The Odd Couple of Winter: Cold Weather and Digestion

The Odd Couple of Winter: Cold Weather and Digestion

Winter has many charms: we can celebrate Christmas and New Year with family and friends, play with the kids in the snow, watch a movie and cuddle up under a warm blanket, and take time to reflect and plan ahead. But as cold weather settles in, we also experience changes in our energy levels, our metabolism, and our  eating habits.

Depending on our age, gender, and any medical conditions we may have, these seasonal changes can cause disruptions in the delicate balance of our gut microbiome, and contribute to a variety of mild to severe digestive issues that can affect us well beyond the festive winter period, when most of us let our guard down and indulge in overeating. The good news is that most winter-related digestive problems can be reduced or, better still, prevented.

Here’s why maintaining a healthy stomach is crucial during the winter season and how to keep our digestive system in top shape.


5 reasons our digestion gets worse during winter

1. Dietary changes
During winter, our internal body temperature drops. As a result, our bodies need to burn more calories to keep warm. This is why we feel hungrier and crave more calories when it gets cold. But our urge to eat warmer and heartier meals, mostly high in fats, carbohydrates, and sugar, disrupts the balance between the good and bad bacteria in our gut that regulate our digestion. Swapping high-fiber foods like salads and fruit with low-fiber foods like cookies and chips may feel comforting, but lowers the number of good bacteria in our gut and interferes with our regular bowel movements.

2. Decreased hydration
During summer, our bodies try to cool down through the natural process of sweating. This normal dehydration makes us naturally thirsty. Colder temperatures on the other hand often result in reduced water intake, as our bodies sweat less. Water is crucial for our digestive processes, and inadequate water consumption can slow down digestion, leading to potential gut issues.

3. Increased coffee consumption
It’s not unusual to crave a glass of water on a hot summer day. It’s less usual to do so when the temperatures drop. In winter we tend to prefer warm drinks. But not all warm beverages are good for our gut. Coffee in particular, although it can keep us warm, can have negative consequences for our digestive system. Caffeine activates contractions in the digestive tract and triggers the production of stomach acid, which can help move food through the gut. When stomach acid is produced in high amounts, it can lead to symptoms like abdominal pain, nausea, bloating, and heartburn.

4. Lack of vitamin D
Reduced exposure to sunlight during winter months can lead to a deficiency in vitamin D. This essential vitamin has long been lauded for keeping our bones strong and healthy, but vitamin D also helps to fortify our gut cells and, as a consequence, our immune system. According to Chris Damman, MD, clinical associate professor of gastroenterology at the University of Washington in Seattle, our gut resembles pipes made of cells that are held together with junctions. Vitamin D helps strengthen the junctions, or connections between cells, so the pipes don’t leak.

5. Lack of exercise
Most of us already spend the majority of our day indoors, be that at school, work, or home. In the winter, it can be even harder to motivate ourselves to go outside and exercise. But getting out less means moving less in general, which is bad for us and our gut. Our lack of movement and increased sedentary time slows down gut transit time and makes us more likely to feel constipated.


The most common symptoms of indigestion

Indigestion is extremely common and can cause many different symptoms. These include early or uncomfortable fullness after a meal, a burning sensation, discomfort or bloating in the upper abdomen, gas, nausea, and regurgitation (when swallowed food comes back up).

If any of these symptoms persist or worsen, we should consult our doctor.

But as prevention is the best cure, here are some lifestyle changes we can make to help our gut function properly.

6 healthy habits to safeguard our gut during winter

1. Maintain a balanced diet
Our craving for comfort foods is mostly rooted in psychology. If we reach for ice cream or cookies when stressed, our minds and bodies become conditioned to expect the same method of coping whenever we are stressed. The truth is, what our gut needs is a well-balanced diet all year round. Fiber-rich foods like whole grains, legumes, and root vegetables, and fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi, or sauerkraut are proven to help our gut microbiome stay healthy and to support our digestive well-being.

2. Stay hydrated
Water is essential for healthy digestion. It helps break down the food we eat, allowing its nutrients to be absorbed by our bodies. Water also turns soluble fiber into gel and slows digestion, contributing to a longer-lasting sense of fullness. As a rule of thumb, women should drink 2.7 liters and men should drink about 3.7 liters of water per day. Sounds a lot? Herbal tea is especially good for hydration, making it an excellent substitute for some of those glasses of water. Our ATHONITES DIGEST organic herbal blend from certified organic cultivations on Mount Athos tastes great and helps the digestive system and restore its natural microbiome.

3. Supplement vitamin D
Since sunlight is limited in winter, we may consider taking vitamin D supplements but only after consulting with our doctor. Vitamin D supplements can help maintain optimal levels of this crucial vitamin in our bodies and support our gut health.

4. Exercise regularly
Cold weather is not to everyone’s liking. But exercise can take make forms, and can also be done indoors. Yoga, dancing, lifting water bottle weights, stair-walking or simply standing up more and sitting less can promote overall well-being and good digestion. In general, any type of movement can help keep food moving along the gut and reduce bloating.

5. Manage stress levels
Stress that's not dealt with can lead to many health problems, including having a profound effect on gut health. Taking up stress-relieving activities, such as meditation, deep breathing, or a relaxing hobby, can reduce stress and improve both our mental and intestinal well-being.

6. Get enough sleep
Quality sleep is essential for our overall health, including our gut health. Learn here how to build a healthy routine before going to bed and ensure you get adequate rest each night.

Cold weather and digestion can be the odd couple of winter. But it doesn’t have to be a marriage of convenience, with inevitable conflicts. By maintaining healthy daily habits, we can make sure our gut stays in perfect shape even in the coldest season of the year.