How to take care of your health this winter

Dr Paula Falconer
GP and menopause Doctor at Bupa
14 November 2019
Next review due November 2022

Cold, rainy weather and a lack of sunshine can make the winter months a tough time to stay healthy. We’re more prone to picking up bugs, and it’s harder to keep our motivation levels up to eat well and exercise when it’s cold and dark. But, don’t despair! There are lots of things you can do to take care of your health in winter.

As a GP, I see lots of people wanting to know how to keep their family and themselves well. So these are my top tips on how to make winter work better for you.

Vitamin D

You might not know this, but UK guidelines recommend that we all consider taking a vitamin D supplement in the autumn and winter months. This is because the lack of sunshine means we won’t make enough of it ourselves. And while you can get some vitamin D from certain foods, it’s not possible to get enough from diet alone. You can get vitamin D supplements directly from your pharmacy or health food shop. Ask for a daily supplement containing 10 micrograms (which is the recommended amount we need).

Medicine essentials

Good food, regular exercise and adequate sleep are some of the best medicines to keep you healthy. Try to stock up on plenty of varied vegetables, fruits and wholegrains that will boost your immune system. Get outdoors as much as you can, especially when the sun is shining, and take some regular exercise to lift your mood. Also, be sure to prioritise sleep, aiming for seven to nine hours per night.

It’s also worth stocking up on some medicine essentials to have at home. Your pharmacist can advise you on what you may need, but key medicines include the following.

  • Painkillers such as aspirin, paracetamol and ibuprofen – in case you develop a high temperature or aches and pains that can come with common winter viruses.
  • Oral rehydration sachets – if you have diarrhoea or are being sick and can’t eat. These can help replace the fluids you’re losing and prevent dehydration.
  • Medicines such as antacids – for heartburn and indigestion. If you do overindulge a bit over the festive period, symptoms such as heartburn, stomach ache, trapped wind and indigestion can arise. However, if you’re not feeling well, it’s important to seek advice from your GP.

And if you’re eligible, you can get the flu vaccine free on the NHS. If you aren’t, you can pay for it yourself.

Keep hands clean

Keeping your hands clean is something you should do all year round, but it’s especially important in the winter months when illnesses like the flu, colds and norovirus are more common. The weather makes us more likely to stay indoors and we can easily pick up germs, so it’s important to minimise spreading infection. One of the easiest and most effective ways to do this is regularly washing your hands.

These steps from the World Health Organization explain how to wash your hands properly:

  • You should wash your hands for the same amount of time it takes to sing ‘happy birthday’ twice.
  • Wet your hands and use plenty of soap and rub your hands together starting off palm to palm.
  • Move and massage your hands to make sure you get soap in between your fingers, the backs of your hands and on your palms.
  • Clean all the areas of your hands vigorously.
  • Rinse your hands with water and make sure you dry them thoroughly.
  • Wash your hands regularly, especially after using the toilet and before preparing food.
  • For times when you don’t have access to soap and water – use an alcohol-based rub – keep one in your bag or car, for example.

Feed yourself well

I’m often asked: what should I eat to stay healthy in winter? And I’d say it’s really important to eat well to keep yourself topped up with energy, vitamins and nutrients. It’s tempting to eat comforting foods but don’t neglect fruit and veg, as these help protect our bodies from illness, which is vital in winter. There are some delicious veg that come into season in the winter and are great for making soups and stews. Try a new recipe!

Stock up on some pantry foods like kidney beans, chickpeas, tinned tomatoes and sweetcorn. Also, get some frozen vegetables so that you can make a healthy meal even if time is short. I aim for at least three vegetables in every meal. Having some vegetarian or vegan meals can help boost your intake of vegetables even more.

Have lots of hot drinks to help keep you warm too, but limit your caffeine intake to no more than four cups a day (400mg). This is based on an average adult weighing 70kg, so if you’re lighter than this, you should have less caffeine. Too much caffeine can affect your sleep and energy levels.

Embrace exercise

Winter weather often gets a bad rep, especially when trying to exercise. And that’s fair enough when it’s cold and rainy outside. But there are often beautiful days too, so make the most of them and get outside when you can. Exercise is so important for both our physical and mental health, so try and do some activity every day. A winter run or a long walk can feel really good, and exercise keeps you warm! On the days when it’s not so nice outside, why not try a new exercise class, practise yoga in your living room, or a home workout routine?

Make mornings easier

Getting up and out of bed in the winter can be a struggle. To make things easier, you could try an alarm clock lamp which comes on gradually over time to wake you up naturally, mimicking the sunrise. Some people find this improves their quality of sleep and how they feel.

Set your heating to come on before you get up – no one likes to get out of a warm bed into the cold! And have a good breakfast – porridge, for example, is a warming breakfast that will give you energy.

Look after your mental wellbeing

The change in season along with the darker days and colder weather can affect our mood. We might feel a bit blue or more tired than usual. To help with this there are some things you can do every day to help give you a boost.

  • Make the most of what natural daylight there is – sit close to the window and get outside for a bit every day.
  • Mindfulness can help keep us focused on the present moment and the positives. Enjoy the crunching sound as you walk through fallen leaves or look at your footprints in the snow. Watch the dancing flames and hear the crackling of an open fire, or feel the warmth and relaxation of a hot bath to warm up.
  • Sleep is essential. Get a good night’s rest aiming for seven to nine hours per night.
  • Eat well and get some exercise – outside if possible.
  • Make time for doing things that matter to you – seeing friends and family, or spending time on your hobbies.

For people who have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), winter can be very difficult. If you feel very low, see your GP for advice.

Keep warm and cosy

Enjoy the time you spend indoors by keeping warm and comfy. Embrace the concept of Hygge, which is all about capturing a sense of living well, slowing down, being together and feeling cosy. Keep your home warm – at least 18C (65F) – and enjoy having friends over for a candle-lit supper or a movie night. Close curtains, windows and doors at night to help keep the heat in too.

With a bit of preparation, keeping active and looking after yourself, you can make winter a happy and healthy time of year.

Are you interested in learning more about your health? Discover more about our range of health assessments.

Dr Paula Falconer
Dr Paula Falconer
GP and menopause Doctor at Bupa

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