Microbiologist's Tips for Winter Health

Dr Kate Stephens PhD Food and Microbial Sciences; Gut Microbiology (University of Reading), BSc Medical Microbiology

As we leave summer behind and fall into frost, it's time to start thinking about how to stay in tip-top shape across the winter season. As the resident OptiBac microbiologist, I've put together some tips to help you stay healthy and happy right the way through until we see the sun again.

Think hygiene first

There is some research to suggest that viruses can spread more easily in colder weather, so it’s important to be as hygienic as possible during these months, and washing your hands is often the easiest way to do this! If you’ve battled a cold already, be sure to change your toothbrush head and sheets to get rid of any harmful bugs which may still be lurking.

lady with a cold
Because nobody wants that ‘thing’ going around the office.

Fight the office bugs

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that the office is a breeding ground for germs, so it’s the perfect place for winter illnesses to spread. A sneeze can travel at least three metres as air droplets, so when you’re in the firing zone it’s important to be prepared and build up a defensive barrier in your gut to help fight off all of those bugs. Cleaning your desk and keyboard with wipes is a good way to stop these germs spreading, especially if you hot-desk! If possible, try and open the windows and allow some fresh air to come in. Finally, if you feel yourself coming down with something, don’t feel guilty about staying at home. You don’t want to pass it on to the whole office!

Get plenty of sleep

It’s important to stay rested and refreshed during the winter months to help keep your immune system working effectively to fight off bad bacteria. Try and get at least 7 or 8 hours of sleep if possible, even if it does mean leaving the pub a little early once in a while!

fun at the beach
Making time for the things you love most does more good than you think.

Take a deep breath and relax

The lack of sunshine can really affect your mood in the winter, so it’s important to do things that help lift your spirits and tackle stress. Looking after your wellbeing is so important, as this can also affect your immune system. I’d also suggest practicing some simple mindfulness exercises or winding down by reading a book to help you feel more relaxed.

Keep active

Exercise can not only improve your physical health but it also makes you feel good, too. Physical movement keeps your bowels moving and your immune system strong. Exercise is also a known stress reliever and can help you feel happier and healthier during the cold winter months. If it’s too chilly to exercise outside, try hitting the gym or a yoga class, which combines care for both the body and the mind!

workout at home
Set yourself some alcohol-free evenings to keep you well in winter.

Reduce your alcohol intake

Winter can be a very busy social time, with the temptation of cosy pubs and Christmas parties. An occasional glass of red wine has been shown to have certain health benefits, but drink in moderation as alcoholic drinks contain a lot of sugar. This can feed bad bacteria and make you feel even worse. If you do enjoy a couple of drinks, make sure you rehydrate with lots of water.

Stay warm and hydrated

Dress appropriately for winter. If it’s raining outside and you get drenched, it’s important to get warm…and quickly. Always bring a spare pair of socks with you to avoid wet feet giving you a chill! If it’s sunny, wrap up warm and go outside - your immune system may suffer in winter due to low vitamin D levels. We need water to regulate our body temperature and maintain many bodily functions. Keeping hydrated is essential for all aspects of health, including supporting our bodily microbiomes and immune system, ensures that we are naturally flushing out any toxins or ‘bad bugs’ and helps our digestive system to work better.

Vitamin C supports a healthy immune system
Vitamin C supports a healthy immune system.

Diet and supplements

Vitamins are important for immune function, especially vitamin C – find this in broccoli, cauliflower, kale, kiwi, orange juice, papaya, peppers, sweet potato, strawberries, and tomatoes, raw if possible. This vitamin is so important for immunity that many people take a supplement during the cold season. Vitamin D is another vitamin often deficient in winter as it is primarily produced by sun exposure. Dietary sources include oily fish, eggs, and mushrooms, though again supplements are popular in the winter months. You might also wish to try some live cultures, which can be found in fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi or kefir, or in supplement form.

Wishing you the best of health this winter!