Winter, for some people can be time of joy and a time to thrive; but for others it can be a difficult time of feeling down, catching bugs and illnesses and this year Covid-19 has undoubtedly added to the stress of this season for many. Below are some hints and tips to help you keep well over winter.
(This was originally a talk to Greenock Philosophical Society, and I have added some information on Alzheimer’s and keeping your brain healthy as I received a few questions about it and there’s a lot of research happening right now.)
Vitamins & Minerals
Vitamin D + Vitamin K2
Vitamin D is mostly available from the sun. Due to our weather in general, and being so far north, the sun isn’t strong enough to make sufficient Vitamin D for our needs over winter (from October until end of March). To keep our levels optimised we should take a supplement of Vitamin D3 (D2 if you are vegan as this is plant derived Vitamin D) together with K2 which helps us metabolise the Vitamin D. Look for a supplement containing 1,000iu to 4,000iu in either capsule of liquid form.
In summer, maximise your vitamin D levels by spending time outdoors with your limbs exposed and without sunscreen. The sun produces Vitamin D between the hours of 10am and 3pm (the times we are normally told to avoid the sun), so gradually build up your sun tolerance but don’t let yourself burn. Sun burn is never good. You don’t need additional K2 in summer as your body easily absorbs all it needs from the sun.
Unfortunately there aren’t many foods rich in Vitamin D. The highest levels are found in liver and other organ meats, eggs and mushrooms so if you like these, include them in your diet.
Vitamin D supports many functions in our bodies, including our immune system, and can have a positive impact on anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular issues.
Vitamin C is another immune supporting Vitamin and probably the one we’re most familiar with when it comes to fighting off winter bugs. Vitamin C is easier to get from foods can be found in citrus fruit, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, etc) and dark leafy greens so include lots of these in your diet.
If you prefer you can supplement Vitamin C, it often together with zinc which is something else that many people lack so it’s a good combination. Zinc helps support our immune system by fighting off bacteria and viruses.
Selenium is found in Brazil nuts. It’s another mineral that supports our immune function and helps the body fight off viruses. 3-4 Brazil nuts per day will provide your daily requirement if selenium. Remember, if you prefer chocolate Brazil nuts do this yourself with good quality dark chocolate to enjoy the extra antioxidants.
Found mostly in orange vegetables, Vitamin A is fat soluble (so always eat it with some healthy fats such as butter, oily fish, avocado, olive oil, coconut oil) and essential for keeping our heart and lungs functioning well.
Another Vitamin many people can lack, magnesium also supports many functions in our bodies. Magnesium Citrate is a good general magnesium supplement . Taken in the evening it will help you sleep better, and can help reduce migraines, muscle cramps and restless legs. If you feel your energy is a low, a Magnesium Malate supplement taken in the morning may help.
All of the above are great for optimising health in general, but due to their immune supporting benefits they are also good defence against the symptoms of Covid-19. They won’t necessarily stop you from getting the virus but, as has been shown in a few studies of Covid-19 patients, they should help lessen the symptoms.
Food & Drink
Base your diet around lots of vegetables, protein, healthy fats and fruit. Make sure to drink lots of water, its not so appealing to do this in winter but it is important.
Minimising highly processed and packaged fruit, and reducing sugar/artificial sweeteners is the easiest way to get all the vitamins and minerals you need and keep yourself healthy. Keep sweets, cakes, takeaways and alcohol for an occasional treat.
The one exception: a small glass of red wine and a couple of square of dark chocolate will provide lots of healthy antioxidants. However it is a case of “less is more” so don’t go over this amount!
It’s also important to look after your gut health. Our guts contain billions, maybe trillions, of bacteria that work to keep our body and our brain healthy so long as we look after them. The information above will help them be healthy but we can also help populate the gut bacteria by eating a wide variety of vegetables and fruit (focus on veg though) and minimising sugar and processed foods. We can also keep them healthy by eating fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kinchee (from the chiller in the supermarket or buy raw and unpasteurised online – pasteurisation kills the good bacteria), and kefir (in most supermarkets in the dairy section).
A really tasty way to boost gut health is to eat 2 stewed apples per day. Stew them in a little butter or coconut oil and serve with a sprinkle of cinnamon. If you want to make them into a crumble, you can use a mix of oats, butter and crushed raw nuts for the crumble. This gives you extra healthy fats and vitamins.
Outdoors, Movement & Connecting
One easy way to tick off all 3 if these is to meet a friend for a walk, following current guidelines of course. Walk by the river, in a woodland or the park and you get some exercise, some fresh air, human connection and connection with nature and your environment.
If you are shielding or don’t like to walk, meet a friend or family members for coffee or lunch (again within the guidelines), get out into your garden and wander around and perhaps do some exercise or move around in your home (housework counts as movement). If you can, take off your shoes and socks and walk barefoot on the grass. This is called grounding, it’s really relaxing and helps you feel connected to your environment, the place you live and your place on earth which is also really important.
Relaxing & Sleep
When our lives are busy sleep and time to relax are often the first to be pushed aside. We can find ourselves burning the candle at both ends and eventually feeling tired and exhausted becomes normal. For good mental and physical health, relaxing and getting plenty of sleep are essential.
If you struggle with this try creating a wonderful down and bedtime routine.
Relaxing in the evening can be part of this routine whether it’s listening to your favourite music, reading, talking on the phone with a friend, or having a soak in the bath, these activities could signal you to turn off your phone (or switch it to night mode, or wear amber glasses to block the blue light) and start to wind down.
Other very beneficial activities include meditation and/or keeping a gratitude journal – both of these are great for relaxing you and for promoting a more positive mindset. You only need 5-10 minutes each evening.
Ideally try to aim for 30-90 minutes device-free time before bed and to stop eating 2-3 hours before bed.
Device free time is important as the blue light emitted from our devices is stronger than sunlight and tricks our bodies into thinking it’s still daytime. This can upset the circadian rhythm and make it difficult to get to sleep. Although TV emits blue light it is further away from our eyes so doesn’t have the same effect.
Ideally you should be in bed and ready to sleep no later than 10.30pm. Our body does it’s “housework” while we sleep, cleaning up any damaged or dead cells (cells have a lifespan of around 180 days so dead cells is a completely natural thing and nothing to worry about). If we eat a large meal right before bed, or have a bit to drink, our body will prioritise digestion and processing alcohol over the other housework so the cells won’t get cleaned out. Once in a while this isn’t a problem, but it can lead to poor health if it happens regularly. This is why relaxation and sleep is so important.
This wasn’t part of my talk but some questions were asked so I thought I would add a little information.
There are a lot of studies being done right now on lifestyle and Alzheimer’s and allother things I have mentioned above will help your brain health as well as your physical health.
The main cause of Alzheimer’s is inflammation (there are some genetic influences also) so eating a “real food” diet, focusing in nutrients rather than calories, relaxing, sleeping well, keeping active and seeing friends/family will all help reduce inflammation in the body.
Gut health is really important as our gut “speaks” directly with our brain. You can protect the gut lining by drinking a cup of bone broth each day or using bone broth in place of stock cubes. You can make your own bone broth with bones from your butcher or from chicken or fish bones. This can then be kept in a jar in the fridge and/or poured into ice cube trays and frozen to use as stock cubes.
Eating the beneficial foods for good gut health mentioned earlier will also be a huge help.
Include lots of natural, healthy fats in your diet (e.g. eggs, oily fish, olives, olive oil, butter, full fat dairy, coconut oil, raw nuts, avocados) as our brain prefers fat rather than sugar for energy. We do need a certain amount of glucose to function but our liver naturally produces enough for our daily needs. Only athletes or people training hard would need extra in the form of carbohydrates. A big bowl of leafy greens every day, combined with protein and healthy fats is ideal.
Eating within a “food window” is also a good way to protect your gut and your brain. Eating any food raises your insulin levels so if you tend to snack throughout the day your insulin will be constantly elevated; not good for Type 2 diabetics or for health in general as the more insulin we produce the more resistant we become to it and this can then lead to Type 2 diabetes.
Your “food window” opens with the first bite of food in the morning and closes with the last bite of food in the evening. Ideally your window should be open for 8-10 hours each day. This gives your body time to fully digest your food and will help ensure you aren’t eating too close to bedtime.
One other thing that is being shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, dementia, cardiovascular disease and stroke is to have regular sauna sessions. If you can do this, build up your tolerance gradually the same way you would with the sun. And don’t forget to drink lots of water.
The sooner we can start to incorporate brain protective factors into our every day life the better, but it’s never to late to start.