By Beth Machnica, MPH, MS, RD

Winter and its accompanying darkness occur yearly in Buffalo. It is nothing new, but can leave us feeling especially miserable. This isn’t our fault — we are simply feeling our body’s reaction to bitter cold and lack of sunshine. For some, this can lead to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression which occurs for about 4-5 months, from late fall to early summer. Ironically, this is also the peak of flu season, during which we are susceptible to being physically and mentally unwell.

Thankfully, there are things we can do to protect ourselves and help our bodies bounce back more quickly from the punches thrown at us during this time of year. Over 70% of our immune system resides in our gut, or gastrointestinal tract (GI). Our GI, including our mouth, stomach, intestines, and anus are completely vulnerable to the outside world. The GI is equipped with machinery to fight off bacteria, viruses, and other potential threats, including trillions of “good” bacteria. Often referred to as the second brain, these good bacteria bugs do a lot for our immunity and well-being if we take care of them. For example, over 95% of the body’s serotonin (a brain chemical that makes us feel happy) is created by these bugs.

Gut health is especially important in helping us to get through winter, healthily and happily. So how do you care for your gut? By using food as medicine, we can support our body’s natural ability to fight infection and help boost our mood. Whole foods are best, and your overall eating pattern is more important than any specific nutrient supplement. Research suggests that certain foods support immunity and emotional well-being more than others. Here are some tips.

Eat a variety of whole plant foods. The more diverse types of plant fibers, colors, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds we consume, the happier the trillions of bugs in our gut are, and the stronger our immunity. Aim for over 25 different plant foods per week.

Spices and herbs. Ginger and garlic have been found to stimulate the immune system and are antimicrobial. Ginger also boosts serotonin. Chop either and toss into soups, smoothies, or salads.

Protein foods. Salmon, eggs, sardines, turkey, and oysters are good sources of protein and immune-supporting nutrients such as vitamin D, omega-3’s, B6, and zinc, which boost, regulate, and promote immune cell function. Vitamin B6 also produces neurotransmitters including serotonin.

Fruits and vegetables high in vitamin C. Citrus fruits are in-season during winter. Other great sources of vitamin C are kiwi, tomatoes, red bell pepper, broccoli, and papaya. Use minimal cooking and lower temperatures to retain more vitamin C in vegetables.

Nuts and seeds high in vitamin E. Chia seeds, almonds, walnuts, and sunflower seeds are rich in vitamin E, which enhances immune system function and acts as an antioxidant. Sprinkle on oatmeal, yogurt, or a smoothie.

Beth Machnica MPH, MS, RD is a Registered Dietitian and Director of Health and Community Well-Being for the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.