2020 has brought uncertainty and changes with many of us now working from home or isolating away from family and friends. Eating habits and activity levels may have altered, anxiety levels increased and sleep patterns disrupted.
With the winter cold and flu season approaching it is important to ensure your immune system is in peak condition and that you look after your physical and mental wellbeing. What we eat impacts our physical health, our mood and energy levels.
Here are a few tips on what you can do to keep healthy and happy at work this winter.
1. Keep well hydrated
Studies show that by the time your thirst sensation kicks in, at around 2% dehydration, you are likely to experience impaired mood, memory and brain performance. Complex problem solving and tasks that require coordination and attention suffer the most. So, keeping well hydrated is important to help you maintain focus in meetings or when studying, and also when driving a car.
Hydration is also important for many essential functions in the body such as producing saliva to help us swallow, cushioning joints and helping the body get rid of waste products.
The brain needs water to make hormones and neurotransmitters and dehydration can result in tiredness, poor concentration, headaches and dizziness or light headedness.
Water is a great option for keeping hydrated, but on cold winter’s day, a warm brew, a low-sugar fruit squash or a cup of soup may be more appealing. The caffeine in coffee can improve your alertness, but avoid drinking too much. Switch to decaf after lunchtime so that your sleep is not affected.
2. Support your immune system
Your immune system is a hugely complex system of cells, molecules and tissues and requires many different nutrients to function effectively. There is no single immune-boosting nutrient! The immune system works better when it’s in balance, rather than ‘boosted’ and the best way to support it is through a healthy and varied diet.
There is some evidence a Vitamin C supplement may reduce the duration and severity of the common cold. However, it won’t prevent you catching a cold. Zinc has a key role in immunity, helping the immune cells fight infection and resist infection with viruses that cause the common cold. There is evidence that taking a Zinc supplement within a day of catching a cold reduces the duration of the cold by around a day.
Vitamin D is important for the normal function of the immune system and low levels of Vitamin D has been linked with reduced immune response. We get most of our Vitamin D from the sunlight in the summer months so, as many of us have been indoors more than usual this year, it’s particularly important to ensure you get enough Vitamin D by including Vitamin D sources in your diet as well as a daily supplement.
3. Snack savvy
In the darker winter months you may find yourself craving more foods high in sugars and/or fat. This is your body’s way of trying to lift your mood as these foods are linked with serotonin and dopamine production, the feel-good hormones, and is often known as 'comfort eating'.
If you are working from home it can be much harder to avoid snacking, even when you’re not feeling hungry. If you are hungry between meals, have some pre-prepared healthy snacks to avoid reaching for sweets or biscuits.
Pre-chopped veg with hummus, a pot of yoghurt with mixed frozen berries, or sliced apple with some nut butter are a few healthy snack options.
4. Feed your gut fibre
One of the best ways to support your immune system is to keep your gut microbes happy.
Around 70% of your immune system is found in your gut, so it’s important to feed your gut microbes well. Your gut microbes love munching on fibre, and when they do, they produce short-chain fatty acids and by-products known as ‘postbiotics’ which are beneficial to the immune system.
Most adults are currently eating an average of 18g of fibre a day and only 4% of women and 9% of men achieve the 30g of fibre daily target!
5. Mood and the Mediterranean diet
With less daylight hours and more time indoors, along with the many challenges 2020 has brought, looking after your mental health is even more important this winter.
Evidence from two trials found eating a Mediterranean diet had a positive impact on individuals with depression. The Mediterranean diet is generally high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, beans, cereals, grains, fish and unsaturated fats such as olive oil, and it usually includes a low intake of meat and dairy.
The positive impacts of the Mediterranean diet are likely to be due to its rich source of polyphenols (plant-based compounds) and its beneficial effect on the gut microbiome. In contrast, a Western-style diet, typically higher in processed, high-fat and high-sugar foods, has been associated with a higher risk of developing depression (Ljungberg et al. 2020).
Our brains are made up of around 60% fat and so an adequate supply of healthy fats are also needed to maintain good brain function, particularly the omega-3 unsaturated fatty acids.
Many foods in the Mediterranean diet provide omega-3s, such as oily fish, nuts and seeds. Include these in your diet or take an omega-3 supplement that provides the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, as intakes are often low, especially if you don’t eat any fish.
6. Manage your stress
A survey conducted in April (Ipsos MORI, 2020), at the start of the first lockdown, found that half of people (49%) reported increased anxiety.
When we’re feeling stressed or anxious, our body has an increased need for some nutrients. However, hormones released when we are stressed can result in a loss of appetite for some people, or cravings for foods high in fat and sugars for other people. When we eat foods high in fat and sugars, dopamine is released which means we associate them with comfort in times of stress.
The stress hormone cortisol can make us crave sugary, fatty foods which will result in a sugar rush and then a dip, which will worsen the symptoms of stress.
Eating wholegrain foods such as oats, brown rice or wholemeal bread and pasta will provide slow-release energy which will help stabilise blood sugar levels. Including protein foods at each meal will help slow the release of sugars into the blood stream. Magnesium is a key nutrient for muscle and nerve function and ensuring you get enough of this mineral may help manage anxiety.
Useful foods with Magnesium include nuts like almonds and cashew, spinach, soy, avocado, and brown rice.
While alcohol may help you feel more relaxed, regularly drinking more than the UK guidelines can exacerbate your stress levels. Men and women are advised not to drink more than 14 units a week, which is equivalent to 6 pints of average-strength beer or about 6 glasses of wine. (NHS, 2018)
Remember that diet is only one factor to consider when managing stress. Physical activity, relaxation techniques, such as meditation, getting adequate sleep and social support can also help reduce stress and anxiety.
7. Good quality sleep
Around 1 in 3 adults don’t get enough good-quality sleep (NHS, 2018). This has become more of an issue due to the impact of the pandemic as 38% of people report sleeping less or less well than normal this year.
Whilst the occasional poor night’s sleep won’t harm your health, regularly not sleeping well can increase risk of depression and anxiety, and disrupt your immune system. Your diet can impact your ability to sleep, and a poor night’s sleep can lead to an increased calorie intake the following day.
Reduced hours of daylight during the winter can impact our sleep-wake cycle, making it harder to get up in the mornings. Longer dark evenings may increase snacking late at night and too many sugary foods just before bed is likely to lead to a poorer sleep). Having a hobby or some planned evening activities to keep your mind occupied, as well as some relaxing yoga or stretching in an evening may help prevent late-night snacking.
A low level of Vitamin D is associated with fatigue and a recent review has suggested that deficiency of Vitamin D is linked with a higher risk of sleep disorders. Ensuring you are getting adequate Magnesium may help improve your sleep as it is important for the function of your nervous system and your sleep cycle.
8. Don't forget your daily Vitamin D!
Data indicates 4 in 10 adults in the UK have insufficient levels of Vitamin D during the winter months.
In the UK, the sun does not contain enough UVB radiation in winter months (October to March) for our skin to be able to make Vitamin D. Having a brisk lunchtime walk outside is great for your mood and mental health, but it won’t help your Vitamin D levels during the winter months.
As a result, aim to include foods with Vitamin D such as oily fish (mackerel, salmon and sardines), egg yolks, red meat and fortified products such as breakfast cereals and plant milk alternatives.
However food sources alone are unlikely to keep your Vitamin D levels topped up, so a daily Vitamin D3 supplement is recommended. Vitamin D is fat-soluble so taking the supplement along with a meal can improve absorption.
By Dr Laura Wyness
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