When daylight starts to dwindle and you end up traveling to and from work in the dark, your mood can take a serious hit—not to mention the fact that we’re surrounded by sniffling strangers on transit and ill coworkers. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be your best self all winter long. Here are some tips to help get you through the winter happy and healthy.
1. Load up on feel-good foods
Starting your day with oatmeal doesn’t just warm you up before you head out into the cold: Oats are a great source of B vitamins, which help energize you, and tyrosine, an amino acid that helps your body produce feel-good chemical dopamine. Not a fan of oatmeal? Eggs, edamame, fava beans and dark chocolate are also rich in tyrosine.
The food you eat affects your immunity system, too. In fact, 70 percent of it is located in our gut-associated lymphoid tissue. Keep colds and other illnesses at bay by upping your Vitamin C intake: squeeze some lemon or lime into your water, or snack on oranges and papaya. Minimizing your overall intake of processed foods and sugar help as well. Try adding fermented foods like kimchi to your diet—they provide your body with a healthy dose of good bacteria that supports immune function. And don’t forgot to stay hydrated: doctors recommend consuming nearly two litres of water per day (warm broths and caffeine-free herbal teas can also help combat dehydration).
2. Protect your gut
We know that the gut is like the engine of the body, so give it a little boost with probiotics. These beneficial bacteria (often referred to as “friendly” bacteria) help fight off not-so-friendly bacteria. “There’s a balance between the good and the bad,” says Joey Shulman, a Toronto-based nutritionist. “If that balance of bacteria gets knocked off for whatever reason—poor diet, an infection, a virus—it can affect the whole body. With flu, cough and cold season starting, it’s a good idea to take a probiotic every day to maintain that good microflora.” Probiotics—such as Renew Life Ultimate Flora Probiotic Plus Immune Support—help the body produce B vitamins and vitamin K, among others. Probiotics also help increase the gut’s vitamin absorption efficiency in order to support a healthier immune system, which reduces the chance of cold and flu.
3. Boost your mood naturally
There are also types of bacteria that support a healthier mood. Sara Celik, a Toronto-based naturopathic doctor, points to one study that shows that by adding specific types of bacteria to the gut, such as Lactobacillus helveticus R0052 and Bifidobacterium longum R0175—both of which are found in Renew Life Ultimate Flora Probiotic Plus Mood & Stress—people experienced less depression, less anxiety and overall felt much better. In fact, Shulman also points out, we have more serotonin liners, or “feel-good” neurotransmitters, in our gut than we do in our brains.
4. Create a sleep-friendly environment
Even if you hit the sheets at 9 p.m. on the dot, the wrong bedroom setup could lead to a lack of Zs. That’s where sleep hygiene comes in: practices and habits that lead to good nighttime sleep quality and full daytime alertness. Bryce Wylde, an alternative health expert and Toronto-based functional medicine clinician at P3 Health, points to four important factors that are key to helping you achieve this: A comfortable, supportive mattress; a cool temperature (16 to 19 degrees) in the bedroom and black-out curtains or a good eye mask to prevent light from creeping in.
Before winding down for bed, Wylde recommends writing down the next day’s to-do list. Often when we wake up at night, our minds review these lists, “but if you wake up and say ‘I’ve already dealt with that list and I’ll get to it tomorrow,’ you’re less likely to have a racing mind keep you awake,” he says.
If you have a hard time putting your phone down 60 to 90 minutes before bed, put on blue blockers—yellow glasses that block blue light—to help kick-start melatonin, the nighttime-cycle hormone.
Still keep waking up out of your sleep? Wylde suggests listening to white noise—the constant ambient sound can help mask activity from inside and outside your bedroom. Or try pink noise, which has a lower, steadier frequency. Wylde prefers brown noise, which is even deeper and stronger, with no high-frequency sounds. Daytime naps could be to blame, too—research shows sleeping longer than 20-30 minutes could lead to sleeplessness at night.
5. Talk to your doctor if you’re feeling more than the winter blues
If you find yourself experiencing a regularly low mood, look out for signs that it could be Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, says Wylde. “In people with SAD, the body may produce melatonin in higher than normal levels and serotonin in lower than normal levels.” Feeling irritable, losing interest in things you like, sleeping a lot and craving carbohydrates are all signs of the disorder. Talk to your doctor about potential treatment options and ways to cope.
6. Start your day with a feel-good routine
When you wake up, take a few moments for yourself before you reach for your phone. Wylde points out that deep breathing is proven to make you more calm and relaxed, and even boosts epinephrine, the counter chemical to adrenaline. An easy way to do this is by inhaling through your nose for four seconds; holding your breath for a count of seven, and then exhaling completely through your mouth to a count of eight.
Try diffusing essential oils around your home for another quick boost. The olfactory bulb in the nose transmits information to our brains, which is why pleasant smells can help improve mood, says Wylde. He prefers frankincense, while Harvard University found that the scent of lemon oil in particular enhances mood. So, if you love your morning showers, opting for a citrus-scented body wash and shampoo can give you that extra pick-me-up.