Between the holidays and seasonal weather challenges, winter can be a stressful time. We are busy, tired and constantly bombarded with attacks on our immune systems. But there are some simple things you can do to decrease your stress response, lift your mood and create more energy during the winter season.

The first step in staying healthy and happy no matter what the weather outside is like is to decrease your risk for fatigue and immune troubles. Energy fluctuations are exasperated by stimulants such as caffeine, sugar and alcohol, and by foods high in simple sugars such as simple carbohydrates (cookies, non-whole wheat products, white rice). These foods will initially increase your blood sugar and give you energy, but when your blood sugar drops soon after, the result is fatigue and mood swings. Skipping sugary snacks and simple carbohydrates is important not only because of their effects on the blood sugar but also because they depress the immune system, decreasing your ability to fight off infection.

The key to winter health is proper nutrition. Your body needs a consistent intake of nutrients as fuel to function properly, to support your immune system and to create neurotransmitters and hormones. Meals that have a lot of nutrients and low caloric value are best so that your proportions stay in proportion.

Whole Grains and Beans
Whole grains and beans are packed with nutrients, including B vitamins, folate, magnesium, iron, zinc and fiber. These foods are also a rich in the amino acid tryptophan, which converts into the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin is responsible for the sensations of fullness and satisfaction, as well as relaxation and sleep regulation through its conversion to melatonin. Look for breads and cereals that contain five or more grams of fiber, and enjoy quinoa, split pea soup or whole beans. 1 ounce of bread or 1 cup is a serving, and six to nine servings are recommended daily.
Vegetables
All vegetables are healthy and nutritious. Grab up to five servings a day with lots of color and variety. Dark leafy-green vegetables in particular are high in folic acid and vitamin C, and also in B6 and magnesium, which are needed for the synthesis of serotonin. One cup of raw vegetables or a half-cup of cooked vegetables equal one serving.

Fruit
Most fruits are rich fiber and in the antioxidant vitamin C, which plays a role in fighting stress by decreasing free radicals. Free radicals decrease your immune system and put you at risk for disease. A serving of fruit is one cup. Try fruit with protein-rich cottage cheese, peanut butter or yogurt which will balance your meal.

Protein
Animal protein, soy and nuts contain zinc, iron and B vitamins, which also help stabilize your mood. Skinless, boneless and lean cuts of meat are recommended to minimize saturated-fat intake. Eat at least one 3-ounce serving of protein daily, or up to 9 ounces.

Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats
Oil and fat are necessary for proper body function, including the immune system and mood. Avoid trans and hydrogenated fats and oils, and instead get your fats from unrefined vegetable oils, avocados, whole grains, nut and seed oils and cold-water fish. Six to eight nuts, 1 tablespoon of oil or nut butter, or 3 ounces of salmon equal a serving. Three healthy fat servings a day are recommended.

Hydration
It may surprise you, but the recommended amount of water to ingest daily is half of your body weight in ounces. If you are 160 pounds you need 80 ounces of water (10 glasses) to keep your metabolism revved and your immune system functioning properly. Herbal teas can be substitute for water, but not coffee, black or green tea or juice. Staying hydrated will keep you energized, healthy and happy.

Eating healthy is important any time of year, but especially during the doldrums of winter. Always remember though, to be kind to yourself. If you overindulge or fall off the nutrition wagon, don’t stress out; drink a glass of water and get right back on the “healthy you” track.