Anyone living in our part of the world has most likely experienced the winter blues. Each autumn, we watch as the last leaves fall with a sense of dread knowing that grey skies and cold weather will soon take over our daily lives in Chautauqua County. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, we are facing even more stress than ever before with health concerns, financial worry, and lack of socialization becoming the new norm.
Take This Time To Upgrade Your Immune System
Over the last few years, the importance of proper nutrition has taken a forefront in the medical world because of its connection with so many underlying medical conditions. Too many people fail to realize what a large role the diet plays in strengthening our immune system. This is such an important concept to grasp, as the immune system is our body’s greatest defense mechanism to prevent and recover from illness. Proper nutrition is essential for our immune system to achieve optimal functionality allowing for us to fight infections, reduce stress, maintain a healthy weight status, and increase energy levels.
Boosting the immune system during the winter months is even more of a priority than in the warmer months. When we are stuck inside, often in enclosed spaces with the heat on, infectious pathogens can spread a lot faster. Especially during the flu and cold season, and with Covid-19 cases on the rise, this is of serious concern. Top tips for increasing immune health include:
Utilize great sources of vitamin C like green leafy vegetables, strawberries, blueberries, bell peppers, brussels sprouts, and citrus fruit.
Zinc can help control and fight infections in the body. Your body does not store zinc, so it is important to consistently include zinc rich foods to maintain adequate levels! Some of my favorites include oysters, legumes (chickpeas, black beans, lentils), meat/poultry, and most nuts or seeds.
Feed your gut—with probiotics! 70% of the immune system is found within the lining of the gut, so as you can imagine, the bacteria in the gut are very closely involved with the regulation of inflammation and immunity. Probiotic rich foods include yogurts, kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables.
Unfortunately, during the wintertime in Western NY, many of our favorite fruits and vegetables may be out of season, however it is important to remember that you can still purchase frozen versions without sacrificing the nutritional benefits.
Some seasonal produce available now includes:
Pumpkin, butternut squash, mushrooms, potatoes
Apples, blackberries, pears, plums
Make your veggies feel like comfort foods in the winter – warm and cozy – by roasting, mashing or pureeing them and serving them hot. Just remember to skip the unnecessary additives like brown sugar, salt, and butter. Add some extra flavor with garlic, herbs, spices, or balsamic vinegar.
A Sad Mood Doesn't Always Have to be a Normal Part of Winter
In addition to boosting the immune system, the nutrition choices you make can jump start your mood as well. This is particularly helpful now, as many people experience higher levels of stress in the winter months. Fruits and vegetables are packed with vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and antioxidants that decrease stress hormones in the body. Consuming produce as well as certain carbohydrates and proteins can enhance powerful mood-modifying brain chemicals like Serotonin, Dopamine and Norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters are made from the foods we eat and are present in higher concentrations after meals.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) typically strikes during the winter months due to lack of sunlight. Aside from general stress, lack of sun can lead to SAD, when vitamin D levels become severely depleted resulting in depression, poor sleep, low energy, and weight gain. Studies show that around 40% of Americans have a vitamin D deficiency.
Treatments for SAD include exposure to sunlight, light therapy, and medications. However, increasing your consumption of foods naturally rich in vitamin D can be instrumental in preventing SAD or at least decreasing its symptoms. Vitamin D rich foods include:
Leafy greens like spinach and collard greens
Fatty fish such as salmon, tuna, or mackerel
Eggs, cheeses, and dairy products
Want to Feel Great? HYDRATE!
People generally tend to drink less fluids in the winter. It makes sense - when it is cold outside you tend to not get as thirsty, you may not sweat as much, and cold beverages lose their appeal. On top of that, constant dry air from indoor heating can make your throat, nose, and skin feel extra parched.
Increasing hydration intake is key during the long winter months. Now is a great time to start exploring the wide variety of hot herbal teas that are available. 100% fruit juice is another great option if you are trying to increase your vitamins and will help you stay hydrated at the same time. It is also underappreciated that many fruits and vegetables are 90 to 95% water, so eating more of these can certainly help you stay hydrated. Be sure to shy away from unhealthy fluids such as canned soups and hot chocolate that contain high levels of salt, fat, and sugar.
I typically recommend that my patients consume more than the old cookie cutter standard eight glasses of fluids per day, especially during the winter. To maintain optimal hydration, women should consume around 11 cups of fluid (92 ounces) and men should aim for 15 cups (125 ounces) per day.
For some, it may feel like there is nothing you can do to gain a sense of control during this tough time. The good news is, making some simple changes to your diet can help transform both your physical and mental health, especially during these bitter winter months. I applaud those of you that have already begun to use quarantine as an opportunity to try new healthy cooking habits at home!
About the author:
Steven Warden, RDN, CDN, is a Jamestown native and graduate of Baldwin Wallace University and Buffalo State College. He is a new member of the provider team at The Chautauqua Center in Jamestown and is also offering services in Dunkirk. Steven provides medical nutrition therapy, consultations, diet education, meal programming and assistance with weight loss and fitness. To schedule an appointment, call 716-484-4334. For more information about The Chautauqua Center, visit www.tcchealth.org