During the summer, when the sun is shining and a warm breeze beckons you outdoors, it’s easy to keep up with your walking schedule or pop into a local farmer’s market for fresh produce. But as the days get dark and colder, you may find yourself hibernating indoors, binging on high-carb comfort foods, and doing all you can to avoid going out in the blustery weather.
Some days you may even find it difficult to get out of bed!
But winter needn’t be a thorn in your side. In fact, it can be quite lovely when you embrace its softer side. There is, after all, nothing like the wonder of a new-fallen snow!
But enjoying the winter is much, much easier when you’re doing so in good health, and this can take some extra effort on your part. Fortunately, staying healthy all winter long is well within your reach, once you learn the ground rules for winter well-being …
Weathering the Winter in Good Health: 9 Top Tips
1. Nip Winter Weight Gain in the Bud
From late September to early March, most Americans gain just over a pound.1This doesn’t sound like much, but research shows most people do not lose this weight the following year. In time, this pound-a-year weight gain can quickly add up to the 15-20 pound “middle-age spread” so many of us struggle with. Weight gain in the winter is tricky because several factors come into play at once, which can all influence your tendency to pack on the pounds.
- Dark days with less sunshine can lead to lower serotonin levels and depressed mood. Your body looks for ways to feel good, often by craving “feel-good” foods like bread, pasta, cookies and candy
- Activity levels drop as we stay indoors
- You’re exposed to loads of tempting treats during holiday festivities, from Halloween through Valentine’s Day
- Some experts believe we’re hard-wired to crave high-energy foods when temperatures drop, as this will help you hold on to fat stores that will keep you warm
You, however, can buck the winter weight gain train and be one of the few who does not include “lose weight” as one of their New Year’s resolutions. How? By following these sensible steps:
- Keep exercising
- Stock your fridge with quick, healthy snacks like veggie crudités, nuts, or leftover turkey
- Avoid skipping meals, and always eat a sensible meal before heading out to a party, you’ll be less likely to binge on cookies, candy and other treats this way
- Limit alcoholic drinks
- Fill your plate with mostly healthy choices, like veggies and lean proteins, then sample smaller portions of dessert, potatoes, stuffing and other high-carb treats
- Recognize emotional triggers that may prompt you to overeat, such as stress, loneliness, or grief, and engage in techniques to address them directly, without food
2. Be Aware of Your Vitamin D Levels
Vitamin D is a hot topic nowadays and for good reason. Adequate vitamin D levels have been found to help lift your mood during the winter months and support your immune health. Studies also suggest vitamin D may also play a role in maintaining normal cell growth in breast, prostate and colon tissues.
Because your body produces vitamin D via your skin after exposure to the sun, your levels can become dangerously low in the winter months. In fact, vitamin D deficiency is more the rule rather than the exception in cold-weather climates. A simple blood test by your physician can tell you where your vitamin D levels fall, and if yours are low you may benefit from a vitamin D supplement.
3. Winterize Your Skin
At least 81 million Americans say they suffer from dry, itchy or scaly skin during the winter,2 and this is largely due to a lack of moisture in your skin. A heavy, oil-based moisturizer (chemical-, preservative- and fragrance-free) can certainly help, but to really prevent dry winter skin, you need to work from the inside out.
Increasing your intake of water is important for hydrating your cells and protecting your skin, as is eating foods with antioxidants (such as berries) and omega-3 fats (wild-caught salmon, walnuts, or in supplement form). You should also avoid excessive hand-washing, as this will quickly dry out your skin by stripping it of its natural moisture, as will long, hot showers. Using a humidifier can also help to add moisture to the air.
Finally, wear a hat, scarf and gloves to protect your skin from cold temperatures and wind when you go outdoors.
4. Know How to Really Avoid Colds and the Flu
You catch a cold or the flu by being exposed to the virus, either from a person who coughs or sneezes or by touching an object with the virus on it. But, just because you’re exposed to a virus does not mean you’ll get sick. Whether or not the virus can take hold in your body depends on your immune system’s ability to fight off the pathogen.
What this means is that taking steps to bolster your immune system is your best weapon against colds and flu this winter, and will likely give you better results than all the hand sanitizer in the world. So, exercise, get proper nutrition and sleep, and avoid stress to prevent colds and the flu this season. You can find more information on how to support your immune system health here, and learn the real facts about colds and flus here.
5. Get Informed About Winter Heart Attacks
When you’re outdoors shoveling snow it’s important to be aware that heart attacks peak during the winter months, and the extra exertion combined with cold temperatures can put your heart at risk. According to one study, for each 1.8-degree Fahrenheit drop in temperature is associated with 200 additional heart attacks.3
Cold temperatures impact your heart attack risk in a number of ways, including raising blood pressure and increasing levels of proteins in your blood that may lead to blood clots.4 So when engaging in any type of strenuous activity in the cold, including shoveling or winter sports, be on the alert for heart attack signs or symptoms. If you experience chest pain or discomfort, upper body pain (shoulders, neck, back, jaw), stomach pain, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, unusual sweating, nausea or vomiting, seek medical help immediately. Most heart attacks begin with only minor symptoms, so urgent medical attention is crucial.
6. Cold-Weather Asthma Relief
Winter can be a challenging time of year for people with asthma, largely because exposure to a cold or flu virus can trigger a major asthma event, and cold air itself may irritate your airways, resulting in narrowing of your airways. Other winter-related factors, like mold spores from your Christmas tree or smoke from a fireplace, can also trigger asthma symptoms. Even stress during the holidays can lead to asthma attacks, as stress triggers your body to release chemicals that can tighten muscles around your airways, causing difficulty breathing.
The best solution for controlling asthma during the winter is to avoid any triggers that you know are likely to exacerbate your symptoms. This may mean staying indoors more often, especially when it’s particularly dry and cold, and buying an artificial Christmas tree instead of a real one. When you do go outdoors, a scarf worn over your mouth can help shield you from breathing in cold air.
7. Arthritis Flare-Ups
Cold weather and changes in air pressure can prompt painful changes in people with arthritis, leading to stiffness and increased pressure on joints. If you suffer from arthritis, take extra care to dress warmly, using several layers from head to toe, warm up your car before heading out, and turn the heat in your home up a few extra degrees. You can also try putting your clothes in the dryer for added warmth before you put them on, or using a hot water bottle on particularly stiff areas.
Appropriate exercise can also help people with arthritis, particularly during the winter, because it will loosen up your joints, increase flexibility and also help you avoid winter weight gain, which can make arthritis worse.
8. Sleep Soundly During Winter
Your body picks up on levels of light and darkness and sends signals to your brain’s pineal gland to trigger the production of hormones involved in your sleep-wake cycle. When it gets dark, your body produces the hormone melatonin, which tells your body it’s time to go to sleep.
The trouble is, during the winter it gets dark very early, far too early for most to go to sleep, and we are exposed to artificial light, which suppresses melatonin production and can send confusing signals to your body, making it difficult to fall asleep when the time comes. You can help your melatonin production stay on track by keeping your exposure to artificial light after nightfall to a minimum. If you’re having trouble sleeping a low dose melatonin supplement may help regulate your sleep cycles.
9. Beat the Winter Blues
An estimated 30 percent of people living in northern states struggle with the winter blues each year. Symptoms include feelings of fatigue, depressed mood, trouble concentrating, cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods like chocolate, bread and pasta, weight gain and difficulty waking up in the mornings. The winter blues, and the more severe Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), are thought to be related to lack of sunlight exposure, a decrease in serotonin levels, and fluctuations in the sleep-wake cycle.
One of the best ways to beat the winter blues is to exercise, as this will naturally boost your serotonin levels as well as relieve symptoms of depression. Studies have also shown that exposure to blue light (as opposed to the light given off by standard light bulbs or even the light used in light-box therapy) may also boost mood and improve alertness.5 Blue light is plentiful outdoors, but it can also be used in light therapy or installed around your home.
We hope the tips above will help you weather the winter in good health and good spirits!
1. N Engl J Med 2000; 342:861-867
2. Johns Hopkins News Release January 30, 2007
3. BMJ. 2010 Aug 10;341:c3823.
4. LiveScience August 10, 2010
5. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Nov 9;107(45):19549-54.