Do you find that every time the colder months start to hit, you end up coughing, sneezing and needing to take time off work? Or even worse, having to soldier on even though you really should be resting in bed?
Are you are parent with kids who have perpetually runny noses and spend the entirety of winter coughing, or having to take days off school?
Summer did try and sneak in for a few extra days over March, but there is no escaping the fact that winter is on its way. Spending the colder months sick and tired and feverish is not fun for you, or anyone around you. Unless maybe you have some Netflix series to binge on, or a dog who gets to curl up on your blanket and keep you company when you’re home sick…
Now is the time to start thinking about whether there are any changes you can make to your diet or lifestyle to minimize the risk of getting sick this winter.
Part 1 - Stress & Immunity
You may be surprised that my first tip is not a diet tip or herbal concoction, but in fact this very important lifestyle factor. According to the Australian Psychological Society’s 2015 Stress and Wellbeing Survey, 35% of Australians reported having a significant level of distress in their lives, with anxiety symptoms in 2015 being the highest they have been in the five years of the survey. (1) Stress has a huge impact on the body, and many people associate it with decreased energy levels or low mood. But did you know that stress has an impact on your immune function too?
When we are in a situation of high stress, cortisol is released as part of the body’s “fight or flight” mechanism. This allows us to be in a heightened state of arousal, allowing us to quickly deal with the stressor. In a normal situation, the stressor is dealt with and the cortisol levels (and subsequently heart rate and blood pressure) reduce. However many of us are dealing with long lasting periods of stress, and so the stress-response system is activated over a long period of time. When cortisol and other stress hormones are constantly high, the body’s immune response is lowered, the production and activity of natural killer (NK) cells is reduced, and inflammation is decreased. This leads to increased rate of infections and reduced ability to recover quickly from viruses. (2)
So what actions can you take today to decrease your stress levels right away?
Who are you serving right now? For many of us, the first person to fall by the wayside is ourselves when we are stressed. What would it take to schedule in time for you? It can be difficult, especially if the stress is due to being super busy – but even if you schedule 5 minutes of quiet time in the morning to yourself per day just as a start. Then build it up. You could get up 20 minutes earlier than you normally do and do a yoga workout from YouTube (pro tip from yours truly!). Or find a room in your house and shut the door and let your family know not to bother you for those 5, 10, 20 minutes. Find small ways to serve YOU first. You cannot serve others if your cup has nothing in it.
It’s well known that exercise reduces stress. It reduces the levels of stress hormones in the body, and stimulates the production of endorphins which help to increase mood. (3) Along with the benefits that reducing stress has on immune function, exercise itself has also has a beneficial action on the immune system. (4) Start small if you need to – 3 x 30 minutes session in a week. Or, incorporate your new-found morning yoga practices as part of your exercise routine. Mix it up with some relaxation and power yoga. Go for a brisk walk (leave your phone at home!) and disconnect from your stressors – you could practice mindfulness techniques at the same time. Do some body weight exercises in your lounge room. Or, if you are relatively fit then make the time to go for a run or do a weights session at the gym.
Sleep is essential for health and wellbeing. When we sleep, the body repairs itself and our brain recharges. Stress and sleep can sometimes get caught up in the vicious circle – when we don’t sleep enough we feel stressed, when we feel stressed we can’t sleep. If you are having issues with sleep then good sleep hygiene is imperative. Try turning off your electronic devices (TV, phone, ipad) 30 minutes before bed time to disengage and wind down. Keep a sleep diary, to track how many hours you are sleeping – and whether that sleep is interrupted or not. You may well find that if you start implementing step 1 & 2, then your sleep improves.
When in times of stress, it can be quite tempting to buy take-away and indulge in comforting foods however many of these foods can exacerbate stress levels and have other negative effects on the body. (5) Overhauling your entire diet can be stressful in itself however there are small changes you can make to take steps in changing what you eat and how you eat.
· Increase magnesium-rich foods. Many people are deficient in magnesium, and low levels are linked to stress, depression & anxiety. (6) Foods that are rich in magnesium include nuts (almond, brazil, walnuts), sesame seeds, turkey, bananas and dark chocolate.
· Increase B-vitamin rich foods. B-vitamins are also shown to reduce levels of stress. (7) Foods rich in B-vitamins include yeast spreads, liver, broccoli, spinach & egg yolks.
· Increase antioxidant-rich foods. Chronic stress and increased levels of cortisol can increase the oxidative stress in the body. Antioxidants work to counteract the effect (to a degree – reducing stress is still the primary goal!). Antioxidant rich foods include blueberries, green tea, dark chocolate, fresh herbs and (small amounts of!) red wine.
If you feel like you could benefit with a little one-on-one help with reducing your stress levels and minimizing your risk of being bed-bound with yet another cold over winter, or implementing any of the above suggestions, then click through to the Winter Wellbeing Package that’s currently on offer. FYI – there *may* be a relaxation massage included as part of the deal. And my sources tell me that’s an amazing way to de-stress.
Though to be fair, the thought of being all tucked up on the couch catching up with Offspring on Netflix DOES sound tempting……
1. APS. APS Stress and Wellbeing in Australia Survey 20152017 15 March 2017. Available from: http://www.psychology.org.au/psychologyweek/survey/results-stress-and-wellbeing/
2. Randall M. The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis. Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science [Internet]. 2011 15 March 2017. Available from: http://dujs.dartmouth.edu/2011/02/the-physiology-of-stress-cortisol-and-the-hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal-axis/ - .WMkNcrGr1E5.
3. Watch HMsH. Exercising to relax2011 15 March 2017. Available from: http://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax.
4. Lavelle P. Study proves exercise boosts immune system2010 15 March 2017. Available from: http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2010/11/02/3054621.htm.
5. Caldwell E. Weighty issue: Stress and high-fat meals combine to slow metabolism in womez2014 15 March 2017. Available from: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/07/140714100128.htm.
6. Deans E. Magnesium and the Brain: The Original Chill Pill2011 21 February, 2016. Available from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolutionary-psychiatry/201106/magnesium-and-the-brain-the-original-chill-pill.
7. Stough C, Scholey A, Lloyd J, Spong J, Myers S, Downey LA. The effect of 90 day administration of a high dose vitamin B‐complex on work stress. Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental. 2011;26(7):470-6.