Shorter days mean that summer has come to an end, and we're moving into autumn and winter. Less daylight doesn't just impact the outside world. As days grow shorter, you may notice differences in your mood and health. Fortunately, you can take steps to promote well-being during the seasonal shift. Read on to find out about the link between seasonal changes, stress, and the immune system and to discover some autumn and winter health tips.
When Do the Days Start Getting Shorter?
Although you may not notice the effects, days begin growing shorter at the start of the summer solstice between June 20 and 23. Once that day passes, each day is a little shorter. You usually don't begin to see dramatic changes in daylight until late September or early October. Days continue to shorten until the winter solstice between December 20 and 23.
Sun & Vitamin D
One of the main reasons that shorter days affect your health and well-being is because of vitamin D. Your body can produce this essential nutrient when exposed to adequate sunlight. Shorter days mean less time for you to get that much-needed sun. In turn, your body manufactures less vitamin D.
Vitamin D Deficiency Effects
Vitamin D benefits your bones, muscles, and nervous system. If you don't get enough of the vitamin, you may experience:
- Bone pain
- Muscle weakness
Because vitamin D is also necessary for immune system function, you may be more susceptible to the bacteria and viruses that cause colds and the flu if you don't get enough of the vitamin.
How To Get Vitamin D in Winter
One simple way to get vitamin D is to add a supplement to your diet. Vitamin D supplements are available in many forms. Typically, experts recommend that adults aged 19 to 70 get 15 micrograms or 600 IUs of vitamin D daily. Because they are more at risk for a deficiency, people over 71 years typically need around 20 micrograms or 800 IUs of vitamin D daily. However, it is possible that these amounts are not enough in many individuals because of health status or for other reasons that increase your body’s need for vitamin D. The best way to determine your vitamin D requirement is to request a blood test for vitamin D levels. Based on these results, your doctor can recommend the correct dose of vitamin D for your needs. When supplementing with vitamin D, make sure to choose a product that contains vitamin D3, or cholecalciferol. This form of vitamin D is the one that is best utilized by the body.
Eating foods rich in vitamin D or foods fortified with the vitamin can also help reduce your risk of deficiency. Some foods to add to your diet include:
- Canned salmon
- Fortified cereal
- Fortified eggs
- Fortified orange juice
- Fortified yogurt
Be aware, however, that many fortified foods are highly processed and contain added sugars. These foods can do more harm than good for immune function; therefore, being mindful of this when choosing foods rich in vitamin D is important.
Cold & Flu Season and Winter Health Concerns
The winter months also bring cold and flu season. Although the viruses that cause these illnesses spread throughout the year, you're more likely to come in contact with them in the fall and winter because more people spend time indoors when the colder weather arrives. Wearing cloth masks, washing your hands often, and routinely sanitizing frequently touched surfaces and objects can reduce your risk of getting sick. Despite your best efforts, you may still be exposed to the viruses that cause colds and the flu. Keeping your immune system strong can boost your body's natural defenses against those unavoidable germs.
When Is Cold and Flu Season?
Flu season changes from year to year. Most often, it begins in October or November and ends in March. Depending on the start and severity of illnesses, the season generally peaks between December and February.
How Does Stress Affect the Immune System?
The American Psychological Association warns that stress can hinder your immune system. When you go through periods of prolonged stress, your body releases natural chemicals to help defend you from perceived threats. These chemicals may disrupt natural immune system function. Taking steps to reduce stress can help you promote healthy immune activity. Some forms of natural stress relief include:
- Deep breathing
- Engaging in hobbies that you enjoy
- Sharing your feelings with friends and family
- Taking quiet timeouts to relax and reflect
- Talk therapy or psychotherapy
- Warm baths
How to Boost Your Immune System During Winter
In addition to taking steps to reduce stress, the following can help you support your immune system throughout the winter:
- Exercise regularly. Just 30 minutes of exercise per day can go a long way toward strengthening your immune system naturally.
- Quit smoking. If you're a smoker, immune system support is another reason to kick the habit.
- Increase your sleep. A lack of sleep can lead to poor immune function. The CDC recommends that adults get around 7 hours of sleep every night.
- Eat a well-balanced diet. Fill your plate with various fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats to give your immune system the fuel it needs.
- Get vaccinated. The flu vaccine can help your immune system fight off influenza. Ask your doctor if you might benefit from any additional vaccines.
- Try a supplement. The right supplements may help support immune function. Helpful supplemental nutrients for immune health include vitamin D3, zinc, antioxidant-rich elderberries, and beta-glucans, all of which have been shown to promote immunity.