Health & Wellbeing
Winter is Coming! Ways to Strengthen Your Immune System
Susan Hurd, RDN, LDN
Susan Hurd, RDN, LDN
Sodexo Dietitian at Franklin and Marshall College

Daylight saving time ended on November 4 for much of the country, who turned their clocks back losing an hour of light. For many, this means the start of another dull and dreary winter. For nearly 10% of Americans, the darkness and chill may trigger a more serious condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD)—a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons, typically starting in the late fall and early winter and going away during the spring and summer.

Whether you suffer from SAD or are passing a case of winter blues, it can bring changes in mood, energy levels, appetite, sleep, and activity.  These changes, especially during winter, test our immune system potentially leading to illness. A healthy immune system is key to keeping well.

Here are a few ways to strengthen your immune system and brighten your season.

De-stress

A little stress keeps us safe when faced with dangerous situations, but prolonged stress weakens our immune system. Increases in cortisol and other stress-related hormones interfere with immune function, can make us sick and potentially lead to disease. Stress also negatively affects our sleeping and eating habits. Yoga, deep breathing, meditation, and improvements in sleep and physical activity help to reduce stress.

Get out and socialize

Make it a point to socialize every day. Plan a lunch date, walk with a coworker, or phone a friend. Contact with the outside world, and not in the form of online social media, engages us and our minds.

Get Moving

Exercise helps relieve anxiety and boosts immunity. It releases endorphins, the chemicals related to mood, which can lift your spirits. Sleep patterns might improve with physical activity, plus the digestive system gets an extra boost of power, helping to rid the body of waste. Try a new class at the gym, walk around the mall, or act like a kid again and go sledding! Dance in your living room to rev up those endorphins.

Eat a balanced diet and drink lots of water

Include a variety of plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. Loaded with a variety of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and fiber, plant-based foods boost immunity. We love our winter comfort foods, but dishes like mac and cheese, stews and cream-based soups can be high in calories, fat, and sugar. Give them a nutrient boost by adding extra vegetables, using whole grain pasta instead of white pasta, or adding low-sodium canned tomatoes to soups and stews.

Make sure to drink enough water during the dry winter months to keep your joints feeling good. H2O also aids in digestion and helps your body remove waste.

Sleep Well

It is estimated that 50 to 70 million Americans chronically suffer from a disorder of sleep and wakefulness, hindering daily functioning and adversely affecting health and longevity. The cumulative long-term effects of sleep loss and sleep disorders have been associated with a wide range of deleterious health consequences including an increased risk of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke.

The body recovers and repairs itself when we sleep. Keep a sleep schedule by going to bed and waking at the same times every day, even on the weekends. Practice a relaxing bedtime ritual—read a book, take a bath. Ensure that your bedroom is comfortable, quiet, and dark. Deep breathing may help relax you before bed. Try some easy night-time yoga routines to wind down. A “white noise” machine may help block sounds that interfere with falling or staying asleep. Screen time before bed keeps the mind stimulated, so try to set a cut-off time for screens.

Wash, Rinse, Repeat

Washing your hands is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of germs. Wash frequently and adequately. Hum the “Happy Birthday” song twice when washing to ensure enough time to rid the hands of germs. Clean and sanitize surfaces regularly and apply the old saying of “cover up your coughs and sneezes. If you don’t, you’ll spread germs”. Your immune system will thank you.

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