1. Prioritise sleep – it’s something that can get neglected when we’re stressed and busy, but the impact of poor or lack of sleep extends much further than just feeling a bit sluggish and needing a large coffee to get through the next day! Low energy levels, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, increased susceptibility to illness, heightened appetite, disrupted hormones and weight gain have all been linked to poor sleep patterns. Individuals vary in their sleep needs, but most of us require between 7 and 9 hours a night.
Top tip – “nature’s tranquilliser” is the name given to the mineral magnesium to describe its relaxing properties. Magnesium is vital for the functioning of GABA, a calming chemical in the brain that enables it to switch off at night. Magnesium can be absorbed through the skin (in the form of bath oil or flakes) and is a fantastic way to unwind before bed. You can also up your dietary intake of magnesium from the following foods- green leafy vegetables (spinach, broccoli, kale, cabbage), bean, buckwheat, barley, oats, nuts and shellfish.
2. Keep hydrated- a recent study showed that a staggering 89% of us here in the UK are not drinking enough water to maintain healthy hydration levels. In fact, 13% of women, and 20% of men admitted that they drink NO water at all.Some of the most well-recognised signals of dehydration include thirst, dry mouth, mild headaches and passing dark, smelly urine. However, the importance of drinking water reaches far beyond simply avoiding these tell-tale signs. Low energy levels, fatigue, trouble concentrating, dry skin and a sluggish digestion can all occur when we allow ourselves to get dehydrated. It’s also very easy to mistake thirst for hunger, and reach for a sugary snack mid afternoon rather than a much needed bottle of water.
Top tip- are you someone who struggles with drinking enough water? Herbal teas are a fantastic way to up your fluid intake, especially during the cold winter months. Peppermint, fennel and ginger are all good options, but most importantly choose ones that you enjoy and will want to drink more of! You can also up your water intake by eating more juicy foods such as lettuce, celery, radishes, tomatoes, peppers, spinach and watermelon, all of which comprise of at least 90% water.
3. Don’t fear fat – A good intake of dietary fat plays a crucial role in our health and well-being. It provides us with a good source of energy, and forms the essential building block of every cell in the body. Fat consumption is required for the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K, and the essential fatty acids (omega 3 and omega 6) are vital for cardiovascular and brain health. Fat also improves the taste and texture of food, and is important for satiety (keeping us feeling full). It can also support the metabolism…that’s right, eating fat can help us to burn fat! Up your intake of healthy fats by incorporating the following foods into your diet; nuts, seeds, oily fish, grass-fed meat, eggs, full-fat dairy, avocados, coconut oil, organic butter and olive oil.
Top tip- there is one type of fat that should be avoided, and these are the trans-fats (labelled ‘hydrogenated fats’ or “partially hydrogenated fats”) found in deep-fried foods, processed foods and some margarines. These have no nutritional benefits, and can actually be detrimental to health.
4. Eat more plants – The world of nutrition is awash with contractions, scientific inaccuracies and vast differences of opinion. However, where no one would disagree is that eating more plants in the form of fresh fruits and vegetables is one of the most important changes you can make for better health. There is a wealth of research to support the fact that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables plays a role in reducing the risk of all the major causes of illness and death including cancers, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The suggested approach to eating for optimal health is summed up very nicely by food journalist Michael Pollan “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants”.
Top tip- we tend to think of vegetables as an accompaniment to our main meal, but there is no reason why they can’t be the main event. Aim to fill at least half your plate with vegetables, and remember the more colour the better, with each colour representing a different disease-fighting antioxidant.
5. Cut back on the caffeine– 1-2 coffees a day can boost energy and mental alertness, and the polyphenols in coffee have been shown to confer some important health benefits, including reduced risk of type-2 diabetes.However, heavy caffeine consumption (more than 2 cups a day) puts the body under stress, and can lead to anxiety, irritability and poor mental performance. On top of this, it can affect sleep, which is then likely to have a knock-on effect the next day.
Top tip- try switching your coffee for green tea, which is still caffeinated but is rich in antioxidants and L-theanine- a compound that has been shown to aid concentration and alertness. Alternatively opt for a herbal non-caffeinated tea such as Rooibos. Keep any caffeinated drinks as a morning ritual. Whilst a coffee may temporarily pick you up in your 4pm slump, it is likely to keep you up counting sheep later on.
6. Take a daily dose of vitamin D – It’s called the “sunshine vitamin”, because we naturally produce it in our skin in response to the sun’s UV rays. But for half the year from October to April, 90% of the UK lies too far north to have enough sunshine necessary to make vitamin D, and a large proportion of us are thought to be vitamin D deficient. This is significant because low vitamin D levels have been linked to various cancers, high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, immune disorders, chronic muscle pain and bone loss. Studies have also shown an association between low vitamin D levels and seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a more serious form of the winter blues. Because it is very difficult to get a significant amount of vitamin D through food, supplementation (particularly through the winter months) is recommended for many individuals.
Top tip- vitamin D supplementation should be considered by everyone, but the UK Department of Health strongly recommends it for pregnant and breastfeeding women, children under 5 and older people over 65. Those concerned about low vitamin D levels can purchase a simple home testing kit to check their levels.
7. Go for a brisk walk or jog – Exercising regularly is not just fantastic for our physical wellbeing; research has shown it’s great for mood and mental health too. Regular exercise has been proven to reduce stress, decrease feelings of anxiety & depression, boost self-esteem and improve sleep. In fact, studies have shown exercise to be as effective as medication in depressed individuals for improving mood. Employers should take note too; a study at Stockholm University found that employees devoting 2.5 of their work hours a week to exercise got as much done with their time as those employees who did not work out in their regular hours. In addition, they were absent from work through sickness less, and self-assessed their productivity as higher.
Top tip– for added motivation, and a bit of healthy rivalry, you can set yourself weekly step targets and compete against friends and family!