The winter months seem to stick around far too long! At some point, we miss the sunshine and long, warm days when we can stroll outdoors and soak up nature. It’s important to stay healthy during the protracted winter months when cold and flu viruses make their rounds. Cold weather and the shorter days can impact your mood too. Some people experience a form of seasonal blues, also known as seasonal affective disorder. Good nutrition can help us make it through the colder months and emerge healthy in the spring. Here are some key nutrients you might need more of during the winter and why.
The sunshine vitamin plays a key role in immune health, and just when the risk of viral infections goes up, you get less of it. In fact, studies show that vitamin D deficiency peaks in the winter. Can keeping your vitamin D level up lower your risk of viral upper respiratory infections like the common cold? A study that analyzed 25 randomized controlled trials involving over 11,000 subjects found that those who took a vitamin D supplement had a 12% lower risk of developing an acute respiratory tract infection. These results held even when they controlled for other factors like health status, gender, and age.
Sun exposure is the natural way to raise your vitamin D level, but we get less of it in the cold, winter months, especially if you live at a Northern latitude. Plus, we’re covered up in the winter and there’s less surface area for your skin to soak up the sun. Except for eggs, salmon, and mushrooms exposed to UV light, most foods don’t contain significant quantities of vitamin D. However, some packaged foods are fortified with it, including some yogurt, packaged breakfast cereal, and milk. Read the label to see if the products you buy contain vitamin D.
Should you take a supplement? This is something to discuss with your physician. You can make a more informed decision if you know what your vitamin D level is. The best way to find out is to ask your physician to check your level via a blood test. They can recommend the appropriate amount of supplement to get your vitamin D level into a healthier range.
When planning your shopping list, include some foods rich in zinc. This mineral has a number of functions in the human body. It plays a role in wound healing, fertility, and immune health. The latter is why you may need more of it as temperatures drop. Some studies show that zinc supplements even shorten the duration and severity of colds. Some research even suggests it can reduce the replication of rhinoviruses, one of the viruses that cause the common cold.
If you eat a plant-based diet, add more cashews, walnuts, chickpeas, lentils, pumpkin seeds, whole grains, and hemp seeds to your plate. If you eat an omnivorous diet, you can also get significant amounts of zinc from seafood, including shellfish, eggs, beef, pork, dairy, and dark meat chicken.
Probiotic-rich foods supply your gut with friendly bacteria that may give you an edge against viral infections during the winter. Not surprising since 70% of your immune system lies in your gut and is influenced by the bacteria that make their home in the warm dark passages of your intestines. People sometimes take a commercial probiotic to maintain gut health, but there’s variability in the concentration and types of bacteria in these products. Some may not contain enough viable bacteria to offer health benefits.
A better choice may be to add more fermented foods to your diet. Rather than swallow a probiotic pill, enjoy healthy gut bacteria by consuming more fresh sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, and yogurt with live cultures. If you don’t mind doing it yourself, you can even ferment your own vegetables. The advantage of getting probiotics from veggies is you also get a healthy dose of fiber too. You might discover you enjoy the tangy taste of fermented veggies!
Vitamin C won’t cure a cold, despite what Linus Pauling thought, but it’s vital for a healthy immune system. Can it shorten the duration of a cold? Most research doesn’t show substantial benefits, although one study found that taking a vitamin C supplement each day reduced the duration of the common cold by 8% in adults and 14% in children. It’s a small difference but not insignificant!
Yet there are downsides to taking high-dose vitamin C as a supplement. Vitamin C in supplement form has side effects and people who have a history of kidney stones should avoid them. Vitamin C in supplement form increases the number of oxalates in the urine and that can trigger calcium oxalate kidney stones. Plus, vitamin C supplements can cause nausea and diarrhea.
Instead, get your vitamin C by eating a variety of fruits and vegetables. Raw vegetables and fruits are best since heat destroys some vitamin C in produce. However, cooking increases the bioavailability of some nutrients, such as lycopene, so why not eat raw and cooked vegetables? With so many ways to prepare fruits and vegetables, you have lots of options!
The Bottom Line
Stay healthy this winter! It all starts with what you put on your plate. Choose nutrient-dense foods, including fermented ones, and be sure to get outdoors and get some sunshine too. What you eat and the totality of your lifestyle matters. Exercise, too, can give your immune system a boost if you do it in moderation. No long, grueling workouts. Give yourself adequate recovery time between training sessions – but keep working out!
WebMD.com. “Vitamin C for the Common Cold”
Rev Med Virol. 2019 Mar;29(2):e2032. doi: 10.1002/rmv.2032. Epub 2019 Jan 6.
Medical News Today. “New Evidence that Vitamin D Prevents Respiratory Infections”