Five Tips for Winter Health

Dr. Tieraona Low Dog

One of the most common questions that health care practitioners get is how to proactively fortify one's health against winter viruses. Below are my favorite five tips.

— Tieraona Low Dog, M.D.

Up on our mountain, we are now deep in winter, we’ve had multiple snows falls, and many mornings we wake up under 5 °F. Life shifts. With the reduced hours of sunlight and cold temperatures, we are less active than we are in warmer weather. This year has been particularly difficult to keep our social network strong. With “stay at home” orders and limited travel and gathering, I’ve spoken to many people really struggling with the isolation. The pandemic has generated a great deal of fear, which itself takes a huge toll on our mental health, as well as the extended periods of darkness.

1. Embrace the Stillness

During the warmer months, I spend most of my days outdoors working in the garden, hiking with my dogs, and riding horses. It’s a blissful time, but also very busy! In the mountains, our dark and frigid winter days definitely cause us to slow down. My mornings start early with a cup of tea and a book. I am reading Pema Chodron’s The Places that Scare You right now. Then it’s up and out of bed to tend to the horses and chickens with the dogs. The morning routine is a welcome ritual.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate the winter. To embrace the opportunity for stillness and introspection; a chance to be mindful. This year has proved more challenging, though, so I decided to sign up for a 90 day “Commit to Sit” online course with the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care. There is a daily email for reflection and a weekly lecture recorded so I can watch it wherever I want. I am on Day 17 and enjoying it. A commitment to meditate, reflect, and journal feels deeply nourishing right now. The Zen Center has another course starting, called Living Fearlessly, and other online courses that might be of interest to you if you are looking to embrace your inner stillness.

2. Keep Your Diet “Rooted” in Winter

I believe that our diet should reflect, to some extent, the season. During winter, I naturally gravitate to more root vegetables, adding generous amounts of onions, carrots, sweet potatoes, beets, and garlic to soups and stews. If you’re looking for some inspiration, Bon Appetit has 89 fabulous root veggie recipes you can explore! While I cook with herbs and spices year-round, I am unquestionably more generous with shaved ginger, fresh turmeric, red chili flakes, cinnamon, cloves, cumin, and cardamom. These spices, along with onions and garlic, are rich in antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial compounds. Our meals are also “heavier” than our summer fare – with more fat and oils to help maintain our inner warmth. Load up on ghee, avocados, and generous amounts of olive oil. If you are looking for an olive oil to blend with your balsamic vinegar to put over your root salad, check out the 2020 Olive Oil winners.

3. Take Your Supplements

I am convinced that during the winter season, especially with a year like we’ve had, it is absolutely imperative to ensure that you are getting the nutrients you need to maintain optimal immune health. I know from testing my own vitamin D levels that without supplementation, my levels are around 50-55 ng/mL in July (great) and fall to the low 20s by November (not so great). I take 2000 IU vitamin D3 with my evening meal and get another 1000 IU in my multivitamin. My multivitamin provides me with vitamins A, C, E, as well as zinc. All important for immune support. I keep extra vitamin C, zinc lozenges, elderberry syrup, as well as some immune specific products in case I feel like I’m coming down with something. I also take magnesium year-round for migraine prophylaxis.

4. Explore Your Environment

Even the most avid outdoor enthusiast may balk at being outside during harsh winters, but it’s well worth the effort. I live deep in the forest, and our evergreens are breathtaking in the snow. Our aspens delight me with their bare branches. I see the tracks of deer and squirrels and rabbits. And though at first, it seems quiet and still, I hear the squawk of the blue jays, the gurgling of the ravens, and the gobbles of our turkeys as they roam the meadow. My son lives in Washington DC and loves wandering through Rock Creek State Park, proving that there are places of Nature even in the largest of cities! With all the social distancing in place – parks, forests, lakes, and other outdoor places can open your senses, lift your mood while also letting you get some much-needed exercise.

For those of you who are always cold, check out these tips on how to dress for cold weather from REI. Once you figure out the right combination of layers and fabrics, you’ll be good to go. There’s no such thing as “too cold” (well, maybe!) when you’re dressed appropriately!

5. Stock Your Medicine Chest

I live a long way from a decent grocery store and just as far from a pharmacy, so ensuring we have appropriate medicines on hand is essential. While you’ll find ibuprofen and acetaminophen in our medicine chest, almost everything else is herbal. Use as directed by the manufacturer.

  • Echinacea Herb and/or Root (Echinacea spp) Echinacea has been shown to rev up the immune system, allowing the body to more rapidly and efficiently eliminate viral and bacterial infections (especially within 72 hours of taking the herb). I prefer tincture and use it generously at the first sign of a sniffle.
  • Elderberries (Sambucus nigra) Black elderberry has a long history of use for treating and preventing colds, and several studies in humans have shown that it reduces the severity and duration of influenza. Available in syrups, lozenges, and gummies – it’s good to keep some around the house. Pleasant and safe for children.
  • Andrographis Herb (Andrographis paniculata) Known as the King of Bitters, andrographis has been well studied for its beneficial effects on colds and flu. Interestingly, the Thai government has conducted several small studies using andrographis extract for managing Covid-19 and has approved it as a “safe, effective, less costly treatment alternative and can reduce inflammation.” Herbalgram has a great write-up about this fascinating herb’s history and science, including this recent government approval. While its efficacy in Covid-19 needs closer examination, there is no doubt in my mind that it is beneficial for viral upper respiratory infections and flu.

In addition to these three mainstays, I keep a variety of herbal teas in the cupboard. Organic Ginger, Yogi Egyptian Licorice, Traditional Medicinals Throat Coat, and Gypsy Cold Care. A warm cup of tea with just a dab of honey…simply perfect for a cold winter day.

Shining In The Darkness

I pray that you and your loved ones will be safe and healthy during this winter season. For those of you who are struggling, my thoughts are with you, and I hope you will reach out to a friend, a loved one, or a counselor for support. For in the darkest of nights, there is the promise of a new day and a new beginning. We will all get through this, together.

From My Home to Yours,