We are in the thick of winter, and I can tell many folks around me are starting to feel it. The days are short, it is bone-chillingly cold, and there is not as much going on in general. During the winter, people tend to get sick more often, feel lonelier, and have more seasonal depression--but I do not think it has to be so tough for everyone. To me, having some special routines is key, treating our bodies differently during the cold months than in warmer months.
This is a time for extra self-care, prioritizing social interactions, and getting more rest than other times of the year. If we can employ a few helpful 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.
Strategy 1: Optimize Nutrition and Supplements
Vitamin D3: 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 up North 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 most people take a vitamin D3 supplement in the winter, though it is best to get your vitamin D levels checked to be know what dose is appropriate for you. Getting enough vitamin D will help with mood and energy in the winter, as well as immune health.
Cod Liver Oil and Butter Oil: Along with vitamin D, supporting your body with the other fat-soluble vitamins is also important. Cod liver oil is a traditional remedy used during "cold season" and in Nordic cultures during the winter to support health. I use cod liver oil to get my supplemental vitamin A (naturally-occurring) as well as extra omega 3 fats for their anti-inflammatory and immune boosting properties.
Combining cod liver oil with high vitamin butter oil helps to get the vitamin K2 necessary to keep the fat-soluble vitamins in balance, while supporting the health of the bones, teeth, and more. If butter oil isn't available, emu oil or supplemental K2 are good substitutes.
Zinc: Adding in a zinc supplement in the winter can improve the immune system, especially for those prone to illness. I recommend a zinc supplement that contains copper along with zinc for the best mineral balance, such as the Jarrow Zinc Balance supplement. Chris Masterjohn, PhD, has a great post about supplementing with zinc, which you could check out to find what type is right for you.
Vitamin C: This is a well-known vitamin for supporting immune health, and it can be extra helpful in the winter when our intake of fresh fruits and vegetables is naturally lower due to seasonality. Taking vitamin C, especially in food-based forms like amla, acerola cherry or rose hips, can be an easy way to increase your C intake during the winter. For non-food-based supplements, liposomal vitamin C has great absorption, and vitamin C supplements with added quercetin can add an extra boost to your immune regimen.
Immune-Supporting Herbs: Herbal remedies can be beneficial during the winter to help support 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 and foods can be helpful for stimulating the circulation and digestion during this cooler, more stagnant time--common warming herbs include ginger, cinnamon, hot peppers, and garlic. Fire cider (aka fire 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, both by supporting the immune and digestive systems.
Other herbs you may find useful include echinacea, reishi and other medicinal mushrooms, and licorice root, which can be used in supplemental forms or with food, for fighting off bacteria and viruses. I recommend the books Herbal Antibiotics and Herbal Antivirals by Stephen Harrod Buhner for a more in-depth look at herbs and protocols for when you need extra support.
Focus on Food: Supplements and herbs, while often 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 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. And, while a bit of feasting and indulgence is healthy and enjoyable, it must be balanced with nutrient-dense foods.
Prioritize seasonal fruits and vegetables, like squash, cabbage, root vegetables, 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 and digestive systems also need plenty of probiotics, available in fermented foods like sauerkraut, kim chi, kombucha, and yogurt. Getting a serving of fermented foods daily, or even better, at each meal, is another layer of protection you can provide this time of year. Plus, taking up learning to make your own fermented foods would be a great hobby to keep you busy during the lull of winter!
Vitamin D is available not only in supplements, but in foods as well. Pastured pork, lard, liver, and seafood like sardines are good sources of vitamin D that can add to what you get in supplemental forms, along with vitamin A, omega 3's and other healthy fats. Pastured egg yolks, butter, and whole, raw milk are the best sources of vitamin K2, to help balance the vitamin A and D intakes.
And of course, the most important food for staying healthy in the winter: broth! 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.
Strategy 2: Supplement 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 (in addition to, of course, heating your home) can really be beneficial.
In the mornings, especially on those dreary, grey winter mornings, I like to use a light therapy lamp, such as the 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 light therapy in the morning, such as while you are eating breakfast, can make a huge difference in your mood and energy levels in the deep winter. Be sure to use these as early as you can in the morning to help support your body's natural circadian rhythms.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, are the more warming, relaxing light 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. I use the Sauna Space brand, with just the single bulb panel in my bathroom to create a makeshift tiny house sauna. but there are many brands and options out there, depending on your needs, space and budget.
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. Not only is this warming and detoxifying, this has the added benefit of spending time 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. Try to incorporate one of these warming practices into your daily or weekly routines, especially if winters are extra tough on you.
Fires during winter can be so healing, as well. Of course, sitting by a roaring fire with a book or your loved ones (or both) is a classic way to warm yourself when it's cold outside, but having a bonfire outside (yes, we actually do this!)can be a great way to gather and socialize in the winter evenings, while keeping warm and toasty and enjoying the benefits of infrared light from a natural source.
Strategy 3: Get Outside and Actually Enjoy Winter
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to get outside during the winter. We must to do this, as getting fresh air helps to prevent illness, plus when we soak up whatever sunlight is available we boost our moods. Ensuring we interact with nature, even when it is cold outside, helps to keep us all-around healthy during this time of year.
So much of what many "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 weather conditions is important. I probably won't be going on a long hike today with a wind chill that is -10F, but a well-bundled, short walk will likely happen. On those days when it is in the 30's or even 20's, spend as much time as you safely can outside, with adequate clothing and gear to keep warm enough to enjoy all of the beauty the winter has to offer.
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 just 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. An air filter can be helpful, too, but nothing beats fresh air.
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!
Strategy 4: Emphasize Movement
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, downhill or cross-country skiing, or even regularly shoveling snow in your driveway can all be ways to interact with our natural surroundings, but also get our hearts pumping and muscles working. Perhaps there is a winter running or hiking group in your area to join to meet up with others who also want to gt moving! If you don't get physically active during the winter, you aren't getting the benefits of sweating, which helps with detoxification, and your circulatory system doesn't get enough stimulation.
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 class, yoga class, martial arts class, dance class or even a natural movement-focused class--as 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 type of exercise, which could be something to look forward to, both for a new movement challenge and for possibly meeting new people. If you are a solo workout type of person, then find an indoor activity, such as weight-lifting, at-home yoga or other workout videos, dancing in your living room, a local bouldering/climbing gym, indoor lap pool or other activities that could meet your physical movement needs to stay healthy all winter long, either at home or out in the community.
Strategy 5: Get Social
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. Certainly this winter has that knob turned up to 11, but even in a normal winter, there are usually fewer social functions happening, especially after the holidays are over.
Unfortunately (or not, I actually believe), 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, which is totally healthy as a season of our lives, we must go out of our way to ensure we get adequate time with our people, even in the winter. 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.
Find an activity or group you feel comfortable and safe with, perhaps combining your social time with one of the other self-care strategies already discussed: attend a workout class or start a winter hiking group, host a bonfire for an outdoor activity, 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 eating together. Make a big pot of soup and share it with your favorite folks, bake a batch of sourdough bread and bring it to someone dear, or host a winter-is-rough-so-let's-hang-out potluck dinner party. Again, find the activity that feels right for you at this time, but please don't neglect this part of your humanity, especially in the winter. Everyone will be healthier for it!
Strategy 6: Go Inward for Rest and Relaxation
Traditionally, life in the winter would not have looked like life in the summer but just took place indoors. However, this is often how we live today, as technology has made us more capable of going against our natural patterns. 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 resting, to relaxing and going inward, can be valuable for our mental and physical 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. While this doesn't necessarily give us license to be totally sedentary or become all-out hermits, it is an invitation to slow down and do less.
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. Traditionally, winter would be the time for making crafts and clothing, preparing herbal remedies, telling stories, and tending to parts of our lives that don't get as much attention when we are busy with the tasks of warmer weather. Incorporating this rhythm and sense of rest into all that we do this time of year can help us feel more grounded and less cooped up.
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, urging us to rest, recharge, and slow down, but it also challenges us 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.
Need a little extra support this winter?
If your physical health is feeling the toll of winter, or you want to take this special time to devote to your healing journey, let's chat! I have packages available to fit your body's needs, and you can reach out for a free 15-minute meeting to see if working together is right for you. Click here to learn more or schedule your free call!
See, winter can be pretty awesome!
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.