Ever wonder why flu season and winter arrive hand-in-hand? Most viruses and bacteria thrive and definitely live longer indoors in winter, because the air indoors is less humid than outside. In a 2010 PLoS Biology paper, researchers noticed a significant link between a drop in absolute humidity in air and the onset of a flu outbreak. People are exposed to less Vitamin D as they spend more time indoors and in close proximity to each other—spreading more infections.
Charmaine D’Souza, Mumbai-based dietician and the author of The Good Health Always Cookbook, says, “our body has the innate ability to heal itself and naturopathy uses simple, natural remedies to enhance and hasten this healing process”. Naturopathy is an ancient form of alternative medicine that treats people—not merely the symptoms of a disease—by removing the primary cause of the ailment. Treatment methods include natural ingredients, acupuncture, massage therapy, exercise etc.
Winter is a time when people tend to exercise less, eat more calorie-dense foods, drink more alcohol and can become more lethargic than usual.. In the event that you do fall ill, a balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds and easily digestive meals will help speed up the recovery process—this natural nutritional supplementation is a significant part of naturopathy.
For people that are immunocompromised and prone to colds and flus, “certain foods are best avoided in the harsh winter season or at least eaten in moderation for better health and immunity”, says D’Souza. Otherwise, eating all foods in moderation will not harm you in any way. In fact they will aid in holistic mental and physical health by preventing you from feeling deprived.
Foods you should avoid or moderate in winter
1. Dairy Products: If you’re prone to wheezing, sneezing, chest congestion, allergies and other infections of the upper respiratory tract, cut back on dairy products like milk, dahi and buttermilk. According to D’Souza, these can aggravate generation of mucus in your system.
2. Ultra-processed foods: Winters mean cravings for highly processed refined food products like commercially available jams, syrups and baked goods. “These are high in sugar and depleted of natural nutrients,” says D’Souza. According to a British Medical Journal (BMJ) study, excessive intake of ultra-processed foods contributes to cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease and coronary heart disease. In another BMJ study, Neeraj Narula et al concluded that “Higher intake of ultra-processed food was positively associated with risk of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)”. Hence, it would be better to limit these items in your daily menu.
3. Alcohol: Winter months are drying in general, mostly noticeable on our skins. However, some foods and drinks can dehydrate us from the inside as well—alcohol being one of the top ones. Though a few swigs might be tempting to fight off the cold, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found people who consume excess alcohol to be one of the most at-risk demographics for hypothermia. This might be due to the fact that alcohol is a vasodilator— it dilates our blood vessels, causing more heat to flow into our periphery than our core. Intoxication makes us appear flushed, makes us sweat and reduces our ability to perceive how cold it actually is.
4. Histamine-rich foods: Seasonal allergies have a field day during the cold flu season, more so if you have indoor allergies. While there are a variety of triggers for these bouts of coughs, sneezes, watery eyes etc, they can be worsened with the increase of the chemical histamine in our systems. “Histamine-rich foods like eggs, mushrooms, yogurt and tomatoes may cause an inflammatory response in the body and precipitate further health problems in those who already have a cold or a blocked nasal passage,” says D’souza. Consuming excessive amounts of cured and processed meat, canned fish and alcohol should also be moderated.
Foods for a healthy winter diet
1. Honey: Honey is a natural sweetener and used copiously in Indian households to treat coughs, colds and sore throats—for good reason. According to D’Souza, honey speeds up healing of worn out tissues and dries up infected tissues. So, add a teaspoon in your tea, your glass of turmeric milk or just drizzle some over your morning toast.
2. Jaggery: A stand-out in Indian ceremonies and a staple in Indian winters, jaggery is another natural sweetener that D’Souza highly recommends for the colder months. A 2009 study in Food Chemistry revealed that jaggery has a cytoprotective quality. In other words, it helps clear mucus and keep our respiratory and digestive tracts clean.
3. Glutathione-rich foods: Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant found in greens like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, spinach and the red pulpy area of the watermelon next to the outer rind—to name a few. “It strengthens the immune system so that it can fight infections,” says D’Souza. It’s also found in carrots, melons, peppers etc, so make sure to shop for the rainbow for better winter health.
4. Ghee: Ghee, or clarified butter, is one of the most common kitchen items in India and has gained a lot of traction in recent years worldwide. “It is rich in antioxidants and acts as an aid in the absorption of vitamins and minerals from our food,” adds D’souza, so don’t shy away from including this healthy fat in your diet.
5. Seasonal fruits and veggies: Eating seasonally available and locally sourced fruits and vegetables in abundance, rich in Vitamin C and bioflavonoids—oranges, grapefruits, bell peppers and lemons, for example. Thus, you have a variety of warm and nourishing meal ideas at your disposal—like soups, stews, broths and shorbas made from locally sourced vegetables like carrots, potatoes, beetroots, methi, spinach, amaranth or ramdana etc. “Add ginger, garlic, cloves, elaichi and a teaspoon of butter or ghee,” recommends D’Souza.
6. Prebiotics and probiotics: Foods that contain probiotics can increase the amount of good bacteria for better gut health. Yoghurt is one of the best go-to probiotics. o for fermented foods and beverages like, pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi, black carrot kanji, kefir drinks and kombucha. Probiotics function better with the help of prebiotics, which D’souza suggests you can get from garlic, flaxseeds, onions, oats, beans, lentils and apples etc.
7. Kadhas and infusions: Last but not least, D’Souza urges that you stay well-hydrated in these dry months. A glass of warm water with lemon and honey, a cup of hot herbal tea, spice-based infusions and kadhas—they are all healthy and delicious options to quench your thirst, warm you up and keep your skin and gut happy in winter