By Sophia Ahmed
Idyllic tree-lightings, holiday breaks, and gently-falling snow all come along with December in New York City. But as wintertime approaches, so do exams, campus viruses, and seasonal slumps. With increasing stress and colder temperatures, late night trips to JJ’s to seek comfort food may become more frequent. As you start to fill your thermoses with coffee and hot chocolate instead of ice water, it is important to keep track of your dietary habits for both your mental and physical health. Maintaining a balanced diet that includes important vitamins and minerals is essential to bolstering cellular function and improving everyday energy and productivity during the cold winter months.
Flu season peaks in December and lasts until the end of February, making it especially important for your immune system to remain healthy throughout the winter months. One way to help strengthen your immune system is by maintaining healthy Vitamin C and zinc levels. Low Vitamin C could be due to insufficient consumption of Vitamin C-rich foods like citrus fruits or increased oxidative stress on our cells, which could be a result of sleep deprivation. Vitamin C is a common antioxidant that can improve cellular health and efficiency by lessening the buildup of free radicals in cells. During an immune response, chemicals called cytokines allow cells to communicate with each other. The presence of free radicals, extremely reactive species formed during energy-making processes, disrupts this communication. Higher Vitamin C intake decreases the amount of free radicals, thus facilitating effective cytokine communication and maintaining immune system efficiency.
Along with Vitamin C, zinc can also boost your immune system. According to researchers from Wayne State University School of Medicine, zinc helps prevent excess inflammation during an immune response. While inflammation typically occurs as part of your body’s response to a bacteria or virus, it can also exacerbate symptoms, causing a sore throat, stuffy nose, and cough. While zinc does not completely prevent such symptoms, it does mitigate excessive inflammation. Although the process by which zinc controls an immune response is not fully understood, researchers have found that zinc helps inhibit the NF-κB protein pathway, which normally induces the expression of genes that cause inflammation. So, while zinc may not be able to treat diseases, it could potentially be used to shorten their duration. If you’re looking to increase the amount of zinc in your diet, foods such as lamb, mushrooms, and cashews all have high zinc content.
Besides depleting the immune cells inside your body, winter’s effects are also evident externally in dry hair and brittle toenails. Making sure that you consume enough Vitamin E and Vitamin A can help prevent these visible effects of colder weather. A study by Dr. Paul McNeil of the Medical College of Georgia, found that the antioxidant Vitamin E helps membranes regenerate and fend against free radicals. By supporting healthier follicles, these processes stimulate hair and nail growth. Vitamin A includes the organic compounds retinal, retinol, and retinoic acid, all of which aid in skin cell production, and thus prevent drying and aging. Vitamin A becomes especially important if you find you are not drinking enough water, as proper hydration is essential for skin health. Both Vitamins A and E are fat-soluble, meaning that they can be stored in the body and are not required in large amounts. They can both be found in winter vegetables like squash and broccoli.
Maintaining your energy levels can be just as difficult as keeping your skin healthy during winter. Shorter days and a worse diet, combined with too many responsibilities, can drain your energy during the long season. Nevertheless, Vitamin D and iron supplements may be able to boost those energy levels. According to a study from Newcastle University, muscle fatigue is common among Vitamin D-deficient patients. When muscle cells containing numerous mitochondria are replenished with Vitamin D, they perform more effectively, indicating a link between vitamin D and mitochondrial function.
While it is common to hear about Vitamin D deficiency, iron deficiency is actually the most common nutritional deficiency according to the Center for Disease Control. Iron is involved in major energy generating processes, including the production of hemoglobin and red blood cells. Since iron contributes to the synthesis of hemoglobin and red blood cells, which transport oxygen, iron deficiencies interfere with oxygen delivery to vital organs. Iron rich foods, including eggs and cereals, will energize you and improve attention span and productivity.
Integrating nutritious foods like broccoli and eggs into your diet seems easy enough, but comfort foods may begin to look more attractive in the winter. If you don’t think you’re doing a good job in maintaining a balanced diet, it may be useful to take a trip to Health Services to find out if you should take any dietary supplements to help bolster immune function and energy. Maintaining healthy levels of these nutrients can help your alertness, sleep schedule, and efficiency. All of the mentioned nutrients come in a pill supplement form, with different dosages that suit a variety of needs. While the above suggestions are in no way professional recommendations, they are good metrics to keep track of your health in the winter. It’s important to maintain a balanced diet during the winter because of its role in cellular function and, more importantly, how that cellular function affects you.
Sophia is a freshman in Columbia College planning to major in sustainable development. She is a staff writer for the Columbia Science Review.