With the right care and attention to our body and mind, winter can be a time to thrive, to get down to work, and to take great strides toward our goals. How we nourish our body during this time impacts our energy and our immune system.
“It seems like everything sleeps in winter, but it’s really a time of renewal and reflection”1.
Instead of freezing and hibernating, thrive this winter with these quick and easy tips.
Delicious immune system boosters with a long history of both nutritional and medicinal properties.
- Fresh garlic. It contains the antimicrobial compound allicin. Put it on everything! No, probably not ice cream, but everything else. Tacos, soups, stews, stir-fry, hummus, dips and sandwich spreads.
- Ginger. Fresh is wonderful if you can get it. Peel and chop for use in stir fry, soups, teas and even smoothies.
- Shiitake and maitake mushrooms are perfect in an easy weekday veggie stir-fry.
- Tea: green tea, kombucha tea, herbal teas like echinachea and red clover.
- Powdered mushroom elixirs such as the ones from the company Four Sigmatic made from varieties like chaga, cordycepts, lion’s mane and reishi have long been known to have immune enhancing effects. Now it’s easier than ever to add the powders to smoothies, warm teas and even coffee.
- Veggies! This is not the time to skimp on vegetables. Aim for 4-5 servings per day, and make it a game to get as many colors as you can. Greens, root veggies, squash, cabbage and sweet potatoes are traditionally cooler weather crops, and interestingly, they are packed with vitamin A, which is important in immune function.
- Vitamin C. The body is much happier getting vitamin C from fresh fruits and vegetables in regular low to moderate doses as opposed to mega doses all at one time from a pill. Try a spinach salad with cut up fresh oranges on top.
- Probiotics. These are found in yogurt and other fermented foods and drinks but can also be taken in supplemental form. Look for ones that require refrigeration and have multiple strains of probiotics. The higher the CFU level, the more live microbes there are per dose.
Limit portion sizes of high-calorie winter comfort foods.
It’s just human nature that colder temperatures naturally lead us to crave comfort foods that usually contain much higher calorie levels. It’s not that you can never enjoy your favourite comfort foods; just be mindful of portions and experiment with making them in ways that lower the fat content but not the flavour. For example, remember that it’s not the potatoes that make mashed potatoes so calorie dense, it’s the butter and cream. Potatoes themselves are great. Try roasting different varieties like Japanese sweet potatoes, purple potatoes or orange sweet potatoes with other root veggies, herbs and a small amount of olive oil instead. Baked goods like cakes, pies and cookies are fine as an occasional treat, but don’t keep them at home. Even the most disciplined among us tend to overindulge when there is easy access to sweets in the house. Also on the list of common comfort foods are high-fat meats like sausages, bacon and beef. The World Health Organization and Harvard School of Public Health both warn to significantly limit or avoid processed meats like hot dogs, bacon, sausage and red meat3. Instead of high meat consumption, replace that with nourishing, warm soups and stews with beans, lentils, peas and lots of vegetables. Try minestrone, black bean or a nice garlicky white bean soup topped with greens for a protein- and vitamin-packed dinner.
Get adequate vitamin D.
Vitamin D can quickly become deficient during the winter because less sunlight from shorter days and busy indoor schedules limit the amount of sun exposure dancers get, even in sunny Sydney. The UVB radiation from the sun on exposed skin allows for the synthesis of vitamin D3 in the body. Vitamin D is usually associated with being a bone-building vitamin because it influences the absorption of calcium in the bones and helps maintain calcium levels inside and outside cells. But Vitamin D is also a key player in immune function. Researchers have long known about vitamin D’s role in cancer prevention, but maintaining adequate levels can also help the immune system fight off colds and flu. Many foods are now fortified with vitamin D, but it may be necessary to take in supplemental form during winter months to maintain adequate levels. Everyone’s needs are different, but a general rule of thumb is to aim to get at least 800-1000 IU daily. This is not one vitamin that you want to mega dose with, so be careful about not overdoing it. A blood test can help you and your doctor determine if you are deficient.
Shorter days and cooler temperatures naturally encourage us to want to go to bed sooner and get more sleep. This isn’t by accident. The body needs more sleep in winter to fight off colds and flu. For training dancers, this is also a time for improving strength. To rebuild muscle tissue after a long day of dance, the body has to get adequate rest. “Over the last 15 years, research following a systems approach of neuroimmunology has accumulated surprisingly strong evidence that sleep enhances immune defense, in agreement with the popular wisdom that ‘sleep helps healing’”2.
By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD of Nutrition for Great Performances.
Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University, USA. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Camden, Elizabeth. Before the Dawn. 2015. Bethany House publishers
- Besedovsky L, Lange T, Born J.Sleep and Immune Function. Pflugers Arch. 2012 Jan; 463(1): 121–137. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3256323/