Don’t FALL behind: winter ways for natural health
It’s getting cooler out, and you know what that means… time to dust off the winter coats, buy a new pair of gloves because all of your current pairs seem to be missing one, and to ignore your health until January 1st. Just kidding! Well, on that last point at least. Here are some tips (and reasons) to keep these health-focused behaviors a part of your fall and winter months.
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way. Vitamin D is a vitamin that is produced in our bodies, but synthesis of this vitamin requires adequate sun/UV ray exposure. In New Jersey, the sun in the fall and winter months (typically November to February) doesn’t generate strong enough UV rays to trigger vitamin D synthesis. This means that our levels of vitamin D will naturally be low (without supplementation) in the colder months. Common fall & winter time ailments like cold & flu season and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) have been attributed to this dip in vitamin D production. For these reasons, it’s smart to supplement vitamin D and even increase your supplemental dose if you’re on a maintenance dose throughout the year, starting around September. This is a general recommendation though, and you should always follow your doctor’s advice.
Getting outside in the sun
Most folks might think that vitamin D is to the sun as caffeine is to coffee, right? Why do we drink coffee? For the caffeine! So why do we get out in the sun? For the vitamin D! Hopefully at this point you’re starting to think of other reasons why being in the sun is good, and spring and summer probably come to mind. It’s warm, bright, and gives us those gorgeous Jersey shore days. But the benefits of sun exposure go beyond vitamin D synthesis and warmth, so it’s important to make sure you’re continuing to get outside in the sunlight even in the fall and winter months.
Sunshine rays contain different forms of ultraviolet light and radiation. We usually think of these negatively because we know high, strong exposures can cause skin cancers, and maybe only positively in that they stimulate vitamin D production. HOWEVER, they’re involved in many more health processes. Sunlight exposure has been found to:
Improve mood | Decrease depressive symptoms | Improve and balance immune system functioning | Improve memory | Decrease inflammation | Improve blood pressure | Support blood vessel health | Improve circulation | Improve wound healing | Stimulate pain relief | Improve sleep quality
For more information on any of these benefits in particular, please check out our references which are listed as their PubMed IDs at the end of this blog. But we will expand on the last point–sleep.
Sleep is encouraged by the hormone melatonin. Our bodies make melatonin during the evening/dark hours of the day, AND melatonin secretion is stopped when our eyes see sunlight. Our first exposure to sunlight or bright, artificial sunlight-mimicking light in the morning sets our rhythm and timing of hormone secretion throughout the day. Folks who get sunlight exposure in the morning will feel more awake during the day since melatonin production has been halted. Additionally, early sunlight exposure also supports optimal melatonin production later in the day which helps people get to sleep easier.
Melatonin’s precursor, a hormone you may have heard of called serotonin, is transformed into melatonin in darkness. With adequate sun exposure throughout the day, serotonin will hang around more and circulating serotonin levels increase. This is one of the mechanisms behind the sun’s ability to improve our moods.
You may be thinking “How in the world am I going to get sun exposure in the winter when I need to be bundled up out there?!” Great question. To influence melatonin secretion, you’ll only need to make sure your open eyeballs are seeing the sun or bright light emitted from a sunlamp in the morning. For the other effects, face skin exposure will do and any additional skin exposure is a bonus!
Exercise and moving our bodies is critical to health and well-being. It builds a healthy cardiovascular and musculature system. It also improves mood. It’s normal in our society for exercise to dip in the fall & winter months. We’ve got busier work and social schedules, we may be hosting friends and family frequently, and the whole energy of this time of the year is about being cozy and snuggled up. And there always feels like that glowing possibility at the end of the holiday season where we have the new year looming and that’s when we’ll really get back on our game. Well, we’re here to encourage you to maintain some sort of exercise and movement regimen even throughout the fall & winter months, not only because of the cardiovascular and muscular benefits, but because it also supports a healthier metabolic system as we indulge in holiday feasts, lessens the stress that holiday seasons bring, and is a built in activity for you to do with friends and family!
One of the key aspects of exercise is its influence on our metabolism of carbs. When we eat sugar (glucose/carbs), we secrete a hormone called insulin. Insulin is required to tell our body that sugar is circulating in our blood and should be used. After continually eating high amounts of sugar or carbs, our body gets sick of listening to insulin tell it to use the sugar in the blood, so it stops responding to insulin’s signals. This is called “insulin resistance”. Exercise is the ONLY way around this mechanism because exercise itself is a signal to the body to use sugar floating in the blood. This is because our muscles and our heart need that sugar in order to maintain the physical activity. Exercise is an insulin-independent way of getting sugar out of the blood and into our cells to be used! Try incorporating 10-15 minute walks after large feasts. It’ll help your body put those carbs to good use without needing to stress the system with the high insulin levels that come with holiday meals.
This can look like getting bundled up to stay warm AND to encourage a good sweat (besides leaving some skin on the face exposed to get that sunshine) and go outside for a walk, or even doing a few laps with friends or family at the local mall… and maybe get some of that last minute holiday shopping done. Hey, if your shopping bags are really heavy, then that’s some added weight for you to have to carry during your walk!
Gyms are a great place to maintain your exercise throughout the fall and winter months because they offer tons of equipment and a temperature-controlled environment. Some even offer holiday sales on their membership or personal training fees. If gyms aren’t your thing, you can get a few exercise equipment pieces to have at home and follow free workout descriptions or videos. The baseline equipment we recommend is a light and moderate weight dumbbell set (think 2.5-5 lbs for light and 10-20 lbs for moderate, though this will be different for everyone based on their abilities), resistance bands, and a yoga mat. With these tools and your own body weight, you’ll be able to get any at-home geared workout done!
There are tons of workout resources you can buy, and also great ones that are free. For free resources, our docs really like the Nike Training Club app and Fitnessblender videos on YouTube.
Drink your coffee and hot cocoa when you need a morning boost or holiday treat, and start to incorporate some hot teas into your routine this fall & winter. Specific herbs can also help with common colder month woes like sore throats and flus that the family is passing around. General categories of teas that we recommend for the fall & winter include some sort of throat soothing tea (usually contains herbs like licorice, marshmallow, or slippery elm), cold & flu tea (usually contains herbs like echinacea, linden, or yarrow), digestive aid tea (usually contains herbs like ginger, yarrow, or peppermint), and a liver supportive tea (usually contains herbs like dandelion, burdock, or artichoke). There are a ton of great teas on the market which you can purchase at your local grocery store or online.
Winter source of nutrients
We often think of spring and summer for fresh fruits and vegetables to get our seasonal sources of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. But don’t count out our fall & winter sources of nutrients! Great autumnal vegetables include squash (pumpkins, butternut, acorn, spaghetti), beets, carrots, parsnips, brussel sprouts, sweet potatoes, broccoli, and cauliflower. Roasting any and all of these will give you a warm, delicious, cozy source of nutrients. Mashing, as is one of the favorite methods of fall vegetable preparation, is great for sweet & regular potatoes, parsnips, and cauliflower.
Squashes are high in:
Antioxidants | Vitamin A | Vitamin C | B vitamins | Potassium | Magnesium | Manganese
Beets are high in:
Antioxidants | Folate (vitamin B9) | Manganese | Potassium | Iron | Vitamin C
Carrots are high in:
Antioxidants | Potassium | Vitamin A | Beta-carotene | Iron | Biotin (vitamin B7) | Vitamin C | Vitamin K1 | Vitamin B6 | Lutein
Parsnips are high in:
Antioxidants | Vitamin C | Vitamin K | Folate | Vitamin E | Magnesium | Vitamin B1 | Phosphorus | Zinc | Vitamin B6
Brussel sprouts are high in:
Antioxidants | Vitamin K | Vitamin C | Folate
Sweet potatoes are high in:
Antioxidants | Vitamin A | Vitamin C | Manganese | Copper | Pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) | Vitamin B6 | Potassium | Niacin (vitamin B3)
Broccoli is high in:
Antioxidants | Vitamin C | Vitamin K | Iron | Potassium | Folate | Manganese
Cauliflower is high in:
Antioxidants | Vitamin C | Vitamin K | Vitamin B6 | Folate
Listen, the holidays include feasting, there are few ways around that while still getting to enjoy good food made with friends and family. Not to mention those leftovers for days to come. Making sure that there are still some winter vegetables on your plate is important for getting in some plant-based nutrients and minerals, but prioritizing protein on your plate is a good way to tamper huge sugar spikes, keep you satisfied after a large meal, and to make sure you’re getting enough energy for those muscles you're continuing to grow throughout the fall & winter!
The common holiday meal proteins are pretty straightforward, they’re the animal meats–turkey, fish, ham, goose, etc. But you can also keep protein at the forefront with mixed nuts for snacks, greek yogurt with berries or your slice of pie, lentils as a side dish, quinoa or wild blend rice for your carb source, etc.
Keeping your health a priority this fall & winter can be done alongside participating in all of the festivities and responsibilities that come with the holiday season. We hope this blog was informative and helpful, and if you think you’ll need extra support, our docs are taking new clients and are looking forward to supporting you on your health journey!
Dr. Olivia Froehlich ND
References by PMID: