Photo by Maria Shanina on Unsplash

winter health

Updated Nov 2020

As autumn gently slides into winter and the riotous colours of Mother Nature subside into gentle, greyscale hues, the call of the natural world – and often of ourselves – is to withdraw, rest and replenish. A time to wrap up snugly, spend time with loved ones and embrace the cosy concept of ‘hygge’.

Far from being a cause of melancholy, I find winter, with its early evening sunsets and long, stormy nights, a delicious contrast to the sunshine of summer. It’s almost like we need the dark to appreciate the light – and to give ourselves the perfect excuse to run hot baths, light real fires and indulge in delicious slow-cooked feasts. Not to mention the child-like glee that greets a snowy landscape or clear, crisp frosty morning.

There’s joy in winter beyond the shining light that is the festive season, but it’s a quieter, gentler and more introspective version of joy than the ebullience of summer. At least, for me it is. I hope this article offers a few helpful hints and tips to support you and your health through these darker months and on into spring.

Please also see my Autumnal Health article for information on ways to gently support immune function or to relieve fatigue.

A Healthy Home

With more time spent indoors, the dial on the central heating turned up, and the windows and doors firmly shut, I find that I am increasingly conscious of the internal environment in which we spend the vast majority of our time. I want it to be warm, comfortable and inviting, certainly, but I also want it to be supportive of my family’s health, energy and sleep too.

Healthy Winter Home

1. Ventilate more: This is the single best thing to do to improve indoor air quality, even if you live in a city. Try to open your windows twice a day, especially in humid areas (bathrooms and kitchens), bedrooms and your main living space. Just 5-10 minutes can reportedly help improve air quality, without resulting in an enormous loss of heat.

2. Bring a bit of nature inside: Although evidence is mixed, it is thought that houseplants may be able to help to purify the air inside our homes. Whether they make a measurable difference or not, there is certainly a lovely atmosphere that greets us in a room brightened with some natural life. It’s also a more ecologically-friendly option than regularly buying fresh cut flowers (that have often been air-freighted). They are best positioned in places where we spend most of our time, such as the office, sitting room and bedroom.

3. Consider room layouts to maximise daylight: Daylight is essential for regulating our circadian rhythm and the release of the hormone melatonin at appropriate times (helping us to feel awake during the day, and sleepy at night). This can be particularly important during the shorter daylight hours of winter. So if you are working from home, or spend a lot of time indoors, it’s a good idea (if possible) to move the furniture you spend lots of time on or at during daytime hours (your desk, kitchen table, favourite chair etc.) closest to the windows, and push the furniture you spend more time on in the evenings to the back of the room. But getting outside everyday, even if just for a few minutes, is equally as important – even just 5 minutes in the morning can help regulate your body clock and potentially improve sleep.

4. Embrace non-toxic cleaners & personal care products:

While there is rather little research on the impact of using non-toxic home and personal care products on human health, this is one area where I tend to base my decisions on the precautionary principle. In other words, I choose to err on the side of caution, and therefore buy and use ecologically friendly and natural products as much as possible (with a wary eye to the idea of ‘green-washing’ – the use of ‘natural’ on labelling is not a regulated term, for example). I am also increasingly aware of the impact small day-to-day decisions I make have on our carbon footprint and use of plastics.

I therefore often use Dr Bronner’s soap (diluted with water into a re-used spray bottle – 1 large bottle lasts me ages and ages) for my all-round hero home cleaning product, with some basic homemade solutions like vinegar and scrunched up newspaper for mirrors and windows, or an e-cloth and good, old-fashioned elbow grease. I don’t use air fresheners and rarely use scented candles (although when I do, these are my favourites), and if we do light a real fire, I am sure to air that room the next day.

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Dr Bronner’s soap

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Microfibre cloths

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Re-usable glass spray bottle

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Biological bathroom cleaner pack

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Seagrass basket

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Fern

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Eating Well in Winter

It’s easy enough to slip into a familiar pattern of grazing and over-indulgence as a way to pass the time in winter (perhaps also in an effort to boost flagging energy or mood). I have certainly found myself heading back towards the kitchen cupboards many times in those long, dark evenings. Plus, with Christmas in the middle of our darkest months, bringing its merry round of festivities and parties that usually encourage decadence (which I am all for, at least in moderation), it is easy to see why our healthy eating habits and intentions may be harder to stick to over winter.

Chicken Tray Bake by Amelia Freer

But a little indulgence is good for us sometimes (remember that eating can be just as important for our social and emotional health as it is for our physical health). I have a few strategies I’ve learnt over the years that may help us maintain nutritional balance, even when the weather and the light is against us.

1. Keep eating plenty of vegetables: It’s just as important to eat a variety of colourful vegetables every day in winter as it is in summer. If you don’t fancy salads (and I definitely prefer warmer foods in the cooler months), then soups are a brilliant warming way to boost our vegetable intake. Or roast a tray of seasonal vegetables once a week to enjoy as an instant side, make a few slow-cooked vegetable stews (I usually throw in some chickpeas for added protein), or try sneaking an extra portion or two of vegetables into your main dishes (frozen spinach is a great hack for this one). I generally suggest we aim to work towards 6 portions of vegetables per day – although one more than you’re having currently is the best place to start.

2. Try to have a 12 hour overnight fast: Aim to finish eating 12 hours before you have breakfast in the morning. So if you finish your evening meal by 8pm, avoid snacking again before bed and have breakfast some time after 8am the following day. It’s a simple way to give our bodies and digestion a break. Of course, it’s fine to stay hydrated while fasting – clear fluids like water or herbal teas are probably best for this. Don’t worry if you can’t achieve it every day, it’s a good rule-of-thumb for most people to aim for when possible.

3. Watch out for alcohol ‘creep’: As we head through the festive season in particular, there can be a gradual (or massive!) increase in alcohol intake. There’s nothing wrong with a glass or two for most people, but it’s worth keeping a compassionate eye on our overall consumption. If nothing else, it will help make getting out of bed on these cold, dark mornings a little easier. I usually recommend to my clients to have at least 3 days completely alcohol-free per week and to stick below the recommended maximum of 14 units (which is roughly 7 medium – 175ml – glasses of wine). If the ritual of an evening drink is what you enjoy most, rather than the alcohol itself, try to switch to a grown-up soft drink instead. I like Seedlip & tonic, or a spicy tomato juice.

To learn more about this, please do take a look at my article on Alcohol: How much is too much?

4. Embrace the opportunity to be creative: Long evenings in may also mean you’ve got a little more time on your hands to get creative in the kitchen. Bookmark healthy new recipes you’d like to try, as and when you see them, so you’ve got a bank of inspiration at your fingertips for those moments when you fancy whipping up something novel for supper. Check out my Pinterest page as it’s chock full of ideas, or browse through My Bookshelf to see some of my own favourite cook books.

Don’t forget about Vitamin D

Vitamin D intake over the winter months (Oct-March in the UK) is strongly recommended. Take a look at the NHS recommendations NHS choices website for more information, or have a chat to your local pharmacist

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Vitamin D (400IU)

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Small wine glasses

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Seedlip non-alcoholic spirit

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Spicy tomato juice

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Riverford veg box

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Slow cooker

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Seasonal Food

The traditionally hearty foods of winter are some of my favourite ingredients, and there is a wonderful alchemy that seems to happen between foods that are in season together.

Here is a list of my favourite British produce in season over winter, plus a few recipe ideas to help you make the most of them. There are lots more quick and easy winter recipes in Simply Good For You, too.

what’s in season

See my Winter Recipes here.

Beetroot Beetroot & Parsnip Fritters & Beetroot, Rosemary & Walnut Soda Bread
Brussels sprouts Fragrant Sprout Slaw 
Celeriac Celeriac Rosti
Celery
Chicory and Radicchio
Jerusalem artichoke Jerusalem Artichoke & Hazelnut Soup 
Kale Kale & Bean Soup with Pistachio & Lemon Pistou
Kohlrabi I like this simply peeled, then grated (raw) into a very simple salad with some olive oil, lemon juice, perhaps with a little natural yoghurt and a pinch of salt.
Leeks Creamy Lemon Cod with Fennel & Leeks 

Parsnips either roasted or in soup
Potatoes
Swede
Squash & Pumpkins Spiced Chickpea, Kale & Squash Salad 
Apples Crisp Apple & Fennel Winter Salad with Turmeric Dressing (this dressing is SO good!)
Citrus fruit One-tray Roasted Winter Salad  or my Clementine, Honey & Olive Oil Cake 
Passion fruit Passion Fruit ‘Crumble’
Pears Try the Coconut & Almond Pear crumble on page 254 of Simply Good For You
PomegranateWild Rice Purple Salad 

winter dish inspiration 

WINTER RECIPES

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Simply Good For You

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Peeler

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Chopping board

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Knives

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Cast iron casserole

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Soup bowls

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The above content is for general information only and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare or nutrition professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. Please discuss all supplements with a qualified nutrition or healthcare provider prior to commencing.