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Tips on mental and physical wellness during winter, including herbal/natural remedies and immune system support.
Shorter days and colder temps mean more time indoors, slowing down into a sort of hibernation. Hibernation doesn't mean a full pause, but rather a time of increased reflection, gentler activities and more rest. As we slow down, it's important for us to spend a little extra time nourishing our minds and bodies, especially our immune systems. We talked to Dr. Kat Bodden about mental and physical wellness during the winter months, and we're excited to share this interview with you. Kat shares in-depth expert tips about the most common deficiencies during winter, the link between gut health and mental health, and herbal/natural remedies to support you during this season.
Kat Bodden (she/her) is a Naturopathic Doctor in Portland, OR who specializes in gastrointestinal health, chronic fatigue, and detoxification. Her individualized wellness programs address the root cause of disease and empower clients to take control of their health.
**Links to blogs mentioned in the question about "herbal/natural remedies for supporting your immune system" are here.
Vitamin D and zinc are the two most common deficiencies that people experience during the winter months. Vitamin D deficiency is especially common the further you get from the equator, where the days (and hours of sunlight) get much shorter during winter. Zinc deficiency is also common, and this is important to focus on during the winter months to boost your immune system.
If you live in the northern states of the U.S., this is especially important for you! During winter months, there are not enough hours of direct sunlight to get sufficient vitamin D, even if you spent your whole day outside. I recommend getting your vitamin D levels tested first, to know what daily amount you should be taking. It’s important to note that “conventional” vitamin D deficiency is based on a level much lower than what is actually needed for optimal status. Make sure to take vitamin D supplements with food so that your body can absorb it, since vitamin D is fat soluble. Another way to get vitamin D is through food sources, such as mushrooms, fatty fish (salmon or trout) and egg yolks.
Zinc activates certain immune cells, so a zinc deficiency puts you at an increased risk of infections. For zinc supplements, I recommend zinc picolinate, and make sure to take it with food to avoid any nausea. (*It’s important to note that long-term excessive zinc consumption can cause other imbalances in your body, so make sure to consult your health-care provider to determine how long you should take supplements before giving your body a break.*) You can also find zinc in food sources, including pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, cashews, oysters and dark meat of chicken.
Some of the most common reasons for a weakened immune system are insufficient amount of sleep, inflammatory foods, lack of a mindfulness/meditation practice, stress and lack of physical activity. All of these cause stress on the body, and more stress means more cortisol being produced in your body. Cortisol suppresses the immune system, which is why focusing on ways to reduce stress in your life is so important, especially during cold/flu season and the winter months.
One of the most accessible ways to support your body naturally is to make sure that you are drinking enough water each day (you should be drinking at least half of your body weight in fluid ounces). Daily movement is also important, and this doesn’t have to be an intense or long workout - it could be going on a short walk or doing yoga/light stretching. Reducing alcohol intake allows your immune system to function at a higher level as well. Another essential but underrated factor is seeking joy and connection, whether this is through finding a hobby that brings you joy, joining a support group or seeking connection with friends more often.
One remedy that I recommend to many of my clients and friends is “warming sock therapy.” This is a natural (and free) way to stimulate your immune system and help reduce head congestion/inflammation, so that your immune system can work more efficiently. Two drinks that I recommend to support your immune system are fire cider and Cistus tea. I offer resources for both of these on my blog, which is linked at the top of this interview.
One factor that is often overlooked when focusing on mental health support, is the connection between mental health and the microbiome + gut health. 90% of serotonin is made in the gut, so it’s important to focus on the microbiome when addressing mental health concerns. Serotonin is a hormone which regulates your mood, happiness and well-being. Low levels of serotonin cause depression and anxiety. First, it’s important to determine why your body is not making enough serotonin in the first place. Since 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut, this is a good place to start. Diet choices can shift the microbiome within 24 hours, so it’s important to discuss your diet with your healthcare provider, to find a diet that supports your microbiome. It’s also important to check for any hidden infections in the gut, to make sure that you’re actually absorbing food/nutrients. Lastly, consider taking probiotics to create a healthy microbiome in your gut. By feeding your microbiome with healthy bacteria, you are supporting your gut to produce more serotonin.
Most importantly, it is important to look for a healthcare provider who looks at you as more than a symptom, but rather holistically as a whole person. Look for a naturopathic doctor in your area, preferably someone who offers a free discovery call so that you can decide if it feels like a good fit. You can reach out to your insurance company for a list of doctors in your area that accept your insurance, or search on an online provider database (I recommend Kensho Health). If you can’t find a naturopathic doctor who is covered under your insurance, I recommend looking for a doctor who offers a “sliding scale” which means that you pay what you can within a price range. This system allows people who can afford to pay a higher price to cover part of the cost for people who pay the minimum price.