At this time of year we are entering into a long winter ahead and by all accounts the coldest! Viruses increase in the winter, nights are longer, we have less exposure to natural daylight and we generally can start to feel more fatigued. Sleep is disrupted for some. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can embrace winter! In fact many people prefer this time of year, people who love skiing and winter outdoor sports would not swap a hot, sunny beach for anything. If you are not in this camp and find winter hard there are ways to help you through it.
There is a lot of hype about the Danish approach to winter, Hygge. Google it and an abundance of books come up first on your search page – The little book of Hygge, The Art of Hygge, How to Hygge. So what is this all about? It’s about being snuggly, warm and cosy in the winter. It is also about being with people and enjoying company and the simple pleasures. So can we get through the winter with this concept? It is about embracing the season, it gives an excuse to cuddle up in front of a warm fire and to do nothing, read a book and just chill but stay warm.
If you struggle with all of this there are food and lifestyle choices you can make to help you through the cold winter months. Over the next few weeks I will talk about different winter health topics that will support you over the next few months. I will cover sleep, immunity, skin, energy and seasonal foods..
Good quality sleep is important for all aspects of health. Research suggests that poor sleep or lack of may increase your risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity.
Melatonin is our sleep hormone. We produce more of it in darkness and production stops in daylight. Sometimes it can be become out of balance and this may affect sleep.
Try to make sure you expose yourself to natural daylight in the winter. The best way to get is apparently to see light first thing in the morning, here in Scotland this is impossible. A light box or alarm clock may come in handy but also a brisk afternoon walk will make sure you have your daily daylight exposure. According to an academic article on sunlight and the benefits to health, in order to have optimal nocturnal melatonin (sleep hormone) being out in natural daylight is really helpful.
Phones, tablets, computer screens and TVs give off blue light this is similar to daylight but natural daylight is better for your circadian rhythms, blue light suppresses melatonin. In todays world we are constantly exposed to blue light, which again in turn can muck up our levels. Switch to orange light on devices when it starts to get dark. Switch off phones etc. 1 hour before bed, not only the blue light will disturb sleep patterns, it is stimulating your thinking so close to bedtime. Same goes for TV, if you do watch it before bed, watch something calming, not scary movies or something that really makes you think. I recently enjoyed watching the Robbie Coltrane Drama National Treasure but it was not a pre bedtime programme.
You can purchase blue light blocking glasses really cheaply also. If you really struggle with getting to sleep these might be a good investment. Though this is not an excuse to be on your computer all night.
Create a good sleeping environment, Dark room, bath or relaxation before bed, Try to eat 2-3 hours before retiring. Wind down and prepare your body for sleep.
Tryptophan is the amino acid that makes serotonin, the happy, good mood chemical in the brain. Serotonin is converted into melatonin – the sleep hormone. Eat foods rich in protein to make sure you have enough tryptophan to help with sleep. Good sources of tryptophan are: beef, chicken, eggs, beans, dairy, fish, legumes, lentil, oats, nuts and seeds. Unlikely food such as banana also contains tryptophan as does new potatoes. I was taught in College if someone was really struggling to sleep before bed advise them to eat 1 new potato, definitely worth a try.
Cherries also contain melatonin and may be useful as a light pre-bed snack or a small desert served with plain natural yoghurt at night.
Magnesium is a calming and relaxation mineral. Epsom Salt baths are recommended. They contain magnesium, which is absorbed through the skin. If you don’t have a bath you can but magnesium sprays. Good sources of magnesium are green leafy vegetables such as steamed broccoli. Halibut is is season just now and is at its tastiest, it is also a good source of magnesium.
I have had some clients who work night shifts and this can really impact your circadian rhythm and sleep patterns. I advise them similar advice to above but switching it around. For example, a blue light during the night shift may help your body with sleeping during the day. Wearing sunglasses as you approach the morning, the blue-light blocking ones may be particularly helpful.
The most important thing about sleep is to try and address what might be causing the problem. If it is a racing mind, write tasks down before bed, that way you have dealt with it. Keep a diary on food and activities – is there a correlation between them and sleep. Identify triggers and drivers – is it too much screen time or are you not eating enough protein? Seek professional advice if you feel you need to. Nutritional therapy can certainly provide good advice and perhaps a sleep clinic might also be able to help.