We spoke with an expert and looked at the research to see why the colder winters might lead to more inflammation, plus what you can do to minimize it.
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A woman looking cold in a yellow winter jacket. Snow is falling and a red gradient is behind her
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Like it or not, if you live in a cold weather state, winter is here. As the temps drop, there are probably several things on your mind: shorter days, staying warm and, of course, the upcoming holiday season. While this might be the most wonderful time of year, that might not be the case for your physical health. This might be especially true when it comes to inflammation. We dove into the research and spoke with Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, researcher, professor, author of Meals That Heal: 100+ Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less and co-host of the Happy Eating podcast, for an expert opinion.

"Anything that is a stress on the body, no matter if that's chemicals in food, a lack of sleep, stress [or] a sedentary lifestyle, can trigger inflammation. That can include temperature extremes," explains Williams. She did note that based on her research, outdoor temperature is not a primary reason you would develop inflammation, but if you have existing inflammation it might cause it to progress. That said, there are several other reasons beyond temperature why this season could be making your inflammation worse. Between holiday foods, stress, reduced physical activity and less time outdoors, this season might put a strain on your normal healthy routine.

Luckily for us, there are a few simple tips that can help you mitigate the elevated inflammation levels associated with the season. Here are some ways on how to tamp down on the season's effects.

Be mindful with holiday foods

During the holiday season, in particular, it can be easy to overdo it with Christmas cookies, sweets and foods that are richer than what you typically eat. Plus, you might be overeating and consuming more alcohol—something we all do during celebrations—which can trigger inflammation. But cutting out all holiday foods and drinks is not the answer, either. "It's important to remember that food is a part of the holiday. Food is part of the enjoyment," says Williams, "What I recommend is before the holidays, think about what foods and what traditions that involve foods and drinks that you really look forward to. Give yourself permission to enjoy those. I've found that just being cognizant of that helps me curtail some of the mindless eating and better listen to my body."   

Bulk up on anti-inflammatory foods

On a brighter note, there are tons of foods with serious anti-inflammatory benefits, including leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables and berries. Williams adds, "I really try to steer people back to what foods you need or what foods to add that you're not eating because there is so much power in certain foods and groups of foods. People tend to forget that adding in foods like these [leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables and berries] can be as or more important than what you cut out. During the holidays, it can be helpful to be aware of this." So, make a batch of our berry smoothies or kale salads to help arm your body with the best defense against inflammation-triggering foods and habits of the season. 

Manage stress

"Stress is like an irritant on the body. It can trigger inflammation or exacerbate existing inflammation," says Williams. Some temporary stress is unavoidable in life, but many of us have experienced higher stress levels over the last few years. Chronic stress might cause elevated inflammation levels in the body, which can lead to weight gain, increased disease risk and more. So, there are several reasons to keep your stress levels in check. Foods like nuts, dark chocolate and vegetables can help lower stress. Take some time away from screens or get outside, even if it's just for a walk around the block. If things are really overwhelming, reach out to someone you trust or ask your doctor if therapy might be right for you.   

And if you're really, really worn down and strung out, remember that you are allowed to say no. "Especially during the holidays, it can be helpful to realize you can step away. There's so much pressure to do every activity, but sometimes it's OK to say no," encourages Williams. 

Find movement you enjoy 

While we are all aware of the benefits it can have on our physical health, regular physical activity is important for mental health, as well. Moving our bodies can help reduce stress, lower anxiety, boost energy levels and improve our mood. It's important to schedule in time for movement even during the hustle and bustle of the holidays to help feel your best and keep inflammation in check. Try one of these exercises to reduce inflammation that you can do at home. Williams suggests getting outside for exercise when you can to get the most bang for your buck. This might feel extra difficult with the lower temps, but we have a list of the best cold-weather gear to help you still get your steps in.

The bottom line

When it comes to inflammation, think of the different aspects of health as a web. "It can be so easy to not have social contact or blow off your workout because it's cold out. I've found that regular socializing and regular physical activity really help with stress and your mental wellness. That can end up impacting your food choices and other health choices like sleep. It's part of the big picture of factors that impact inflammation," says Willaims. Choices can affect each other and compound, for better or for worse, when it comes to inflammation. These simple tips can help you get ahead of it and make reasonable healthy choices in this notorious time of year.

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This story originally appeared on eatingwell.com