13 Challenges That Will Have You Feeling Happy, Healthy And Energized This Winter
This month on my social media pages, I introduced the November Wellness Challenge! The purpose of this challenge was to encourage daily practices in all of us to help fight the most common negative effects of winter: Feeling tired, getting sick easily and feeling low or depressed. In order to stay energized and healthy in November, and the coming winter months, my followers and I made a promise to stay on top of a healthy routine. One that nourishes our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual self.
Each task was aimed at being 20 minutes or less and having both mental and physical benefits. The goal was to add each new wellness challenge daily and stick to it for the entire month, unless otherwise specified. Below are the 10 challenges we tackled this month. If you suffer from anxiety, hormonal issues, frequent colds, or are feeling wired and stressed-out or depressed, I encourage you to jump on the November Wellness Challenge bandwagon since it is an excellent way to reboot and recharge! I have also added a few BONUS CHALLENGES at the end, exclusive to this email list!
1. GET TO BED BY 10 PM
We started off the challenge with the single most important thing you can do for your mind and body: GET TO BED! Ideally, get to bed by 10pm. Why? We get our deepest, most rejuvenating sleep between 10pm and 2am. Our sleep cycle is governed by the Pineal Gland, a tiny pine cone-shaped structure that lies deep within the brain. As the sun sets, the pineal gland is able to sense the change in light and begins to secrete hormone, melatonin, to prepare your body for sleep. Melatonin begins it's slow and steady incline 1-2 hrs after the sun has set, and is in full force by 10pm, reaching it's peak and steady decline around midnight. If you miss this 10pm window it becomes more difficult to fall and stay asleep.
10pm is also when repair and restoration happens. Your 'internal' metabolism peaks at this time, and your body has an opportunity to heal and detoxify it's daily stresses. However, for this to occur efficiently, you must be asleep, if not you may experience the 'second wind' phenomenon, postponing sleep even further, because of an increase in mental alertness.
Lastly, it is important to note that melatonin is a powerful antioxidant. Antioxidants keep your cells young, healthy and free of damage. They also help fight illness and hormonal imbalances. The less sleep you get, the more you impede this antioxidant's ability, which inevitably ages you! So aim to be in bed by 10 pm every night regardless of what time you need to get up in the morning. Remove all light producing gadgets from the bedroom, get black-out shades if needed, and avoid screens for a minimum of 30 minutes before bed.
2. ELIMINATE SUGAR
Sugar is darn right dangerous! It ages your cells; contributes to so many chronic health issues, like heart disease, diabetes and PCOS; it causes cognitive deficiencies likes poor memory and poor concentration, and since it depletes your cells of minerals, it leaves you fatigued, sluggish and susceptible to illness. We need to become label detectives because harmful sugars are hiding everywhere! Here is a list of sugars to avoid starting from now on.
Remember staying away from packaged goods is the easiest way to eliminate these sugars from your diet (and preservatives too!)
Table sugar, white sugar, brown sugar, turbinado sugar, coconut sugar, cane sugar, cane syrup, cane crystals, raw sugar, brown rice syrup, corn sweetener, corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, dried fruit, glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, sucrose, sugar syrup, crystalline fructose, evaporated cane juice, corn syrup solids, malt syrup.
Artificial/packaged sweeteners: -Sunnett, Sweet One, Nutrasweet, Equal, Sweet 'N Low, Sweet Twin, Sugar Twin, Splenda, A Sweet Leaf, Sun Crystals, Steviva, Truvia, PureVia.
Basically if anything ends in an "-ose" or an "-ol" its a sugar derivative and should be avoided. Maple syrup, dates and raw honey are allowed, but limited to 1-2 teaspoons a day. If you'd like to kick it up a notch, you can also eliminate these natural sugars and refined carbohydrates. That includes pastas, breads etc- if its made with a flour, it's out! This is really important for those suffering with PCOS, diabetes and other blood sugar related illnesses. Refined carbohydrates spike your blood sugar levels as much as a chocolate bar! Yikes! To manage sugar cravings increase your intake of healthy fats, fermented foods and drink lots and lots of water.
3. GET REBOUNDING
Rebounding is a great way to boost energy and increase lymphatic circulation. It involves jumping on a mini trampoline either in gentle bounces where your feet don’t leave the trampoline, or in complete jumps where you rise off from the surface. It's a great workout, with similar calorie burning effects as running but with more benefits, since there is less oxygen used and less exertion on the heart, not to mention less friction on the joints. Rebounding also helps with balance, since you are adjusting to a new center of gravity every time you bounce.
I love it for it's ability to stimulate the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system is the holy grail of holistic medicine! It is responsible for keeping your body free of toxins and housing immune cells in it's nodes, to be delivered through the circulatory system, when needed. The lymphatic system does not have a way to move it's own fluid, so it jimmy's up against your circulatory system and allows the pulsation of your arteries (your heart beat/pulse) to push it along too. As you can image, as lymph fluid moves south of the heart, things tend to pool as they succumb to gravity. The only way the lymph can get moving is if you get moving!
Sitting at a desk or standing for long periods of time causes your lymphatic system to become sluggish. Which means you FEEL sluggish! That means accumulating toxins that can manifest as allergies, PMS, headaches, joint pains, sinusitis, depression, skin issues, cellulite and of course fatigue. Holistic practitioners, like myself are always looking to stimulate and restore the lymphatics- and rebounding is one of the best ways to do it! 15 mins in the morning, that's all it takes. If you don't have time for 15 minutes divide it in 3-5 segments throughout the day, but always get the first session done before breakfast, to energize you.
4. GRATITUDE JOURNALING
I have to admit, I love gratitude journaling! I've noticed a lot of changes in myself and my relationships since I started the practice 4 months ago. Even at the end of a long stressful day, when I feel like nothing went right, I sit and list the 3 things I am most grateful for, and all of a sudden, my mood shifts as I realize how wonderful my day actually was! I also feel, the more I practice gratitude, the more I open myself up to receive. Perhaps it's because I am creating abundance by sending that positive energy out. The more I am grateful, the more the universe graces me with things to be grateful for. And, just like a good workout, with continued practice, I strengthen my neuronal connections and train my brain to continue to be positive every day!
Don't just take my word for it. A 10 week study found that participants who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. They also exercised more and had fewer visits to doctor than those who didn't. Another study looked at how gratitude can improve relationships. They found that couples who took time to express gratitude for their partner not only felt more positive toward the other person but also felt more comfortable expressing concerns about their relationship.
So this is how you do it: List three things (people, experiences, tangible, intangible) that you are grateful for. Past, present, or future. And list why. You may also want to pick up a special journal to do this and keep it on your nightstand to write in, in the morning or before bed (or both!)
5. TAKE A DETOX BATH
Take a detox bath weekly. Fill your tub with warm water, pour in 1-2 cups of food grade, Epson Salts (magnesium sulphate) and soak, baby, soak! Magnesium is a much needed mineral, required in over 325 enzymatic processes. Deficiency in magnesium can spell disaster in the form of anxiety or depression, high blood pressure, hormonal issues, muscle spasms (including menstrual cramps) and fatigue. Taking a weekly Detox Bath with Epsom salts, allows you to absorb magnesium through your pores, relaxing your muscles, detoxifying your body and nourishing your mind.
Don't stop there, add some essential oils, which boost the immune system, and prep you for cold and flu season. Add Eucalyptus to fight colds, flu, sinus infections and allergies, because of its anti-microbial properties; and Lavender, an anti-inflammatory EO, which lulls you to sleep and improves skin issues like eczema and psoriasis. I also like Rosemary and Peppermint for headaches and Clary Sage for hormonal balance (add it to the tub pre-menses/ovulation time).
If you don't like baths, not a problem, do a foot soak instead. Light some candles, play some meditative music, grab your Gratitude Journal, and for these next 20-30 minutes, melt into this self-care moment.
6. TAKE VITAMIN D
If you live in Canada chances are, you are vitamin D deficient. This is quite unfortunate, because Vitamin D is involved in over 3000 gene expressions with receptors located all over the body- your bones, muscles and brain. We know a lot about vitamin D and it's role in building and maintaining strong bones, but more evidence is coming to light on how vitamin D contributes to our mental health. Studies found that people who were depressed were deficient in Vitamin D and that Vitamin D supplementation improved symptoms in those who where depressed. We don't have all the facts yet, but we think it encourages production of dopamine and serotonin, what we call our 'happy hormones'.
We can accumulate and store tons of vitamin D in the summer (just 5 minutes of sun exposure can provide 10,000 IU of vitamin D!), but by the time November roles around, these stores have run dry. So, if you think about it, it's not a coincidence you tend to feel low, depressed and fatigued around this time of year.
We also want to boost our immune system during this time of year, and vitamin D does just that. Deficiency in vitamin D is associated with increased autoimmunity as well as an increased susceptibility to infection. So get those vitamin D stores up starting right now! How? Take a sunny vacation! And if that's not possible, supplement with 5000IU vitamin D3 drops per day.
7. GO ON A NATURE WALK
Connecting to nature for as little as 20 mins a day, has important mental and physical benefits. People who connect to nature regularly, have a greater sense of vitality and are more resilient to physical illnesses. The very presence of nature helps ward-off feelings of exhaustion, with 90% of people reporting increased energy when placed in outdoor activities. Going on a nature walk on your lunch/afternoon break is the best way to do this. Not only are you getting active and moving your body in the middle of a mostly sedentary day (depending on your work), you connect with nature while getting some well deserved Vitamin D, (which we learned boosts our immune system and keeps depression at bay). Not to mention getting natural sun exposure during the day improves melatonin function at night.
I understand for some of you (me too) you may work/live in an urban area, and nature is sparse. I still encourage you to get out for a walk, perhaps find that one beautiful tree, fountain or squirrel, and visit it every day!
You may also want to include elements of nature in your workplace/home. Adding beauty and greenery to your space is essential to boost morale and happiness. Include elements of nature like a plant or flower on your desk, burn some essential oils or keep a photo from a your last nature-filled vacation in plain sight, because reminiscing about nature also has mood-boosting benefits. Nature is food the soul, so fill up!
8. CONSUME HEALTHY FATS
"You are what you eat". You've herd that one before. Well what if I told you your brain was the fattiest organ in your body? That, if you wanted to stay energized, keep healthy and be happy this winter you're going to have to feed your brain plenty of healthy fats!
These include fats high in Omega-3, which have the most benefit, such as fish, sea vegetables, seeds and nuts like pumpkin seeds, chia seeds and flax, as well as grass-fed beef. Other healthy fats include monounsaturated fatty acids like extra-virgin olive oil and avocados, and medium-chain fatty acids like coconut oil.
Omega-3s help maintain healthy levels of our "happy hormones", dopamine and serotonin. Populations that consume tons of cold water fish high in omega-3, like the Nordic countries, have lower overall rates of depression and Seasonal Affective Disorder (SADS), which is fascinating, since these countries tend to get the least amount of sunshine, worldwide.
Healthy fats also help boost concentration and memory, reduce inflammation, boost immunity, balance hormones (steroids AKA our stress and sex hormones, are made from fat) and moisturize your skin from the inside out, preventing dryness and cracking, which is common this time of year.
Lastly, I hope it goes without saying that eating fats do not make you fat! In fact, healthy fats help you loose weight, providing sustained energy and blood sugar balance, preventing diabetes and curbing sugar cravings as well as preventing high cholesterol and heart disease.
It is important to include healthy fats in each and every one of your meals! This is an opportunity to get creative, for example, I like to blend a tablespoon of ghee or coconut butter into my morning matcha for creaminess and a mental boost. You can swap out your morning muffin for a hard-boiled free-run egg, pack nuts and seeds as snacks and have fish for dinner.
9. CONTRAST SHOWERS
In this challenge we take a typical mundane task- taking a shower - and jack it up so that it boosts immunity, improves mood, decreases pain, boosts metabolism, and detoxifies your blood and organs!
This is how you do it:
At the end of your shower, right before you jump out, switch your water over to cold for 10 sec, back to hot for 30secs, and repeat, cold, hot, cold, hot, ending on cold (cycle of 3-4) allowing the stream of water to run over your heart center. Then quickly jump out of the shower and wrap yourself up in a big warm towel.
Contrast showers are invigorating and considered a form of hydrotherapy (water is your medicine here). The contrast from hot (which relaxes and dilates your blood vessels) to cold (which quickly shunts blood away from the surface of your skin and sends it to your vital organs), boosts circulation and eliminates toxins that have become stagnant. This also boost metabolism helping burn calories, if this is one of your health goals.
Contrast showers also have the ability to stimulate the release of endorphins, which makes it a great tool to reduce pain. Endorphins are your body's natural pain killer hormones that are released during hard exercise, eating spicy foods, or other activities your body may need relief from. This makes it an excellent treatment to help you recover from an intense workout or illness that leaves you feeling achy and sore.
And speaking of illness, contrast showers also help boost your immune system by increasing your circulating lymphocytes and monocytes. These immune cells are responsible for eliminating bacteria, viruses and toxins, which make you more resilient to colds, flu, and allergies.
Lastly, contrast showers have a positive effect on your mental health. They help stimulate the brain's "blue spot", the main source of noradrenaline for your body. Noradrenaline is a neurotransmitter that along with serotonin helps balance mood and combats depression, excellent for dealing with stress and SADS during this time of year.
10. DIGITAL DETOX
For many of us, our devices can be resource to helping us achieve our wellness goals. Let's take this November Wellness Challenge as an example. Many of you took part by checking in daily and learning all the wonderfully restorative things you can do to gain physical, emotional, mental and spiritual balance during these winter months. However, it is important to do a complete digital detox from time to time to to ground and restore your energy.
Biologically speaking, the blue light emitted from your screen isn't doing you any favors. Blue light is naturally most abundant in the morning time. As dusk sets in, red light is more predominant, and helps you naturally begin your sleep cycle with a shift towards increased melatonin production. However, if your using screens constantly, it can distort your circadian rhythms, resulting in less quality sleep and compromised detoxification. (recall Challenge 1).
When it comes to your psychological and emotional health, social media can be draining as well. We can become obsessed with the latest tends, wanting things we actually don't need (or really want) and compare ourselves to others. If you are at the point where your phone feels like a extra appendage or if your friends and family are annoyed with the amount time you spend in front of your screen, you need this challenge! You owe it to your relationships (including your relationship to yourself) to unplug!
Don't panic, you have TONS of things to occupy yourself, you won't even notice. You can go on a nature walk, take a detox bath, meet a friend (in person!) for a healthy brunch, read that book you've been meaning to get to, or make up a batch of cookies to share with family. A digital detox offers a much needed reminder that we need to slow down and ground ourselves to what is real. We need to unplug to genuinely connect! So for an entire weekend unplug from: social media, email, Netflix, and text. Instead make plans to reconnect with friends, read, write, and take a detox bath!
11. BONUS: DRY SKIN BRUSHING
Your skin is your largest detoxification organ! It is a system made up of nerves, glands, and multiple cell layers that protect your from pathogens, chemicals and extreme temperatures. Dry skin brushing is a simple but effective technique that helps encourage this detoxification process by boosting lymphatic circulation and sloughing away dead skin cells that may block pores from doing their job efficiently.
As mentioned earlier your lymphatic system houses your immune cells and is responsible for collecting and eliminating toxins from your body. If the lymphatics become sluggish this may inhibit your ability to detoxify properly and causing inflammation. By dry skin brushing you are encourage the movement of lymph and exfoliating your skin so that your pores may also aid in the detoxification process. As an added bonus, dry skin brushing helps to soften hard fat deposits under the skin helping treat and eliminate the appearance of cellulite. It can also work deeper in some, helping ease digestive troubles such as bloating and gas, when done regularly.
Lastly, dry skin brushing is a stress relieving practice. It feels like a gentle massage all over your body which provides a few moments of calm and zen in a short amount of time. It can also invigorate and energize you if you need a quick pick me up. Everyone can benefit from dry skin brushing!
Here's how you do it:
You can pick up a dry skin brush almost anywhere. The bristles should feel firm on the skin, slightly uncomfortable, but not painful. Here's my favorite.
Move in small, circular motions in the direction of your heart: from your feet upwards to your groin, your fingertips to your underarms and your torso directly to your heart. Avoid the nipples and other sensitive areas including cuts and abrasions. The skin should be pink, but not red. Do this daily, preferably before your shower, so you can wash away any dead skin cells- but it's not necessary. With enough practice, you should have the routine down to under 10 minutes.
12. BONUS: EAT MEDICINAL MUSHROOMS
I like to think of medicinal mushroom, Shiitake, maitake, and Reishi as "Super-hero" foods! They are nutritiously dense, packed with protein, fiber, vitamin B and C, calcium and other minerals. The reason why I love them so much is because they are adaptogens. Adaptogens help us "adapt" better to stress and can serve as an invaluable ally if you are feeling fatigued or drained. They help with mental focus, physical stamina and help support a healthy weight and hormone function by modulating the endocrine system.
Medicinal mushrooms also have potent immune boosting properties so much so that they are becoming more and more popular as an adjunct therapy for immuno-compromised individuals, specifically those undergoing cancer treatment. Studies also show that medicinal mushrooms have anti-tumor effects and can help in the treatment and prevention of cancer.
These mushrooms (and all mushrooms, for that matter) are best consumed cooked. Raw mushrooms have anti-nutrients which prevent us from fully absorbing all their benefits. The absolute best way to consume them is as a hot water extraction- adding them to soups and hot drinks whenever your can making sure to drink all the broth that comes along with it. You can also supplement, but speak to you holistic health practitioner for dosing.
13. BONUS: MEDITATE
I've saved the best for last. Mindfulness mediation.
Slowing down. Breathing, deeply. Is something we are doing less and less of. We live in a time where busyness is glamorized. Where we feel we need 100 reasons to take a break, cancel that dinner date, take a bath, or mediate. No one knows what you need better than you do, however, if you are feeling too busy or too guilty to slow down and listen, you may be overlooking critical details about yourself, your happiness and your health.
I challenge you to take 20 minutes out of your day to practice stillness. Only pay attention to your breath and let the thoughts go. If you are completely new to the practice, try online resources for guided mindfulness meditations, for example YouTube or calm.com.
Meditation creates a positive mental environment for your immune system to flourish. Studies show that mediation reduced inflammation and increases antibody production after 8-weeks.
Mindfulness meditation has also shown increases in electrical activity in the prefrontal cortex, the right anterior insula, and right hippocampus, all parts that control positive emotions, awareness, and anxiety.
Meditation, as well as all of the challenges listed above, are proactive ways to stay healthy and happy this winter, and for years to come. I challenge you to try every single one of these challenges at least once, then pick 3-5 of your favorites and make them a life-long habit.