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A doctor's guide to winter wellness


We hardly have to tell you that there are some nasty bugs around right now. Winter is the worst time of year for colds, flu and vomiting viruses, not to mention COVID-19.

There’s no foolproof way to avoid them all. But follow these 5 simple steps and you’ll boost your immune system and reduce the risk.


1. Get outdoors every day

    Pull on your coziest coat, hat and gloves - and head outside every day.

    Do what you enjoy most, or mix it up. Walk, run, cycle, or try outdoor tai chi or upper body strength training. The exercise will boost your immune system.1 And natural daylight will help to regulate your mood and sleep.2

    See if you can build some outdoor activity into your daily routine. Maybe an after-breakfast stroll, or take your afternoon mug of tea into the park?


    2. Nourish your body

      Sadly there’s no magic ingredient that will supercharge your immunity. But eating a balanced diet keeps your immune system strong, ready to fight off winter nasties.3

      Aim for at least 5 portions of fruit and veg a day. Stick to whole grain bread and pasta. And include nuts, seeds and dairy or dairy alternatives.

      Try to include foods rich in zinc, selenium and vitamin D. These are especially good for anti-viral immunity. You can get zinc from meat, poultry, cheese, shellfish, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Selenium is found in poultry, fish, eggs, nuts, seeds and organ meat such as liver or kidney.

      For vitamin D, refer to this helpful fact sheet from the US National Institutes of Health for information on how to learn if you are getting enough vitamin D and possibly supplement your intake.


      3. Sleep enough, but not too much

        Sleep is important for good immune function. The risk of picking up an infection is higher in people who sleep less than 6 or 7 hours a night. And there’s evidence of reduced vaccine effectiveness in people who regularly don’t manage 7 hours’ sleep.4

        Over the dark winter days, it can be tempting to hibernate under your cosy duvet. But oversleeping - more than 9 hours a night - may do more harm than good. Longer sleep is linked with a decrease in immune function and increased inflammation.5

        So getting the right amount of uninterrupted sleep every night will help you stay well in winter. Most people need 7 to 9 hours. This might be more if you’re very active, or less if you’re older.

        For a refreshing night’s sleep, keep your bedroom dark and the temperature just right. Ideally, avoid caffeine for 6 hours before bedtime.6 And don’t be tempted to pay back your sleep debt at the weekend. Better to focus on your sleep routine during the week.

        4. Stay warm

          Our bodies are more vulnerable to illness if we’re constantly cold, especially older people and those with health conditions.7

          So heat your home to 68–70°F, especially if you’re over 65 or not very mobile.7 Drink hot drinks and try to have a hot meal every day. Eating regularly also helps you stay warm. If you’re feeling chilly, snuggle up in a blanket or have a hot bath.


          5. Get the flu shot

            We know flu can make you seriously ill, and could be especially dangerous if you get it at the same time as COVID-19. The CDC recommends that everyone over 6 months of age get the flu vaccine.8

            Luckily, there’s one easy way to cut the risk: get a vaccination. The flu shot is safe and effective. If you don't have insurance, you may be able to get one for free or at reduced cost. Check with your doctor to find out if you’re eligible. You might find that your workplace is offering them, or may need to pay yourself. Some pharmacies are offering walk-in flu vaccinations, so check locally.

            And of course, get your COVID-19 vaccines and boosters too.

            Supporting your immunity will help to protect yourself, and your family and friends. So take care and stay well this winter!


            References

            1. National Library of Medicine: Exercise and immunity. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007165.htm
            2. American Psychiatric Association: Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/depression/seasonal-affective-disorder
            3. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Nutrition and Immunity. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/nutrition-and-immunity/#:~:text=A%20high%2Dfiber%20plant%2Drich,to%20stimulate%20immune%20cell%20activity.
            4. Sleep Foundation: How sleep Affects Immunity. www.sleepfoundation.org/physical-health/how-sleep-affects-immunity
            5. Sleep Foundation: Oversleeping. www.sleepfoundation.org/how-sleep-works/oversleeping
            6. Sleep Foundation: Caffeine and sleep. www.sleepfoundation.org/nutrition/caffeine-and-sleep
            7. National Institute on Aging: Cold Weather Safety for Older Adults. https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/cold-weather-safety-older-adults
            8. CDC: Key Facts About Seasonal Flu Vaccine. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/keyfacts.htm

            The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of a doctor with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never delay seeking or disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read here.