5 Ways to Tackle Tiredness this Winter and How You Can Support Your Immune System
Why does it seem to be that we feel more tired in winter? In this blog I uncover some of the reasons and take you through a few strategies to help you tackle tiredness which at the same time will help look after your immune system and keep you in good health. If you are someone who is struggling with fatigue and finds it difficult to get out of bed, especially in winter, or you end up on the sofa feeling completely exhausted by 3 o’clock, then hopefully you will find some solutions here that will help tackle tiredness this winter.
"less daylight ... can impact on our circadian rhythm .. making us feel like we need more sleep"
There is plenty of evidence that if we have an underlying infection our body pushes us into rest mode by making us feel like curling up on the sofa. This behaviour allows our immune system the chance to put up a fight through creation of an inflammatory response and helps us recover. There is a lot of research demonstrating the link between non-infectious types of inflammation in our body and fatigue, and evidence suggests that inflammation plays a role in conditions such as chronic fatigue and burnout. In winter there are other reasons why we might feel more tired too. For one thing there is less day light which can impact on our circadian rhythm, our 24 hour body clock, making us feel like we need more sleep. The lack of daylight also alters our body’s hormone regulation leading to us feeling more depressed and down as well as tired. If you suffer from chronic fatigue or burnout some people find that winter can make it worse as the lack of daylight changes impacts on our body clock even more strongly and this can have a knock effect on our mood making us feel down. In addition to this there is a seasonal risk of infections which can add an extra load to a body that is already struggling to cope. The good news is that there are strategies we can use to combat some of these problems including ways to improve our sleep, boost our access to daylight, spend time outside, do some exercise (even if only very gentle), take time to rest and relax and make sure we eat the right foods. All these things, especially when done together, create a synergistic effect, where the sum effect is greater than the total of the individual effects, and help to give us energy and boost our immune system.
"inflammation ... causes our immune system to tell us to engage in sickness behaviours"
It is now well accepted that inflammation is the underlying factor that causes our immune system to tell us to engage in ‘sickness’ behaviours which might include a fever, fatigue, low mood, aching joints or muscles. For most of us this sickness behaviour is short lived, and we fight off the infection that caused it. Researchers now believe that chronic fatigue syndrome itself may be due to low levels of inflammation that result in changes to our hormone balance, energy metabolism and the immune system, although research is still in its infancy. Burnout is also associated with raised inflammation levels. However, this suggests that an anti-inflammatory approach to diet and lifestyle would seem worth considering as a long term strategy for recovery.
"our biological clock signals to us that we should go to bed earlier"
Back to those winter nights! There is evidence that our internal body clock is attuned to the natural rise and setting of the sun and it changes as the winter nights draw in. Reduced exposure to daytime sunshine and increased exposure to manmade light in the evenings disrupts our circadian rhythm and sleep cycles. Our biological clock signals to us that we should go to bed earlier and our sleep hormone melatonin adapts to expand the length of our biological night as we head into winter. When we live surrounded by artificial light this reduces our body’s ability to naturally adapt to the changing season and pushes back the beginning of our natural night-time in winter. For some people this disruption to our sleep signalling can lead to feelings of depression and the condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which is more common in the northerly latitudes, including the UK. Research has discovered that a proportion of people with chronic fatigue syndrome also show seasonal variation in their symptoms, resembling those of SAD, finding their condition more problematic over winter.
"LED lights have been shown to interfere with sleep"
Artificial light has found to be a particular problem in the couple of hours prior to bedtime and with many of us using LED screens such as mobile phones, tablets and e-readers even as we get ready to sleep this is becoming a big problem. LED lights have been shown to interfere with sleep and our biological processes, such as the secretion of our sleep hormone melatonin, resulting in reduced sleep, more problems getting to sleep and shorter sleep duration. There are solutions to help resolve this including avoiding late night LED screens, turning on our phone night-time settings or wear blue light blocking glasses. Any of these will help to give our body the right signals that it is time to sleep and help us to get the most restful and long duration sleep possible.
So onto the solutions and things you can try yourself. Here are my top 5 Ways to Tackle Tiredness this Winter:
To optimise your sleep think about having a bedtime routine that starts a couple of hours before bedtime. Make sure you have finished your evening meal at least two hours prior to your bedtime and perhaps have a cup of relaxing herbal tea like lemon balm. Turn your screens off or switch them to night-time mode. Do something relaxing like reading a book or listening to music. When you go to bed make sure the room is cool and you will not overheat, sometimes using a lighter duvet with a couple of blankets that you can adjust is a better solution than a thick duvet. When you are ready to sleep spend a couple of moments thinking of three things you were grateful for today. The lie on your back and take three deep breaths through your nose allowing your tummy to move towards the ceiling which activates your diaphragm and helps your nervous system move into rest mode.
2. Bright Light Therapy
If you think you might suffer from SAD, then seek out the advice of your GP and perhaps consider trying a SAD lamp. Research has found that for patients with SAD using a lamp first thing in the morning at a power of 10,000 lux for 2 to 4 weeks is sufficient to help reset their biological rhythm which can then be continued through winter smaller maintenance doses of light. Light therapy has been used successfully with chronic fatigue patients who have difficulty falling asleep and those who have difficulty awakening in the morning.
3. Anti-inflammatory foods
Pack a punch with the impact of your food on any inflammation in your body and fill your plate with colourful fruits and vegetables. Try to eat a rainbow at every meal so you are getting the benefits from polyphenols in plant foods which are very anti-inflammatory. Eat oily fish at least twice a week (Sardines, Mackerel, Anchovies, Salmon and Herring) or if you are a vegetarian or vegan you can supplement your diet with an algae omega-3 supplement.
Stress puts continued strain on our emotional and physical health and constant chronic stress can result in inflammation which we want to try and avoid. So taking time to build in relaxing and restorative time in our day helps our bodies to rest and recover from stress. Try to include a little time each day doing something you love and that will bring you joy and make you feel calm and relaxed. Talk a walk in a forest or park, have coffee with a good friend, read a book, use a mindfulness app, or have a relaxing warm bath are all good destressing activities.
5. Support Your Immune System
Last, but not least, you want to keep your immune system healthy over winter to avoid adding infections to the possible causes of inflammation and the resulting tiredness that they bring with them. Sleeping and eating well, taking time to relax and rest are all good for your immune system but there are a few key nutrients that you might want to help support your immune system with. Top of the list is vitamin D which helps keep our cell structure healthy which is important to fight off viruses (you can read more about vitamin D in this blog). You will need to buy vitamin D as a supplement as it is difficult to get enough from the diet alone and in the UK we can’t make enough in our bodies between October and March as we do not get sufficient sunlight exposure this far north in winter. In addition you want to ensure you are getting a good quantity of vitamin C and zinc in your diet, both are key nutrients for enhancing and regulating the activity of our immune system. You can find vitamin C in red peppers, citrus fruits, kiwi fruits and green leafy vegetables such as broccoli. Zinc can be found in beef, crab, pork, chicken, baked beans, pumpkin seeds, and cashew nuts. Protein is needed to build the cells of our immune system and so is sometimes known as the building blocks of life. For optimum immune health you need to make sure you are getting a good intake of protein from meat, fish, nuts, seeds, beans, and lentils, ideally eating a portion with every meal.
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