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The ‘beat winter’ strategy: Keep your distance from the fridge

Beat Winter series: Boost your immunity by sleeping more and eating less, unless it’s oily fish

Overcome the winter blues. Photograph: Getty Images

“In the depth of winter,” Albert Camus once observed, “I finally learned that there was, in me, an invincible summer.”

The grey, wet and cold depths of winter will soon be sinking its teeth into the “land of eternal winter” – Hibernia – but for all our experience of them, how prepared are we each year when the long Irish winter arrives?

We’re talking a four or five-month plan of attack running from late October up until at least late February, that will help guide us safely, healthily and happily through what must be our most unstable and unsettling of seasons – psychologically, socially and physically.

Soon after the hour going back on the last Sunday of each October, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) can strike, which can hit many for six up until Christmas, if not the entire winter.

Mid-winter is then punctuated by one giant, unhealthy pendulum effect: the unrealistic expectations of the “perfect” Christmas, followed by the equally unrealistic new year resolutions. Both extremes seem destined to set us up to fail, bringing with it one massive, and largely self-constructed, crash. And then we complain of the January blues? Is all that going-up really worth the coming-down? Isn’t it all a bit Jekyll & Hyde?  With a little planning and application, however, you too can find your own invincible summer this coming winter.

Eat for winter, not Christmas

“Vitamin D is produced when sunlight hits our skin,” says Orla Walsh, consultant dietitian at the Dublin Nutrition Centre. “In winter, the amount of vitamin D we produce reduces and our stores can lessen. For this reason, it’s a good idea to supplement your diet with 200IU of vitamin D and focus on eating more oily fish. The fish doesn’t have to be bought fresh: tinned salmon, mackerel and sardines are an affordable option.

“Fish supply us with so many important nutrients, including protein, calcium, iodine, zinc, omega 3 fats and vitamin D. Fish with a dark flesh are an excellent source of beneficial omega 3 fats, which can help to prevent blood clots, keep the rhythm of your heart healthy and lower blood pressure.”

Zinc can assist in reducing the duration of the common cold, adds Walsh, but it needs to be a total daily dose of at least 75mg. “For a natural source, eat some baked beans, add wheatgerm to porridge, eat some shellfish or, for the best source, indulge in some oysters.”

Then there’s Echinacea. “Due to the significant differences in the supplements being tested in trials, the use of Echinacea for colds is unclear. Nonetheless the majority of trials showed that taking it after the onset of cold symptoms shortens the duration of the cold and its symptoms,” says Walsh.

When it comes to keeping your circulation in top flow winter-long, don’t forget your beetroot, a natural source of nitrates which help our blood vessels dilate. “This may help with circulation. If you don’t like beetroot, or don’t fancy it every day, why not include more lettuce, pak choy, rocket, rhubarbs, carrots, cabbage or celery in your weekly shop,” says Walsh.

Distance, Distraction and Sleep

Being more prone to being indoors through winter, this typically means proximity to the fridge, which can often lead to excessive eating in the evening. The solution, says Walsh, is DDS: Distance, Distraction and Sleep.

“Distraction from food is helpful when reducing mindless eating. Eating is often a habit for many people, so keeping themselves and their hands busy is a crucial first step.  Distance from food is also important. If someone spends too much time around food, external triggers for food will make them reach for more,” says Walsh.

“I would encourage people to try to move out of their kitchen once dinner is over, or keeping the less healthy foods within the shops rather than the home. And sleep is necessary for a healthy hormonal environment within your body. Without enough sleep or good quality sleep, we’re more likely to be tired, thus encouraging us to search within food wrappers for energy.”

In fact, sleep deprivation will weaken your immunity, meaning your body is far more susceptible to germs, colds or flus.

Get out

“Shorter days and longer nights means we’re getting less serotonin and more melatonin, meaning it makes us more tired and sluggish,” says Dr Farrell Cahill, head of research at Medisys Health Group in Canada, who adds that we don’t need any more sleep in winter than any other seasons; in fact, excessive sleep can just accelerate melatonin output in our system, making us even sleepier.

Cahill emphasises the need for any form of physical activity during daylight, even just a brisk walk in the fresh air at lunchtime, which will help in making our metabolism feel lifted and energetic.

“In the winter months, we’re still getting UVA and UVB during daylight, which help stimulate serotonin release, even when you’re beneath an overcast sky. The serotonin response won’t be as intense as it would be during a sunny day in summer, for example, but it still will be very beneficial in keeping your circadian rhythms and wakeful cycles in check. Work out something you can get outdoors to do that you enjoy. Try to find a regular activity through the winter that will help motivate you to get out.”

Likewise, our mentality and our accompanying behaviour can also compound SAD, says Cahill.

“Just like in Ireland, here in Newfoundland we do see a lot of rain in winter, and sometimes it’s not very pleasant going outside. People just look out the window and simply see the cloudy sky, and get down about it. They don’t even have to be out in it. That’s a big part to SAD, and we need to find ways to overcome it and just accept and enjoy our environment for what it is. Dress for the weather and enjoy the fact that you are able to get out there.”

“I know there’s not a lot of sunshine in the winter,” says Dr Ciaran Cosgrave, consultant sports and exercise medicine physician at the Sports Surgery Clinic in Santry, Dublin, “but anything that helps stimulate any Vitamin B production has been shown to be good for the immune system and muscular-skeletal health. Regardless of the season, being active is the most important thing.”

Cosgrave should know a thing or two about exercise through winter; he is, after all, the IRFU national team doctor.

“For the general public, I’d say their goal should be to exercise regularly. The best way to do that is to find something that they like and with goals that are achievable. There’s little point in setting a new year’s resolution in January that runs out in February, and then for the next 10 months you do nothing. Regardless of the time of year you start it, it has to be achievable and something you can sustain going forward, so that good eating and regular exercise becomes part of your normal routine,” says Cosgrave.

Sociability, J-shaped curves and open windows

“I think people often overlook the importance of the social side to exercise or sport. Going to the gym, doing a workout and leaving will definitely give people the health benefits of exercise, and is far better than doing nothing.

“However, there’s not much of a social interaction there, which people often under-estimate, in terms of social connections and making new friends. And those friends will often drive you on, so even when you don’t feel like exercising you will get a bit of a nudge to turn up. That could even be joining a walking or running or cycling club to go out even just once a week,” says Cosgrave.

To better understand how exercise and immunity interact with one another, look at the J-shaped curve, suggests Dr Micheál Newell of the Clinical Science Institute at NUI Galway. An exercise physiologist by trade, Newell’s area of expertise is lifestyle medicine.

“If you’re a moderately active individual, you’ve a lower risk of upper respiratory tract infections, such as coughs and colds. But if you’re doing a huge amount of exercise, you’re actually at a higher risk. So, doing no exercise or loads of exercise can put you at risk, but somewhere in between means your risk will never go down. It’s believed your immune system would be somewhat down after strenuous exercise, leaving this window post-exercise where you could be at higher risk of infection,” say Newell.

In other words, following endurance or heavy training schedules (eg marathons or long-distance cycling) can sometimes lead to increased susceptibility to infection, especially upper respiratory tract infections, and particularly in the two-week window after a major event.

Getting it in the head

“SAD is a form of depression tied into our seasons,” says Patrick Fitzgerald, a Limerick-based psychotherapist with MyMind, the social enterprise and nationwide centres for mental wellbeing.

“Being much more common in the northern, colder countries, depressive symptoms of SAD can include anxiety, sadness, irritability, social withdrawal, lack of concentration and fatigue. These would be seen to emerge coming into the end of autumn and start of winter, and subsiding as we move into spring.”

Fitzgerald, who is also director of Limerick mental health week, says serotonin is active in transmitting impulses between nerves, regulating cyclic body processes and contributing to our happiness and wellbeing.

“With SAD, we see similar production levels of the neurotransmitter as we do in depression. Similarly, the hormone melatonin, which effects mood and sleep, can be seen to be of similar level to people with depression.

“Sadly, knowing all this is not going to help you get out of bed on a freezing cold morning. Depending on severity, most SAD treatments are similar to looking after our mental health generally, with a few unique treatments used for SAD. Before I go into any description about treatments, it’s important to remember that everyone is unique and what works for one person may not work for another person. There is no one-fix-treats-all when it comes to looking after our mental health and it is important for all of us to find what works for us.”

For those suffering from SAD through the long dark winter, light therapy (or phototherapy) using artificial light in the form of a light therapy box can help, says Fitzgerald. This can simply mean you sit near the box while working or relaxing or studying, for example, for 30 minutes each morning while the box does the work.

“With all my clients, I will explore at some point how they are looking after themselves physically, mentally and socially. I cannot stress the importance of these three aspects of our being that all feed into each other like a triangle,” says Fitzgerald.

“When I get asked to give tips to look after ourselves mentally I always say the same thing: it is the perception of the event that makes us upset or happy; if we start becoming aware of our thoughts and emotions, this in turn leads us to realize what we like or dislike. This winter will no doubt have plenty of rainy, cold and miserable days ahead of us. At the end of the day, only you can make the changes or look for help.”