As temperatures drop and we count down to the shortest day of the year, many of us can’t help but feel a sense of dread. It means winter is coming. And depending on what part of the world you live in, winter can feel like a very long time.
Winter doesn’t have to be a season you only suffer through. You can take positive steps to embrace the cold and everything that comes with it.
1. Strengthen Your Immune System
It’s not a myth that people are healthier in the summer compared to the winter. A University of Cambridge study discovered that around a quarter of the genes that affect your immune system are influenced by the time of year.
During winter, genes that suppress inflammation become less active than in summer. This may explain the rise in diseases related to inflammation during winter, such as cardiovascular, autoimmune and infectious diseases.
- Wash your hands. Don’t apologize for being a germaphobe this time of year. Washing your hands thoroughly and regularly is one of the best defenses you can wage against infectious diseases.
- Stay warm. It’s been shown that your immune system is more sluggish when you’re physically cold, so bundle up and cover your mouth and nose when it gets below freezing to keep the cold out.
- Take a break. Hormones released when you feel stressed are known to disrupt your immune function. Relaxation methods like meditation, exercise and spending time with friends are all shown to fight stress and support your immune system.
2. Support your mental wellbeing
Shorter days can also bring mental health challenges for many of us. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression caused by lack of light. SAD affects about 5 percent of Americans, and 10 to 20 percent of us experience somewhat milder winter blues.
In addition, research done on Google internet searches found that Americans looked for mental health-related information 14 percent more often during winter than summer. And some of the highest increases in queries weren’t for depression like we might expect. They were for conditions such as eating disorders, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and schizophrenia.
- Expose yourself. Get exposed to as much daylight as possible. Take lunchtime walks outside, get up as early as possible to catch the full day’s light, and try to work near windows during the day. Supplementing with artificial light can also help. Check out how to maximize the benefits of light therapy.
- Find help. If you feel yourself heading down a wrong path, ask for help as soon as possible. Speak to your doctor, friends or family, or others you trust to help you get back on track.
- Do what you love. The winter doldrums may be partially caused by being stuck inside and having more time on your hands. Take the opportunity to sign up for an art class, start a hobby you’ve always been interested in or spend a bit more time getting through your reading list. You’ll have more fun and maybe even start looking forward to winter.
3. Fill Up Your Energy Tank
Feeling lethargic and tired is a common complaint during winter. There are good reasons why many of us hit an energy slump this time of year.
Melatonin is a hormone your body makes to help control your daily sleep and wake cycles. Typically, melatonin levels start to rise soon after sunset, stay elevated all night while it’s dark to help you sleep, then they drop as the sun rises. Long nights and short days mean that your melatonin stays elevated longer, which can make you feel sleepier in general.
- Stand up regularly. Whether you’re at work or lounging at home, make sure you stand up for about 5 minutes for every 30 minutes of sitting. This has been shown to improve blood circulation and blood sugar regulation, which will help keep your energy up.
- Be productive early. You’ll often feel the most energetic first thing in the morning. So, if you have any complex or high-energy tasks to get done, try to do them before lunch.
- Get some extra sleep. Why fight nature if you don’t have to? If your schedule allows for it, take the opportunity to go to bed earlier or get up a bit later for some extra snooze time.
4. Avoid Weight Gain
A few different factors can conspire to make you gain weight over winter. If you’re feeling depressed, you may reach for high-carbohydrate foods for their sugar rush to help you feel better. Combine that with increased opportunities for sweet snacks over the holidays and you could have a dangerous mix.
Potential sleep disruptions from melatonin fluctuations and holiday busyness can also cause you to be tired and make poor food choices. And if you spend time outside, you’ll naturally burn more calories to stay warm. This is a good thing for keeping your weight in check, but you may be extra hungry and tempted to overeat after a good winter workout.
- Eat enough nutrient-dense food. If you’re on a restrictive diet, research has shown this can actually make your food cravings stronger. Make sure you’re eating enough whole foods, like beans, grains, meats, fruits and vegetables. These will make you feel full and satisfied. Even if you have a few after-dinner treats, you won’t overindulge.
- Stop eating 2 to 3 hours before bed. Evening snacks are rarely a good idea. You’re tired and more likely to choose unhealthy foods. Also, having a full stomach at bedtime can disrupt your sleep and add to your fatigue.
- Find exercise you enjoy. Exercise doesn’t have to be a chore. The best way to ensure you’ll stick with any type of exercise is if you truly enjoy it. Consider an indoor climbing gym, swimming at your local pool or taking a dance class. Or if you enjoy outdoor activities, try cross country skiing, snowshoeing or brisk walking.