Winter is hard. At least it is here in Wisconsin. The days are short, it is bone-chillingly cold, and there is not as much going on in general. During the winter, we tend to get lonelier, sick more often and have more seasonal depression, but I do not think it has to be so tough for us. To me, having some special routines is key, and not treating the cold months the same as warmer months. This is a time for extra self-care, prioritizing social interactions, and getting more rest than we think we need. If we can employ a few self-care strategies and treat winter as the restful, special time that it is, I believe that we can achieve more health and happiness, and actually thrive during the winter, rather than just trying to survive it.
warmin Nutrition and Supplements
Taking care of our nutrition in the winter is essential, especially to keep up our immune systems and to help with seasonal mood changes. Because of the longer nights and less time spent outdoors, we do not get enough vitamin D in the winter. Even if you were outside a lot during the winter, you likely aren't getting enough vitamin D from the sun because your skin in covered with clothing, and at the latitude where I live, not much D would be available even if you went outside naked. It is below zero today, so don't even try it. I recommend that everyone take a vitamin D supplement in the winter, though you can get your levels checked to be sure that it is appropriate for you. Getting enough vitamin D will help with mood and energy in the winter, as well as immune health and more.
Along with vitamin D, supporting your body with other fat-soluble vitamins, A and K2, is also important. I use cod liver oil to get my supplemental vitamin A (naturally-occurring) as well as extra omega 3 fats for inflammation and immune boosting properties. Some people find adding in a zinc supplement in the winter can improve their immune system, especially if they are prone to getting whatever bug is going around. Chris Masterjohn, PhD, has a great post about supplementing with zinc, which you could check out to find what type is right for you.
Herbs can be really beneficial during the winter to help with the immune system as well. For those who work around a lot of people, such as a school or large office, taking astragalus during the winter can help with keeping those office bugs at bay. It is an immune tonic, which can be taken daily for long periods of time to improve the immune system. This is available in capsules, tinctures and glycerites, or can be added in its dried form to broths, teas and soups. Elderberry is another potent herb with anti-viral properties, that I always take at the first sign of a potential cold. These can be in lozenges, tinctures, or syrups, which I prefer, as it is delicious and usually mixed with other warming, immune-boosting herbs. Warming herbs or foods can be helpful for stimulating the circulation as well, such as ginger, cinnamon, hot peppers, and garlic. Fire Cider/Fire Tonic/Dragon Tonic, an herbal infusion of garlic, onion, ginger, horseradish, and other immune-boosting herbs into apple cider vinegar and honey, can be a great daily tonic as well. This is hot and sour and full of nutrients that are beneficial in keeping you healthy in the winter. Other herbs you may find useful are echinacea or reishi, both of which can be used in supplemental forms for fighting off bacteria and viruses.
Supplements and herbs, while essential during the winter, are not enough to keep up truly healthy during this time of year. Giving extra care and attention to our food during this time is important as well. Though the holidays are over, winter tends to be a time for extra indulgence in general, be it in alcohol or sugar or processed foods. Prioritize seasonal fruits and vegetables, like squash, cabbage, citrus, and apples, to ensure you are getting adequate vitamin C, potassium and fiber, which are usually lacking in our produce-poor winter diets. Our immune system also needs plenty of probiotics, available in fermented foods like sauerkraut, kim chi, kombucha, and yogurt. Vitamin D is available not only in supplements, but in foods as well. Pastured pork, especially with fat and/or skin, liver, and seafood like sardines are good sources of vitamin D that can add to what you supplement in other forms. And of course, the most important food for staying healthy in the winter: soup! Soups, stews, and curries made from bone broth or meat stock are not only warming and comforting, but also offer an incredible amount of nutrition. Minerals, vitamins, amino acids, and collagen are available in these broths, helping support the immune system, digestion, and even preventing dry, cracking skin during the winter. It can be hard to get enough water in the colder months, so sipping on warm broth can help keep you hydrated as well. Whether you sip it, make rice with it, or turn it into a lovely soup, stocks and broths should be in heavy rotation in your kitchen this winter.
Supplemental Light and Heat
Where I live, the winter months can start to wear on you emotionally and physically, as it just stays cold and dark for such a long period of time. This is where supplemental light and heat sources (not just for heating your home) can really be beneficial. In the mornings, especially on those dreary, grey winter mornings, I like to use a light therapy box, such as a Happy Light. This simulates the light from the sun, helping with mood and energy, which can feel really nice when it has been gloomy for a few days in a row. 10-20 minutes of this in the morning, such as while you are eating breakfast, is all it really takes to get some benefit from these light therapy lamps.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, are the more warming, relaxing light and heat sources. Infrared saunas offer warmth and relaxation, as well as detoxification and other health benefits, and can feel really nice on a freezing winter night. If an infrared sauna is not available to you, finding a spa or even a friend with a traditional sauna can be a wonderful warming experience as well. This has the added benefit of sauna-ing with others, helping abate the loneliness many feel in the winter. Hot tubs, hot springs, mineral baths and even an epsom salt bath at home can be a great part of your self-care routine to bring some warmth, moisture and relaxation to your wintertime. Of course, sitting by a roaring fire with a book or your loved ones (or both!) are classic ways to warm yourself when it's cold outside.
Getting Outside and Enjoying Winter
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to get outside during the winter. We must to do this, as getting fresh air to help prevent illness, soaking up whatever sunlight is available to boost our moods, and ensuring we interact with nature, even when it is cold outside, help to keep us healthy during this time of year. So much of what we hate about winter can be improved, though not necessarily fixed altogether, by simply going outside more. Where we live, winter can be beautiful, from snowy woods to ice caves, and would never be appreciated by staying indoors. Certainly, being wise and safe regarding temperatures and conditions is important. I probably won't be going on a hike today with a windchill that is -20F, but on those days when it is in the 30's or even 20's, adequate clothing and gear can keep me safe and warm for enjoying all of the beauty the winter has to offer here. Perhaps you are stuck inside working all day and want to get some of this benefit; in this case, I would encourage you to even open your windows at home or work for a few minutes to let in some fresh, cold air to purify the air indoors. The stagnant, stale air inside during the winter makes us more likely to get sick, and unless we periodically let some freshness in, we are stuck with this air until it is "nice" out again. We must be willing to interact with our natural world, even when it isn't totally comfortable for us, in order to keep our mental and physical health up during the colder months. If you aren't acclimated yet, start with a short 5-10 minute walk, bundled up well, and increase your outdoor time and is safe and appropriate for you. There is much beauty to be seen, even this time of year!
Outdoor time also gives us what most people desperately lack in the winter time: movement. Just as the air in our homes gets stagnant, so do many of our bodies. This is another reason people get depressed and sick more often in the winter. Movement is essential for the functioning of our lymphatic system, which helps with our immunity. It also is essential for our mental health as well. Going on a hike, snowshoeing, winter fat tire biking, cross-country skiing, or even shoveling snow in your driveway can all be ways to interact with our natural surroundings, but also get our hearts pumping and muscles working.
If outdoor exercise isn't going to be a part of your regular winter routine, then finding an indoor movement practice that you enjoy should be a priority. Especially during the winter, I recommend a movement class as opposed to an individual workout. This could be a crossfit/HIIT class, yoga class, martial arts class, dance class or even a natural movement-focused class, but the group setting gives the benefit of solving two cold-weather problems: too little movement and too little socializing. Classes often help with consistency as well, so you will be more likely to show up regularly if there are folks who expect you to be there. The winter could be a time when you try a new movement class or group, which could be something to look forward to, both for a new movement challenge and for possibly meeting new people. Or, combine the best of both worlds, and start a winter hiking group, so you all get to move together and get outside! If you are a solo workout type of person, then find an indoor activity and space, such as a bouldering/climbing gym or indoor lap pool, that could meet your physical movement and alone-time needs...in this case, you could try something new as well!
I mentioned attending group exercise classes in the movement section, because much of the unhappiness we experience during winter has to do with our isolation and loneliness. There are usually fewer social functions happening, especially after the holidays are over, and we often don't feel like going out as much in general. But, the computer or television are not good substitutes for the social interactions we need as humans. While we may be more interested in solitude and contemplation during the winter, we must go out of our way to ensure we get adequate time with our people. This could be family, friends, co-workers or even meeting new people, but we can't get complacent in the winter and just expect to wait to hang out with our people in the spring...this will not lead to happiness during the cold, dark time of the year. My best advice is to combine social time with one of the other self-care strategies already discussed: attend a workout class or start a winter hiking group, go to a sauna with some friends, host a game, craft, or movie night, or call an old friend if you are snowed in. My favorite winter group activity, of course is cooking and/or eating together. Make a big pot of soup and share it with your favorite folks, bake a batch of sourdough bread or maple-sweetened brownies and bring them to someone dear, or host a winter-stinks-so-let's-hang-out potluck dinner party. Everyone will be healthier for it!
Rest and Relaxation
Traditionally, life in the winter would not have looked like life in the summer but just indoors. However, this is often how we live today, as technology has made up capable of this. But when we live without rhythms and seasonality, we often lose the lesson that each phase can teach us. In the winter, giving more attention to our self-care, to rest, to relaxing and going inward, can be valuable for our overall health. Longer nights might be letting us know we should be sleeping more in the winter, and less time spent outdoors may be telling us to spend more time reading and meditating, or even drinking herbal tea and taking hot baths. With fewer obligations post-holidays, we can take this time to keep ourselves healthy and reset in a way that keeps up feeling good, even when it is brutal outside.
Above all, creating a routine of self-care is what is most important in the winter. Different supplements, foods, movements and activities may need to be incorporated depending on where you live, your health status and even personality, but keeping a consistent routine is what I see as the way to maintain well-being over these winter months. Winter is a strong force, making us rest, recharge, and slow down, but also challenging us more in our minds and bodies as well. Giving winter the reverence it deserves by appreciating its beauty and carving out time for taking care of ourselves can help us to not only stay healthy this winter, but also look forward to winters to come.
Brine & Broth
I am a gut health-focused nutritionist and online health coach based in Southwest Wisconsin. My recipes and philosophies center around traditional, nutrient-dense foods that support robust gut health.