
Looking for a tasty satisfying smoothie with only 4 ingredients?
Blend handful of (frozen) blackberries/raspberries with milk/milk of choice, 2 tblsp pumpkin seeds and 1 tblsp of olive oil or flax oil.
Sometimes only chocolate will do.
To make some tasty bites, melt your favourite chocolate and add in 1 tblsp nut butter, a few chopped walnuts, chopped dried figs and dried apricots/raisins. Pour into a lined tray and leave to set. Break into pieces and enjoy for a tasty dose of vitamin P! Pleasure!
Take home thoughts:
Factor in time to be out doors
Optimise day light hours
Supplement with Vitamin D (always check with your health care practitioner when taking supplements).
Move in ways you enjoy
Look at ways to foster your social connections
Think of ways and if you can, add some seasonal foods to your plate