Getting ill and struggling with self-care right now isn't really surprising. Many of us have spent a year or so away from the kinds of things that typically spread colds and flu: packed commuter trains, messy nights out, kissing strangers, heading into work when you're feeling under the weather because "it’s just a cold". That’s also where getting better can be tricky – working from home (for all its benefits) has bred a culture of working through the very worst, disregarding your hours and forgetting to take a lunch break, all because there's no need to get up from the sofa.
Now that life is picking up and temperatures are falling, there’s no better time to readdress our winter self-care rituals. Read on for Refinery29's guide to looking after yourself during cold and flu season, from the best vitamins, supplements and sleep routines to hydrating skincare and bath treats.
How to boost your immune system in the winter
We all know that a combination of healthy eating, exercise, sleep and relaxation is the best way to boost your immune system. A rich, varied and colourful diet of fruit and vegetables does wonders for the body and soul but we can always use a helping hand, especially as our lives get busy again.
Lola Biggs, dietician at natural supplement brand Together Health, suggests adding health supplements and vitamins that blend vitamin C, zinc and selenium into your routine, like the Immune capsules, £11.99. “Vitamin C helps fight off free radicals that can weaken the immunity and zinc helps control and regulate immune responses,” she explains. “Selenium is an antioxidant that helps lower oxidative stress in the body, which reduces inflammation and strengthens the immunity.” Also try Botanycl’s Plant-Based Vitamin C, £17.95, which is 100% naturally derived from a blend of acerola cherry, rosehip and camu camu berries, and Solgar’s Ester-C Plus Tablets, £35.26, which are free from salt, sugar and starch.
The best vitamin C supplements
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Lola also recommends juicing and soups as quick and easy ways to get your daily vitamins in one hit. “For smoothies, think beetroot, carrot, apple, ginger, orange and turmeric,” she notes. For soups, she recommends sweet potato (a source of vitamins C and A), button mushrooms (vitamin B and selenium), broccoli and spinach (vitamin C, potassium, magnesium and iron). No time or energy to cook? Consider a quick fix of supplement powder. KIKI Health's Organic Nature's Living Superfood, £7, is packed with cold-pressed green foods. Simply mix into your water or juice, or sprinkle over your breakfast porridge every day.
Besides vitamin C, Lola says vitamin D is a winter wellness must. “We get vitamin D through sunshine and that strengthens our immune system. A lack of this during the winter months means our vitamin D levels dip, leaving us more susceptible to colds and flu,” she explains. “Dietary wise, I’d suggest eating more oily, fatty fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel. Egg yolks are another good source as they are full of vitamins and minerals.” From September to April, she notes, the NHS recommends adding a supplement to your diet. For vegans especially, incorporating Together’s Vitamin D3 tablets, £6.99, or Botanycl’s Vegan Vitamin D3, £28.95 for a four-month subscription, into your morning routine can do wonders. Not a fan of pills? There’s also The Nue Co.’s Vitamin D spray, £15, or Solgar’s Vitamin D3 Liquid Complex, £13.
The best vitamin D supplements
How to fight SAD in winter
A lack of vitamin D and sunshine during winter doesn't just impact our immune systems, it can also cause seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Symptoms include a persistent low mood, lack of motivation and energy, irritability, feelings of despair and unworthiness, and lethargy. According to a survey by YouGov and The Weather Channel, up to 29% of British adults are affected.
Nutritionists recommend oily, fatty foods and dark, leafy greens to combat SAD but for those who need an extra boost of energy, a SAD lamp can be a lifesaver once the clocks go back.
SAD lamps replace some of the sun that we miss during the winter. They work by sending daylight-spectrum light to the brain’s neurotransmitters, balancing out the production of melatonin (the sleep-control hormone) and serotonin (the mood-boosting hormone), which becomes disrupted by the lack of sunlight. This corrects the cause of SAD and helps the body get back on track.
The best SAD lamps
If you're an early riser, Philips' Wake Up Light, £90.20, and Lumie's Bodyclock Glow 150, £84.99, will gently wake you up, gradually filling your bedroom with light and soothing sounds. During the day, our favourite SAD lamps – Beurer's TL45 Perfect Day Daylight Table Lamp, £84.99; Lumie's Desk Lamp, £144; Osalis' Energy Light Box, £41.66 – will fight off the afternoon slump. They're a vital addition for anyone who has hit their WFH wall.
How to improve your sleep
Key to boosting your immunity is getting plenty of sleep. But not just any sleep. Truly restful sleep, the kind that allows your body and mind to relax and focus your energy on fighting off illness. Samantha Briscoe, lead clinical physiologist at London Bridge Hospital’s Sleep & Respiratory Services, says that sleep helps our bodies produce important proteins. “When we sleep, our bodies release cytokines, which ultimately tell our immune system what to do,” she explains. “These small proteins are vital in the control and growth of the cells that make up our body’s natural defences.” Lack of sleep can also affect our ability to fight infections when we do get ill, she continues. “When we sleep, there is less of the stress hormone cortisol in our system, which is what allows our immune system to detect and fight infections.”
Lola acknowledges that it can be difficult to sleep at the moment. “With the clocks changing in October, darker nights drawing in, less daylight hours and higher amounts of anxiety and stress post-pandemic, it can be very difficult to switch off and relax,” she says. “Research shows that magnesium can have a relaxing effect on the brain and body, which may help improve sleep quality. This may be partly due to its ability to regulate melatonin production and increase levels of gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is a brain messenger with calming effects,” she explains. Magnesium-rich foods that Lola recommends include almonds, walnuts and oily fish, the latter of which contains amino acid tryptophan, something our brains use to synthesise the sleep hormone melatonin. Taking a magnesium supplement before bed could also help.
The best sleep supplements with magnesium
How else can I build a good sleep routine?
According to Samantha, there isn't one easy way to improve your sleep. “A good sleep routine can look different for everyone so it’s important to find what works for you and to stick to that,” she advises. “Try not to overwhelm yourself with too many changes at once when it comes to your nighttime routine. Start with small changes to work yourself towards healthier sleep habits.” Some things she suggests considering include regular sleep times (so as not to disrupt your circadian rhythm) and creating a relaxing sleep environment. Try to avoid devices for about an hour before bedtime to let your brain wind down. Minimising distractions in your bedroom (such as removing your TV and laptop) may also help.
What if I need more help getting to sleep?
For those who need a little extra boost in the sleep department, there’s a wealth of products out there which promise to soothe stressed out minds and contribute to a restful night. As someone who suffers from stress-related insomnia and sometimes needs a little more than a magnesium supplement to send me off, I swear by a tried-and-tested combination of a weighted blanket and aromatherapy oil. My favourite weighted blanket is Mela’s Luxe Cotton Knit Weighted Blanket, £275, which uses deep pressure therapy to calm the nervous system, prompting a release of dopamine and serotonin (the feel good hormones) and a decrease of cortisol (the stress hormone).
The best weighted blankets
On the nights when my Mela blanket proves too heavy, I opt instead for Bedfolk's Cotton Quilt, £169 – it's super soft to the touch and feels really luxurious to snuggle up under. I’ve also found that an hour or two lying on the HigherDOSE Infrared PEMF Go Mat, £495, can do wonders for relaxing the body and encouraging sleep.
Samantha recognises how helpful sleep products can be. “The key to a good sleep routine is feeling comfortable, relaxed and ultimately sleepy enough to drift off,” she says. “I would advise against using any products that have chemical fragrances listed in the ingredients. These fragrances are commonly found in sleep candles and sprays, and can damage our respiratory systems, cause headaches and prevent sleep.”
For chemical-free sleep aids, we love Tisserand’s Sleep Better Massage & Body Oil, £12 (made with a mix of sesame, jojoba and lavender oils), Drowsy’s Sleep S.O.S Essential Oil Blend, £15.85 (with vetiver, ylang ylang, wild lavender, bergamot and cedarwood), and Echor’s End of Day Pillow Spray, £14.99 (lavender, geranium, eucalyptus and sweet orange). Looking to create a truly relaxing atmosphere? Tisserand, Drowsy and Echor also offer candles with their sleep aromas. Light one in the hour or so before bed to relax into the evening.
Best sleep aromatherapy oils, sprays and candles
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Whichever sleep aid you opt for, Samantha urges caution. Candles must never be left unattended or allowed to burn overnight, and she would only ever use oils in moderation. “If you’re struggling to sleep over a long period of time, it might be your body’s way of telling you that something is out of balance,” she explains. “It’s always advised to seek a medical professional’s help.”
How to create the perfect winter self-care routine
Finally, making time for self-care shouldn't be underestimated. That might be a dedicated duvet day, curling up in the comfiest loungewear or running an extra decadent bath complete with candles, bath salts, a glass of wine and a Julia Roberts rom-com.
The best (and most indulgent) bath treats
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The most soothing and hydrating skincare for winter
Come winter, only the most gentle, soothing and hydrating skincare will do to tackle the effects of cold weather and aggressive central heating. Here are our skincare favourites for a truly decadent night in.
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