Is there any season that leaves us more divided? While most everyone can appreciate the positive aspects of spring, summer, and fall, winter seems to be more of a "love it or hate it" season. On the one hand, some absolutely adore winter and all the holiday joy it brings, and on the other, when the days start getting shorter, many people just want to hole up and wait for spring.
Whether you're looking forward to the next couple of months or counting down the days until you see the first blooms of spring, winter does come with some unique challenges—physically, mentally, and emotionally. Fortunately, this comprehensive self-care plan can help see you through the season.
Why Whole Body Self-Care?
We often think of self-care in terms of targeted actions; you feel stressed with tight muscles so you get a massage, or you feel tired so you go to bed early one night. But your body is much more than the sum of its parts. To really take care of yourself, you need to make sure you're caring for your whole self, not just one or two systems. And that means taking actions that support yourself from all angles––physical, mental, and emotional––to ensure that you feel your best.
1. Slow down.
If you find yourself feeling a bit more sluggish than usual during winter, don't try to push through––instead, go with it as much as you can. Our bodies evolved to take things a little slower in winter: as the nights get longer and the days get shorter, your metabolism takes things down a notch, your energy levels drop, and you might need a little more sleep.1
Instead of fighting it, make the most of this natural change of pace by doing your best to follow seasonal light cues. Your body already operates on a daily rhythm; when the sun goes down, the change in light signals your body to release melatonin, which makes you feel sleepy. And with the days getting shorter, this ideally means that you'd be getting to bed earlier.
Of course, most of us don’t follow the seasonal rhythms the way our ancestors did, plus, exposure to electric lights and screens can really throw your sleep cycle off. So, go easy on yourself but still do what you can to listen to your body’s needs over the next couple of months. Consider spending a little extra time journaling, start or increase your meditation practice, or even try going to bed an hour earlier. You might be surprised at just how naturally you slip into a more seasonal rhythm.
2. Support your oral microbiome.
One of the biggest challenges of the season seems to be making it through without getting stuck with the sniffles—but you may not realize that there’s a lot you can do to support your immunity, starting with supporting all the beneficial bacteria in your ears, nose, mouth, and throat. Your oral microbiome acts as the gateway to your body; given the right balance of bacteria, it can help fortify you against many of the risks of the season.2
Of course, your beneficial microbes can only do their work if they’re in balance, and since many common lifestyle habits—using traditional toothpaste or mouthwash, exposure to pollutants and chemicals, and eating or drinking processed food—can all destroy that balance, it’s best to use a premium probiotic supplement like PRO-Dental, as well as probiotic-infused toothpaste, to keep your oral microbiome in tip top shape throughout the winter months.
3. Get outside as much as you can.
When it’s cold and gray outside, sometimes the last thing you want to do is leave your warm, cozy home. But it really is worth getting bundled up, even if you just get in a short walk. Being outside while the sun is out can help your vitamin D levels and breathing in fresh air gives you a chance to get some new bacteria into your microbiome (and since the more diverse your microbiome is, the healthier it tends to be, this is a really good thing). Getting outside into nature also helps support your immune system and mood. In fact, studies show that spending time in nature actually switches your nervous system into a relaxed state and reduces activity in a part of the brain commonly associated with a low mood, leaving you less likely to stew on things.3,4
What’s more, it gives you a chance to get out of the “microbial stew” that tends to form indoors, especially when the windows are shut and everything’s closed up tight.5 This mix of old microbes, toxins, and chemicals can have some seriously negative effects on your health, including depleting your immune function, leading to brain fog, and even changing the appearance of your skin. So pull on that hat, lace up your boots, and get outside!
4. Support your gut microbiome to stay well.
The good guys in your gut do so much to support your health: from keeping your brain functioning optimally to encouraging a clear complexion, you'd be hard pressed to find a part of your body that these tiny bugs don't impact. But one particularly important effect to pay attention to in winter is the connection between your gut and your immune system. It might seem strange to think that these two systems have anything to do with each other, but in fact, 80% of your immune cells live in your gut, making your gut microbes uniquely placed to support your immunity.
One of the easiest ways to make sure that your gut has what it needs to keep your immune system supported is by taking a premium probiotic like Hyperbiotics Immune, which has both the targeted probiotic strains you need to keep your gut in balance and the supplemental ingredients of vitamin C, echinacea, and zinc to encourage healthy immune system function.
5. Give your gut bugs their seasonal favorites.
Your sleep cycles aren’t the only thing that change with the season—research on the gut microbiomes of those in the Hadza tribe (a group of hunter-gatherers who live much like our ancestors did) shows that their gut bacteria change seasonally, favoring certain types of foods at certain times of the year. What’s more, studies show that our microbiomes tend to be strongly affected by changes in temperature, with certain types of bacteria becoming more prevalent when we’re cold, then dying off as we get warm again in the spring and summer.6,7
So take a note from the Hadza and do your best to match your diet to the seasonal state of your microbiome by focusing on seasonal, local foods as much as you can. Luckily, you’ve got lots of great choices in the cooler months, including seasonal prebiotic favorites like Brussels sprouts, kale, and pomegranates, as well as cabbage, jicama, leeks, and onions. If you really want to take things to the next level, consider putting an eye towards eating Ayurvedically. According to the ancient principles of Ayurveda, winter is ruled by the vata dosha, which is largely cold and dry. To remain in balance, it's important to eat warming, grounding foods: think soups and stews, spiced drinks, and hot cereals.
Of course, seasonal eating goes hand in hand with seasonal drinking—which, if you’re in the northern hemisphere, might trend a tad more towards hot chocolate, eggnog, and mulled wine than water. It’s easy to overlook staying hydrated in winter, especially because you might not feel as thirsty.
This doesn't mean that your body doesn't need the same amount of water, though—the decrease in thirstiness is actually connected to your blood flow. When you're cold, your body decreases blood flow to your extremities, to preserve the heat at your core. This signals to the part of your body that deals with thirst that you're hydrated, even if you're not. But your kidneys don't get the same message, so even though you're taking in less water, you're putting out water at the same levels. What's more, wearing heavy clothes and breathing out more water vapor can also contribute to your body losing more water than you realize.8
Besides being necessary for your brain function, supporting the health of your urinary tract, and protecting your joints, getting enough water also helps the good bacteria in your gut microbiome do their thing.9 Make it a point to drink a lot of water along with more typical “winter” drinks, aiming for at least eight glasses of eight ounces of water a day.
7. Take care of your skin.
Colder months can be particularly hard on your skin and hair, with the combination of dry air and hot showers, so it’s important to moisturize your body from the outside as well as the inside. This will help keep your skin microbiome in balance so it can boost your immune function and, through its connection to your gut microbiome, affect your mood and metabolism.10
Consider switching out any harsh cleansers with artificial and harmful synthetic ingredients you’re using for natural products that won’t destroy your skin microbes, and try using natural oils to moisturize your skin and hair. Jojoba oil is always a good all-around, protective source of hydration for skin, vitamin E oil and argan oil are perfect for intense treatment on extra dry areas, and prickly pear oil is wonderful for skin that's a little older or has been dry for a while. To use them, simply apply the oil to the dry area once or twice a day. Gently massage it into your skin until it's absorbed, and follow up with "spot treatments" on areas that tend to dry out quickly, like your elbows, heels, cuticles, and palms.
8. Get moving.
It’s natural to want to “hibernate” a little as the days get shorter, but it’s important to keep up some kind of exercise routine (even if it’s extra gentle) over the winter. Exercise helps keep your metabolism working as it should and helps boost the diversity of your gut microbiome so you can experience all the benefits that come along with healthy, thriving microbes.
Besides this, it can also help balance out any low moods you might be seasonally prone to: studies show that even light aerobic exercise a couple times a week can really reduce the impact of the winter blues.11 So take up a regular yoga practice or make sure you're getting those feet moving at least a couple times a week––even better, get your exercise outside and enjoy two benefits at once!
9. Manage stress.
As wonderful as they can be, the holidays can also be a source of stress. It's important to take steps to counterbalance this so you can actually enjoy your holidays and avoid the unwanted physical effects of stress. (And not just the ones you already know about, like irregular sleep, a rumbly tummy, or anxious thoughts, but the ones you might not know about, too: cardiovascular issues, changes in mood, low energy, a dull complexion, and a struggling gut microbiome, to name a few!)
Find out the things that make you feel calm and do what you can to make them as much a part of your life as possible, whether that's embracing mindfulness, going for a run, adding a little extra flexibility to your schedule, or simply taking a few minutes to yourself.
10. Say thanks.
Try focusing on gratitude throughout the whole winter season, not just during Thanksgiving. (Even better, do it all year round!) Incorporating a simple gratitude practice into your day is a wonderful way to lift your mood, not to mention dissolve any holiday-related stress that might be hanging around.
It really can be as simple as thinking of one thing you're grateful for every day––and the effects can truly impact every other aspect of your life, from self-care to the way you relate to those around you. If you want a little more direction to your practice, try thinking of one thing you're grateful for just before you go to bed at night. It can be something as simple as seeing a beautiful flower, or something bigger, like being able to see someone you might not get to spend a lot of time with throughout the year.
11. Connect with your people and master the Danish art of coziness.
You may already have plans to see people over the holidays, but there's a big difference between seeing people and really connecting with them. Try to get below the surface these next few months and really connect with your “tribe”: it's good for your health, makes you happier, and may even help you live longer!12
It’s can be easy to find yourself slipping into "busy mode" as you prepare or clean up after the holidays, but the truth is, years later, you won't remember whether the dishes were done on time. But you absolutely will remember those special conversations and magical family moments.
As the temperatures continue to drop, you might try bringing hygge into your life. Simply put, hygge is the Danish cultural practice of coziness that is their secret to surviving winter. This wonderful approach to winter living is as simple as it sounds: by putting a conscious emphasis on surrendering to the weather outside and embracing the indoors with those you love most, your days can quickly become a deliciously enjoyable winter wonderland. From dim lights and candlelight to home cooked meals, a crackling fire, red wine, hot cocoa, and lots of blankets, mastering the art of hygge can soothe your soul and enrichen your relationships, making this your favorite time of year.
12. Prepare for the year to come.
"In winter I plot and plan. In spring I move." –– Henry Rollins.
Winter can be a magical time of reflection, connection with oneself, intention setting, and preparation for what lies ahead. As you start to think about the coming year, see if you can incorporate your intuition into your planning. Those gut feelings you might have been downplaying are actually literally rooted in your gut––and research shows that your gut often reacts to things that your brain can't see yet, so it's well worth paying attention to your inner voice as you start envisioning how you’d like your life to look and feel moving forward.
Whether you're the kind of person who's excited to break out your sweaters at the first change in the weather or you're anxiously awaiting the return of the sun, taking the time to really care for yourself can make a big difference in how you feel over the next few months. So give yourself the gift of total support this winter––and use these self-care tips to make sure that you feel as cared for, healthy, and happy as possible all season long.
1. Chevalier, C., Stojanovic, O. Colin, D.J., Zamboni, N. Hapfelmeier, S., Trajkovski, M. (2015). Gut Microbiota Orchestrates Energy Homeostasis During Cold. Cell, 163, 1360–1374. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2015.11.004
2. Dewhirst, F.E, Chen, T., Izard, J., Paster, B.J., Tanner, A.C.R. . . . Wade, W.G. (2010). The Human Oral Microbiome. Journal of Bacteriology, 192(19). doi: 10.1128/JB.00542-10
3. Taylor, M.S., Wheeler, B.W. White, M.P., Economou, T., Osborne, N.J. (2015). Research Note: Urban Street Tree Density and Antidepressant Prescription Rates—A Cross-sectional Study in London, UK. Landscape and Urban Planning 136. doi: 10.1016/j.landurbplan.2014.12.005
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6. Smits, S.A., Leach, J.L., Sonnenburg, E.D., Gonzalez, C.G. . . . Sonnenburg, J.L. (2017). Seasonal cycling in the gut microbiome of the Hadza hunter-gatherers of Tanzania Science, 357(6353), 802-806 doi: 10.1126/science.aan4834
7. Suzuki, T.A., Worobey, M. (2014). Geographical Variation of Human Gut Microbial Composition. Biology Letters, 10(2). doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2013.1037
8. Kenefick, R.W., Hazzard, M.P., Mahood, N.V., Castellani, J.W. (2004). Thirst Sensations and AVP Responses at Rest and During Exercise-Cold Exposure. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 36(9), 1528-34.
9. Kempton, M. J., Ettinger, U., Foster, R., Williams, S. C., Calvert, G. A., Hampshire, A., . . . Smith, M. S. (2010). Dehydration affects brain structure and function in healthy adolescents. Human Brain Mapping, 32(1), 71-79.
10. Arck, P., Handjiski, B., Hagen, E., Pincus, M. . . . Paus, R. 2010. Is There a Gut-Brain-Skin Axis? Experimental Dermatology 19. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0625.2009.01060.x
11. Roecklein, K.A., Rohan, K.J. (2005). Seasonal Affective Disorder: An Update and Overview. Psychiatry, 2(1), 20-26.
12. Cohen, S., Doyle, W. J., Turner, R. B., Alper, C. M., & Skoner, D. P. Emotional style and susceptibility to the common cold. Psychosomatic Medicine, 4, 652–657.
Rachel Allen is a writer at Hyperbiotics who's absolutely obsessed with learning about how our bodies work. She's fascinated by the latest research on bacteria and the role they play in health, and loves to help others learn about how probiotics can help the body get back in balance. For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.