How to Stay Healthy This Winter

Aug 12, 2019

PicturesIt’s winter here in Australia, and it’s cold!

If you live in the eastern states – it’s icy! I’m not a fan of winter, but thoughts of open fires and bracing morning walks sound more appealing while I’m sweating through summer.

By August though, reality sets in. Getting out of bed is a mission, and everyone in the family is sneezing and blowing their noses. It feels like staying healthy in winter is about crossing your fingers and hoping for the best!

So, what can you do to help you and your family stay healthy? Thankfully, there’s plenty you can do to feed your body and set it up to flourish this winter.

Start with Sleep

I’m going to start with an often forgotten, but vital ingredient in staying healthy in the winter months – or any other time of the year – SLEEP. It’s one of the first things I talk to new patients about. The bottom line is that without enough good sleep, your body will always be playing catch up.

The sweet spot for sleep is between seven and nine hours. Anything less than seven hours is detrimental to your health, but surprisingly, more than nine hours can also adversely affect your physical and mental health.

A good night’s sleep will help to ensure your hormone levels stay balanced; in particular, leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is the hormone that helps you to feel full, increasing satiety, while ghrelin switches it off. If you aren’t sleeping properly, your leptin levels decrease, and ghrelin levels increase. That means you are more likely to want to snack on high energy density foods that are quick and easy – in other words – junk food. If you are getting the right amount of sleep, your body will be able to make the most of the other ways you can set it up to thrive over winter.

Breakfast is Best

So, with sleep covered, let’s talk about breakfast. No matter what the latest food fad is telling you, skipping breakfast is a bad idea! A healthy, balanced breakfast is going to set you up for the rest of the day and give your body its best chance of resisting the barrage of bugs.

Breakfast wakes your brain up, increases your metabolism, and gets you going. I start work early most mornings, so go for quick and nourishing, in the form of porridge or wholegrain toast with toppings like tomato, avocado, mushrooms or eggs, and coffee. I love food, so one of my favourite things on the weekend is to get more inventive and take my time enjoying breakfast.

Breakfast needs to be part of a healthy balanced diet with a regular meal pattern. You’ve set yourself up well by eating at the start of the day – so make the most of it. In general, I recommend three meals and three snacks to ensure that your blood sugar levels stay constant and you get hungry, but never ‘starving’. Eating at regular intervals during the day also helps to regulate serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is the ‘happy’ hormone – and who doesn’t want to feel happy?

Remember what you eat matters! Nutrition plays a vital role in optimising your immune system. Your immune system never takes a break, but when colds and flu are doing the rounds, your body’s demand for energy-giving nutrients significantly increases. Having a balanced diet of wholegrain carbohydrates, proteins, and fats and including fruit and plenty of vegetables is the first line of defence against colds and flu.

Make kiwi fruit, oranges, strawberries, capsicum and broccoli a regular part of your daily intake. These fruit and veggies are rich sources of Vitamin C, an essential micronutrient with many functions, including supporting a robust immune system. Other key micronutrients include B Vitamins, Vitamin D, Iron, and Omega 3 Fatty Acids.

The Role of Supplements

As far as taking micronutrient supplements is concerned, there are always controversies around the effectiveness of popping a tablet to increase immunity. My take on it is that if you have any known deficiencies – the idea is to fix them. A blood test will give you answers quickly and then you can work with your dietitian and doctor to address them.

Vitamin D is a common deficiency, particularly during the winter months, resulting in decreased energy levels and a lowering of mood. However, very few foods contain Vitamin D. In Australia, the best sources are fortified margarine, fatty fish, and eggs. Vitamin D fortification is mandatory in Australia for margarine and voluntary for fresh and powdered milk, soy milk and yoghurt. Health professionals are best placed to ensure you get the right results when introducing supplements.

Winter Workout

​And lastly, we come to everyone’s favourite topic; exercise! Exercise is an important part of having a balanced and healthy lifestyle. When done in conjunction with the other steps, it helps to set your body up to flourish all year round. The biggest issue I see with my patients around exercising in winter is that they try to maintain their summer regime – and it doesn’t work. I know because I experience it too. In summer I walk early or in the evening – there are options. In winter I wake up when it’s dark, I come home when it’s dark, and I don’t have time during the day to go outside and exercise. My winter plan has evolved over time, and it remains flexible. My current thing is having my road bike on a trainer and doing my exercise before I go to work. It’s what works for me in winter.

Other options I discuss with my patients include, hiring exercise equipment, joining a gym, or getting exercise DVDs. The trick with any plan is setting realistic targets. If you’re aiming to exercise seven days a week for an hour, break it down into smaller, bite-sized chunks. Start with 20 minutes, 3 times a week, for example. Once you’ve achieved your target, it will be easier to set new ones and increase your exercise incrementally.

Balance is Best

The bottom line is that we can’t always avoid the coughs, colds and flu, but we can set our bodies up to make the most of the winter months. Heaving a plan for sleep, healthy nutrition, and exercise is key, and remember balance is best!

For further reading on the links between sleep and wellbeing

  1. Tips for Staying Well During Cold and Flu Season. PEN: Practice-based Evidence in Nutrition; 2011.
  2. Liang S. Vaccines for Preventing Influenza in Healthy Individuals. Academic Emergency Medicine. 2019;26(1):113-4.
  3. Calder PC. Feeding the immune system. The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2013;72(3):299-309.
  4. Maggini S, Wintergerst ES, Beveridge S, Hornig DH. Selected vitamins and trace elements support immune function by strengthening epithelial barriers and cellular and humoral immune responses. The British journal of nutrition. 2007;98 Suppl 1:S29-35.
  5. Davison G, Kehaya C, Wyn Jones A. Nutritional and Physical Activity Interventions to Improve Immunity. American journal of lifestyle medicine. 2016;10(3):152-69.
  6. Dragos D, Tanasescu MD. The effect of stress on the defense systems. Journal of medicine and life. 2010;3(1):10-8.
  7. Understanding Nutrition: Australian and New Zealand Edition 2011