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Three simple ways to boost your immune health heading into winter

Eating right is one thing, but there are other ways to stay healthy as the days shorten.

Everything feels new this year, and that includes the anxiety you might be feeling as we head into winter.

The days are darker, your routine has gone out the window and on top of all the added stress of a global health pandemic, flu season is creeping closer every single day. 

It’s a whole heck of a lot to handle. 

As we continue to learn how COVID-19 affects the body – both immediately and in the long term – taking a closer look at our immune health is more important than ever. 

Jesse Haas is a functional nutritionist at Wellness Minneapolis. In March, she offered up some great nutritional tips on how to strengthen your immune system by eating the right foods, which you can find here.

What you eat is directly connected to how your immune system functions. Eating a vegetable-heavy diet on a regular basis, staying hydrated, loading up on antioxidants – these are all things that help keep us healthy. 

When it comes to our immune systems, prevention is key. That’s why Haas offered up some very simple tips and ideas for us to integrate into our daily lives as we start to wrap up 2020. 

Keep your sugar intake low.

Eliminate added sugars on as many days as possible. 

“We can measure immune response becoming depressed for hours after eating even a modest amount of sugar,” Haas said. “Finding other ways to treat yourself and satisfy your cravings aside from baked goods, ice cream, candy and those kind of sweets is really important.”

Haas acknowledges that right now is an especially challenging time for people to look at cutting out sugar. Take the holidays out the equation – we’re also heading into the dark zone, the days are shorter and our access to sunlight is limited.

“The blue light of the sunshine we get in the middle of the day stimulates serotonin production and when serotonin is low, we’re more inclined to crave sugar, to crave sweet flavors,” she said.

How to deal with cutting out sugar? Work in root vegetables, like beets, carrots, parsnips, sweet potatoes, winter squash. They are sweet and starchy while still being super nutrient dense, she said. 

“You are getting in a lot of good stuff while satisfying that sweet craving,” Haas added. 

It’s also time to kick your soda habit to the curb, Haas said. According to the Center for Disease Control, sugar-sweetened beverages and sugary drinks are one of the leading sources of added sugars in the American diet. 

Get good sleep

If only it were that easy, right? 

Working on your sleep hygiene is the simplest path to improving your sleep quality. Many of us have diligent morning routines but when it comes to bedtime, we’ve gotten too relaxed. 

Haas recommends going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time every day, regardless of how you slept or how you feel. The consistency allows your body to establish a routine and maintain it.

That’s where Haas says you should start. Then? Time to get out from behind the screen. 

“What I’m hearing from a lot of people is that they are spending a lot of time on screens and that’s disrupting their circadian rhythm that helps us go to sleep and wake at an appropriate time and get enough rest,” she said.

Some sleep researchers recommend two to three hours of screen-less time before bed; Haas recommends starting with one hour and increasing as it becomes a habit. 

“Get the TV out of the bedroom,” she said. “Pick up a book or a magazine or a journal instead of watching the boob tube until you’re ready to close your eyes.”

Also? Get your phones away from your bed. Use your phone as an alarm clock? Cut that habit, too. 

Haas recommends investing in a sunrise alarm clock, also called a dawn simulation light, an artificial light source that is timed to wake a person up gradually with increasing brightness in a dark room. Essentially, it mimics the sunrise which helps regulate our inner clocks.

The blue light from the alarm clock (or a SAD lamp) has a big impact on our moods and is a great option for people who battle seasonal depression. 

“The blue light stimulates cortisol and serotonin to be produced and released, to bring us to wakefulness, to give us that readiness for the day,” Haas said. “There is a little boost, a little lift to our mood that comes with it.”

At the opposite end of the day, orange and red lights – the colors we would see in a sunset – are most stimulatory for melatonin production, the hormone released by the pineal gland that helps us wind down and fall asleep. That’s why all the darkness in winter can really mess up our bodies.

“The sun doesn’t rise some days until after we are already needing to be productive, or in our offices,” Haas said. “And the sun is sometimes setting before we are done with that part of the day.” 

Move your body

Fitness centers are closed, it is cold outside and you are spending a lot of time at home. 

From Haas’s perspective? “People are either doing an awesome job with exercise or it is really challenging.”

Exercise and movement can mean two very different things depending on the person but both play a very important role in how our body’s function.

“We need to move our bodies,” she said. “We need to exercise our bodies in order to get rid of the waste metabolites from our digestion and our immune functions. Some of that waste is hanging out in our lymph system which doesn’t have a pump like our heart to move it and so we need to flex our muscles to get that lymph moving into a place where it can be eliminated.”

The simplest way to increase your movement on a daily basis? Get outside and go for a walk. 

“Bundle up, challenge yourself to go for even a ten minute walk,” Haas said. “Once a day is good, twice a day is even better.”

If you are one of the millions of Americans who is adjusting to a new work-life balance at home, Haas recommends using a walk outside as an endcap to your day. Think of it as a transition period – you no longer have a commute home to tell you you’re done working for the day. Use the walk as a way to wrap up the stress of the workday and transition out of the home office. 

Lindsay’s Take

What I love about Jesse’s advice is that all three of her tips are linked together. Getting outside and enjoying that middle of the day sunlight ups your body’s digestion of that good-for-you blue light that helps boost your mood, establish your circadian rhythm for good sleep hygiene and boosts serotonin production to help curb sugar cravings.

It is likely you’ll see well-rounded results from adding these simple tips into your life and they’ll build off one another. 

Personally, I find winter to be incredibly hard. As a person with anxiety and depression, using a SAD lamp, taking my antidepressants on a regular basis and staying consistent with my therapy sessions has helped me keep things under control. But it’s never perfect and I’m always looking for ways to improve my day-to-day life (good sleep became a struggle for me as an adult). 

I’m going to give the dawn simulation alarm a test run this winter. I’ve heard wonderful things from people who use them. I’m also challenging myself to add more outdoor activities. It’s been easy the last few weeks because the weather has been fairly mild. But in anticipation of the brutal Minnesota winter I know we could have, I’ve added lots of warm layers – hats, gaiters, gloves, fleece pullovers – to keep me comfortable when I’m outside. 

I’ve also adopted working out at home. I don’t love it. But I’m showing up. I am taking advantage of virtual workouts my gym is offering. Knowing I’m expected, even if it is through a computer screen, gives me an added level of accountability and it is really nice to see familiar faces after being home alone so often. There’s a reason having a support system is constantly touted by those who have found success in life. 

Finally, I’ve been eating vegetables. Most days, at every meal. And you know what? I feel fantastic. The experts were right, you guys. Who knew? I’ve actually found this new stay-at-home lifestyle incredibly supportive for sticking to my veggie-rich meal plan because the temptations that would normally derail my clean-eating mentality aren’t around as often. We aren’t dining out and while we do takeout on a fairly regular schedule, my diet is much more balanced now that I’m controlling what’s around me during the day.

My diet still has plenty of flaws (hello, wine!) but I crave vegetables now. This new kick of eating my greens? It only took two weeks before my body started craving them. I have to admit, it feels really weird because I’ve suffered from a disordered relationship with food for my entire life but I’m going to ride this train as long as possible, sticking to consistent, easy choices every day. 

Like what you read? Have a tip of your own to share? Connect with Lindsay through Twitter and Instagram at @lindsayguentzel or through her website

You can also find all of her Bring Me The News recipes and articles here. 

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