by guest blogger, Mark A. Moyad, MD, MPH, supplement and natural medicine expert
Here are my favorite tips for staying physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy during the winter months. (Vacation not included!) These 5 simple suggestions are things anyone can do easily and inexpensively to stave off the winter blues and sniffles.
1. Raise your vitamin D levels naturally (without pills or sunlight). We’ve all heard about the marvels of vitamin D: heart health, skin health, immune health, mental health…. But, you don’t need to supplement or risk skin cancer to get high vitamin D levels. The big secret is that vitamin D levels are associated with healthy lifestyle changes. For example, if you lose just 5 percent or more of your body weight, your vitamin D blood levels will shoot up. See, vitamin D likes to stay in fatty tissue, so when you lose fat, the D levels in your blood go up. Other ways to increase D naturally are to lower your cholesterol, exercise, and eat more fatty fish, such as wild salmon (farmed salmon contains only a quarter of the D that wild salmon contains, 250 IU per 3.5 ounces versus 1,000 IU). And when you eat your wild salmon, bake it don’t fry it. When salmon is baked, almost all of the vitamin D content remains, but when fried in vegetable oil almost half of the vitamin D content is lost. Other good food sources are trout, ahi-tuna, mushrooms, and egg yolks, and, my favorite, plain Greek yogurt.
2. Protect your skin! Sunscreen is more important in the winter. There are two types of ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun that damage your skin: ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) light. UVB light penetrates the superficial layers of the skin and causes skin to redden; it’s responsible for sunburn and can also lead to skin cancer over time. But UVB rays are at least blocked by window glass from the house and car and are less intense in the winter months. UVA light, on the other hand, penetrates top and deeper layers of skin, causing cell damage that can lead to cancer, plus it is also responsible for prematurely aging skin with wrinkles, blotchiness, spots, sagging, looseness, and increased photosensitivity as you get older. UVA light is tough to avoid because it passes through window glass and stays the same strength ALL YEAR LONG! This is why sunscreen is also critical in the winter months regardless of where you like to spend your time. So find a moisturizer that contains broad-spectrum SPF 15 protection.
3. Get a flu shot—if only to be a good citizen. I think we doctors make a big mistake by telling people to get a flu shot because it can protect them from getting the flu. Most people are less freaked out about getting the flu than they are about the flu shot. And the truth is that predicting who will or will not get the flu isn’t easy. But when 36,000 people in the U.S. die from complications from the flu and 200,000 are hospitalized, doctors should be telling people to get a flu shot because it’s a random act of kindness and a selfless act. I get the flu shot to promote the concept of “herd immunity,” which means I’m protecting my parents, my kids, their teachers, and librarians, too. By getting the flu shot you reduce the chance that you’ll harbor the virus and pass it on to someone who is more immunologically vulnerable, so to speak.
4. Take a class—with a friend. Winter can be a tough time for many of us. All that darkness can take its toll on our mental health. Plus, humans are social animals that don’t do well in isolation, and the winter months can be very isolating for many people. My suggestion is that you and a close friend sign up for a yoga, cooking, sewing, or scrapbooking class (or for a pasta or olive oil class like my wife and I do every year). Not only do these kinds of classes improve your mental and physical fitness, but they help to fill that social craving that we have as human beings, too; we like to be around others, and not in a stressful situation but in a happy and relaxed atmosphere. After you read this, please pick up the phone and call your closest friend and sign up for a class—and let me know honestly whether or not you feel better after the first session.
5. Eat more plants—the ones that are sources of omega-3 fatty acids. I have nothing against fish and fish oil, but plant sources of omega-3s have as much to offer, and my prediction is that in the future they may be found to be more beneficial compared to fish sources of omage-3. One of the primary omega-3 fatty acids, called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), is found in many plants and plant-based cooking oils, but flaxseed (powder or oil), chia seed, and walnuts are especially good sources of ALA. Recent research is suggesting omega-3s have anti-inflammatory effects, skin protection, and hydrating impacts, as well as some cardiovascular disease prevention and perhaps even some impacts on mental health with greater intakes of plant omega-3 fatty acids. For example, in the famous Harvard Nurses’ Health Study of almost 77,000 women after 18 years of follow-up there was no relation between depression and intake of omega-3 fatty acids from fish, but they did find a reduced risk of depression in those with moderate intakes of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids. And, again, the wintertime is when many folks have a higher risk of depression.
Dr. Moyad is the Jenkins/Pokempner Director of Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical Center. He lives in Ann Arbor, MI, with his wife, Mia, and their dog, Chauncey.