From autumn colours to winter festivals, there’s lots to look forward to as the seasons change. However, looking after your physical and mental health in the darker months can feel challenging. Here we’ve compiled our top tips to help you on your way to winter wellness. Read on to find out how to keep your vitamin D levels topped up, boost your mood, and enjoy the nourishing foods this season has to offer.
Vitamin D helps our bodies to use calcium and phosphorus to maintain healthy bones, teeth and muscles. It’s also important for keeping our immune system functioning normally. Without adequate vitamin D, we cannot absorb calcium from our food, and are at risk of bone and muscle disorders (such as rickets and osteomalacia) and falls.
Dose up on Vitamin D
Vitamin D is often called the ‘sunshine vitamin’ because it’s made in our bodies when our skin is exposed to ultraviolet rays from the sun. While some foods also supply us with vitamin D, sunlight is our main source, and most people can produce sufficient levels of vitamin D during the summer months.
So, what happens when our exposure to sunlight decreases? In the UK from October to March, the sun’s rays are weaker, the days are shorter, and we can’t produce healthy levels of vitamin D from sunlight alone.
Eating plenty of foods rich in vitamin D in the winter months can help. Dietary sources of vitamin D include:
· Oily fish (salmon, sardines, kippers, herring, trout)
· Egg yolks
· Meat and offal
· Cow’s milk
· Vitamin D-fortified yoghurts, margarines and breakfast cereals
· Some green leafy vegetables and mushrooms
However, even if we consume these on a regular basis, we’re unlikely to maintain healthy vitamin D levels in the winter.
Action point -> Taking a Vitamin D supplement of 10 micrograms per day is recommended to all adults in the UK by Public Health England. Supplements are widely available in supermarkets and pharmacies, and can be taken alongside dietary sources of vitamin D. As with all vitamin supplements, remember these are not a substitute for a varied and balanced diet.
Some people may be at greater risk of low vitamin D levels and benefit from taking a supplement year-round. You can find out more about this here.
Beat the winter blues
Whether love or lament change in season, our sunlight exposure inevitably falls in the autumn and some of us may feel the effect of the ‘winter blues’. This may be linked to changes in our hormone levels. Darker days bring a fall in our levels of serotonin and a rise in melatonin. Serotonin, sometimes called the ‘happy hormone’ helps to regulate our moods, while melatonin helps to control our sleep cycle by making us drowsy at night.
For some, these hormonal changes can lead to difficulty sleeping, fatigue, low mood and a dip in motivation. Understandably, this can make it difficult to maintain healthy habits through the winter. Fortunately, there are steps we can take to support or winter mental and physical health at the same time.
It’s important to distinguish the winter blues from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD which is a form depression that is usually worse in the winter, is debilitating and can interfere with the ability to perform day-to-day activities. You can find out more about SAD here.
As with any mental health concern, if you think you have SAD or your mood is affecting your daily activities, speak to your GP or a mental health support line such as Mind.
1) Lap up the light
Our circadian rhythm, or body clock, is regulated partly by exposure to natural light. When our eyes detect light in the morning (even on a dull cloudy day) it stimulates our brain to produce serotonin and stop producing melatonin. What’s more, this early morning light exposure helps to bring forward our body clock, meaning we are more ready to sleep at night. So, alongside sticking to a regular bedtime routine, getting out in the natural light as early as possible can help you to feel alert for the day ahead, and able to enjoy a better night’s sleep at the end of it.
Action point -> Whether it’s sweeping the autumn leaves off your path, taking a brisk stroll around the block or walking part way to work, think about how you can bring some natural light into your morning routine.
2) Discover joyful movement
As well as improving our physical fitness and supporting healthy bodyweight, exercise is a powerful way to boost our mood and relieve stress. Exercising outdoors is a great way to boost your light exposure, but there are plenty of ways to keep active when the weather is inclement.
Action point -> Experiment with different types of mood-boosting movement: dance to your favourite songs while cooking dinner or try a new home workout video.
If you are exercising outdoors while it’s dark, consider buddying up with a friend, letting others know where you are, and wearing reflective weather-appropriate clothing!
3) Combat cravings
If you’ve noticed you crave carbohydrate-rich foods more in the winter, you’re not alone. This is because eating carbohydrates can help to trigger the release of serotonin, delivering a short-term pleasure boost. In particular, we may be tempted to reach for carb-rich foods that are also high in added fat, salt and sugar (such as cakes, crisps and pastries) because these are even more rewarding.
While it’s normal to want to feel better, these foods offer short-term fix only. Regularly indulging can exacerbate our cravings over time, and sabotage our healthy eating and weight goals.
Action point -> Combat cravings by including a healthy high-fibre source of carbohydrates in moderation with each meal. Try to fill ¼ of your plate with lean protein, and ½ with non-starchy veg as balancing your meals in this way will help to keep you feeling full.
And remember not to be too strict. When we frame foods as forbidden, we tend to crave them even more. So, if you do decide to enjoy some comfort food, savour it slowly and then move on without guilt.
This is the perfect time to enjoy autumn and winter produce while they are cheapest and most flavoursome. With so many tasty fruits and vegetables in season at this time of year, there are lots of ways to get your five a day.
Roasted or mashed butternut squash is a colourful alternative to regular potatoes, and a perfect addition to soups or stews. It’s rich in vitamin A which is important for maintaining a healthy immune system and our vision in low light (particularly useful in the winter!).
Fibre-rich apples and pears and vitamin C-packed autumn blackberries are delicious additions to overnight oats or stewed with warming spices.
Action point -> Check out more of the season’s fruit and veg offerings at Diabetes UK and include some of these in your next meal plan.
Looking after our physical and mental health deserves our attention all-year round. Autumn is a particularly good time to reflect on what new goals will help to make the coming season a happy and healthy for you and your family. What action can you take this week to get yourself ready for winter wellness?