Winter plays havoc with our gut health - here's how to get it back on track

Experts reveal why it's so important to look after your gut health in winter and how to do it best

Woman holding a disposal thermal cup standing outside, representing looking after gut health in winter
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The idea of prioritising your gut health in winter may not have crossed your mind, but nutritionists and health experts say there are several reasons why it should this year. 

We've come to understand the gut and its needs a lot better over the last few years, from learning the easy ways to improve gut health to understanding more about the specific foods that cause bloating. Although our understanding has grown, not many people are familiar with how outside factors - such as the weather and changes in seasons - can affect the system. 

It's even more important now we're approaching cold and flu season, explains nutritionist Orla Stone, a gut health specialist with Deeply. "Given that 70% of our immune cells reside in the gut, keeping our gut healthy over the colder months is so important for helping to deal with any infections that make it into the body," she says. There's even a study from Waseda University that suggests being exposed to cold weather for as little as three hours a day can have a serious impact on our gut. 

With this in mind, we've spoken to a collection of nutritionists and digestive health experts to reveal what you need to know about the link between the weather and your gut health and how to look after your gut health in winter. 

Why should we prioritise our gut health in winter?

It's important to have a healthy gut all year round but there's no doubt our gut needs a little more TLC in the winter months. Nutritional therapist Lauren Johnson-Reynolds, who works with women's wellness brand Free Soul, says that maintaining good gut health in winter is crucial "because the colder months often lead to dietary changes and reduced outdoor activity," she explains. 

When our gut is at its best it can support the immune system and help fight off any nasty bugs that the colder seasons usually bring. Johnson-Reynolds says, "Additionally, a balanced gut can help regulate mood and energy levels, which can be particularly important during the darker and colder winter days. Almost everyone I see in my clinic has some kind of issue with their gut, which is often exacerbated in winter." 

It isn't just stomach and bowel issues that can arise from poor gut health in winter though, external symptoms can start to show too. "It can manifest itself in acne, eczema or mental health issues, which aren’t always easy to identify," says Johnson-Reynolds. "Therefore, it’s essential we prioritise gut health in winter to improve our overall wellbeing and resilience."

Gut health in winter - Lauren Johnson-Reynolds picture
Lauren Johnson-Reynolds

As a nutritional therapist, Johnson-Reynolds works as a homoeopath, women's health speaker, PCOS specialist and an advisor for Free Soul. She started her therapist journey after suffering from PCOS symptoms and set up her business, The London Wellness Coach, where she offers information on all things hormones and women's health. 

How to improve your gut health in winter

1. Eat at regular times

There's no denying that the winter period and especially the weeks leading up to Christmas can be a little hectic and more often than not our regular schedules can get thrown out of the window. One thing that can be easily pushed to the side is our eating schedule.  

"Make sure to eat at regular times, if possible, in comfortable surroundings and with plenty of time," says registered nutritionist Sue Oldreive. She explains that when we eat at irregular times, or rush our food in a far-from-ideal environment, this can negatively affect our digestion. The combination of being cold and eating fast is far from ideal if we want to look out for our gut health. 

What's more, many of us tend to eat more in winter than we usually would. Oldreive recalls a 2023 Juice Plus+ survey that found 38% of participants increased their food consumption in the colder months. While it's perfectly normal, the nutritionist says, it's important to keep eating high-fibre foods as well during this time. Where possible, avoid some of the worst foods for gut health as well. 

Gut health in winter - picture of expert Sue Oldreive
Sue Oldreive

As a registered nutritionist with the UK Association for Nutrition, Oldreive has worked with both UK-based retailers, as well as for the UK government as a nutritionist and food scientist. Alongside this work, she has run her own food and nutrition consultancy for years and continues to hold up her childhood good eating practices with her family to this day. 

2. Aim for plant diversity

As noted, winter is a time when we enjoy some comforting foods and portion sizes, but it's still important to get all our fruit and vegetables in our daily meals as these are some of the top gut-healthy foods

Simply adding plant-based diversity to our comforting meals in the form of wholegrains, fruit, veg, nuts, seeds and legumes can be an easy way forward, Oldreive says. 

"A diverse diet will encourage a diverse microbiome – and that is associated with good gut health," she says. 

3. Prioritise sleep

Clocks going back and darker evenings make us sleepier than usual, so it's important to get your winter sleep hygiene routine nailed down and consistent. Stone is quick to stress the importance of getting as much sleep as possible. She says, "There is a bi-directional relationship between your gut bacteria and your sleep, meaning that the health of both are related to each other." 

Exactly like our sleep, our gut has a circadian rhythm which means it likes to go to sleep at the same time every night. In fact, a study from Kings College London looked at 1,000 adults and found that even small differences in sleep habits Monday through to Friday and over the weekend could lead to unhealthy changes in the gut bacteria.

Stone says it's important for this reason that we try to have a regular sleep pattern and avoid eating late at night, to give our digestive system a break. 

Gut health in winter - orla stone, a qualified nutritionist and diettician
Orla Stone

As a qualified dietitian and nutritionist, Stone specialises in preventative health, specifically concerning gut health. Along with her private work she delivers wellness workshops and works in collaboration with other career and movement coaches in the health industry. 

4. Stay active

You may be wondering how you're meant to work out in winter. What with the pitch-black mornings and early evenings, it can be hard to squeeze in a run with the little bit of daylight we get. However, it's extremely important for our gut health that we continue to stay active through winter. 

"You have a more diverse community of bacteria living in your gut when you are doing regular moderate-intensity exercise, such as power walking," explains Stone. This diverse community of bacteria is key to maintaining a healthy and thriving gut, so even just a short burst of exercise can make a difference.

If you're struggling for time then Stone recommends including some regular 'movement snacks' in your daily routine. These are fun, small ways to introduce some movement into your everyday routine, for example, trying squats whilst brushing your teeth or maybe a couple of star jumps when you're boiling the kettle. Stone says, "Exercise also improves gut mobility and helps your waste products to pass through your body more quickly." 

Gut health in winter - woman running in a field with her dog

(Image credit: Getty Images)

5. Try to manage your stress levels

When it comes to Christmas, New Year's celebrations and winter in general we tend to feel more social pressure than we normally would. We can quickly forget how to deal with stress amongst the festive chaos and find ourselves unwell both physically and mentally. 

Not only can this lead to early signs of burnout but it can wreak havoc on the gut, as there's a clear link between gut health and anxiety. As Stone explains, "Our gut and our brains are very strongly linked through the gut-brain axis. We now know that chronic stress can affect the diversity of your gut microbiota, which can then affect your mental health."

If you find yourself struggling with stress through the winter then Stone suggests trying meditation, yoga or simply actively removing yourself, where possible, from particularly stressful situations. 

6. Increase your Vitamin D intake

As the sun begins to disappear and we spend most hours of daylight inside, our vitamin D levels can significantly drop, leaving many of us feeling run down and fatigued. This is important as not only does it affect our mental state, but one of the many benefits of vitamin D is that it plays a key role in keeping the gut bacteria healthy.  

"Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin and rightly so," says Stone. "However, it is only effective at certain times of the year. "From the beginning of October until the end of March in the UK, even on a sunny day, we cannot make vitamin D in our skin." 

She also points out that it can be hard to get a sufficient amount of Vitamin D from food sources alone, so she recommends taking a daily supplement which provides 10mg of Vitamin D3, during the winter months. Otherwise, one of the many gut health supplements can help. 

Gut health in winter - woman taking vitamin D capsule with a glass of water in her other hand

(Image credit: Getty Images)

7. Stay hydrated

You might think this is really only a priority in summer during the hot and dry weather but actually, making sure you're getting enough water is extremely important through the colder months too. Dr Zoe Williams, a GP who works with gut health yoghurt brand Activia, says drinking water helps your gut function and aids digestion. 

"Most people need 1.5 to 2 litres a day to stay hydrated, so keeping a bottle close by throughout the day can serve as a reminder to support your gut health," she says. 

Gut health in winter - Picture of Dr Zoe Willaims
Dr Zoe Williams

Graduating from medical school in 2007, Dr Williams has gained experience in several professional fields. She is one of the resident doctors on ITV's This Morning and is currently practicising as an NHS General Practicioner in London. 

Does digestion slow down in winter? 

Yes, says Stone, the cold weather can have an effect on our digestive processes but so does our behaviour in the colder seasons. "Firstly, we tend to move less and also drink less water in the colder months, both of which are important for keeping our gut moving well," she says.

The temperature itself has a role to play as a drop in our inner body temperature can slow down the digestion process, Stone says. To avoid this happening, she suggests staying warm, drinking enough fluids, eating a diverse range of fibre sources, and exercising regularly.

Although it's essential to look after your gut health in winter, it's also key to remember that the festive period and the surrounding months are to be enjoyed. With the gloomy nights, cramped schedules and inevitable SAD symptoms creeping in, it's no surprise skipping the gym and indulging more in food has become the new norm. So whilst it's important you make healthy and sensible decisions for your gut this winter, don't beat yourself up too much if it falls by the wayside now and then. 

Emily Smith
Digital lifestyle writer

Emily joined woman&home as a staff writer after finishing her MA in Magazine Journalism from City University in 2023. After writing various health and news content, she now specialises in lifestyle and home writing where she covers all things cleaning, interiors and homeowning.