Growing up in Colorado and living in the Rocky Mountain region nearly my entire life, I love the changing seasons, and fall is by far the most anticipated season in my household. We enjoy the rainbow of colors, the crisp morning air, and the warning signs that winter is on its way.
Yes, winter will soon be here, and we’re looking forward to the first real snow of the year. Winter is a time when we curl up by the fireplace, watch the world transform into the clean, crisp winter white, sip hot tea or cocoa, read, play games, and indulge in some extra special family time with our dogs curled at our feet.
While many of us enjoy the winter wonderland, it can also have some unique—and weird—effects on health. Of course, there’s the obvious connection with the cold and flu season, but there are some other ways winter can affect us. Here are a few of the stranger ones along with winter health tips to help prevent some of the less desirable effects of winter so you can enjoy the season even more.
Dried Out and Crispy
The cold, dry air outside—combined with the hot, dry air inside—can dry out skin, hair, and nails, leaving your skin looking and feeling more like scales than skin, your hair flying away and misbehaving, and your nails cracking and splitting. Not fun! And that’s just on the outside.
Did you know we take about 23,000 breaths per day, and dry air can also affect respiration and sinuses? In fact, dry sinuses are more likely to pull in irritating bacteria, increase the risk of asthma attacks, cause nosebleeds, lead to itchier, more watery eyes, scratchier throats, chap your lips, and more. So, what can you do?
Winter Health Tips #1: Hydrate and Humidify
While drinking water and staying hydrated year-round is important, during the winter months, you’re more likely to forget to drink up. But keeping hydrated starts on the inside, so make sure you’re consuming plenty of water and other hydrating beverages (e.g., herbal tea). And be careful with alcohol consumption, as it can have a diuretic effect, which contributes to drying you out.
Also, consider investing in a humidifier for your home and work spaces to add moisture to the air around you. Humidity levels around 40 to 50% appear to be healthiest for both skin and sinuses.
And if you’re looking for some quick relief, you can place a warm, wet washcloth over your face and breathe deeply. You can also try a long, hot shower or use a steam room for an extra rich dose of moisturized air.
And don’t be afraid to slather on lotions, moisturizers, and conditioners to help your skin and hair survive the dry, dark winter.
Dark and Down
Speaking of dark…with winter comes shorter days, and by that, I mean there’s less sunlight. Lack of light can throw off circadian rhythms, and hot, dry sleeping environments can make it more difficult to sleep at night. Disrupted circadian rhythms and poor quality of sleep not only lower energy levels during the day, they can also mess up your mood.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as the “winter blues”) affects as many as one in five people. While the symptoms vary from person to person, they often include depressed mood, anxiety, irritability, difficulty with concentration, sleepiness, lack of energy, lethargy, decreased activity levels, increased appetite (especially for carbs and sugars), weight gain, and even a loss of interest in life.
Another reason the darker, shorter days are concerning is because they lower levels of the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D. In fact, an estimated 41.6% of the population, according to a study found in Nutrition Research, may be deficient in vitamin D, and levels may be even lower during the winter.
That makes sense, considering that the body is designed to produce vitamin D in response to our bare skin being exposed to sunlight (UVB rays). And not only is our sunlight exposure severely limited in the winter, we’re typically completely clothed, and many people live in areas (further from the equator) that are too far from the sun to produce any vitamin D (during the winter months).
Winter Health Tips #2: Let It Shine
Counteract the effects of the shorter, darker days by getting plenty of sunlight, especially in the morning or within two hours of waking. Even if this doesn’t increase vitamin D levels, it can help keep your circadian rhythms in sync. It’s even better if you’re spending that time outside, so enjoy a morning hike, walk, or jog because regular exercise has also been shown to lift mood.
Of course, that may be easier for people who live in areas that get plenty of sunny days. You may want to consider light therapy if the BOB (i.e., big orange ball, slang for the sun) is less likely to make an appearance. Of course, that regular activity mentioned above appears to help even if you’re indoors in low light.
To ensure vitamin D deficiency doesn’t become a thing, you may also want to increase your intake of vitamin D by consuming more fatty fish like salmon and tuna. This may also be a good time to consider vitamin D supplementation.
Constriction and Lack of Circulation
Obviously, with winter comes colder weather. As the temperatures drop, blood vessels also tend to narrow, or constrict, which reduces circulation. Blood vessels also appear to react to changes in pressure, humidity, and even wind. This constriction hinders the movement of blood—and oxygen—throughout the body, and that can lead to headaches, as well as brittle hair and nails.
This reduced blood flow can also lead to higher blood pressure, making the heart work harder, which increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes, especially in folks over 65 years old. Believe it or not, there is a clear seasonal trend in cardiovascular diseases, and coronary events are 20 to 40% more likely to occur in winter than during other seasons.
Winter Health Tips #3: Keep the Blood Flowing
It goes without saying that staying active is important throughout the winter months as it’s one of the best ways to keep the blood flowing. Even a simple activity like a daily walk has been shown to help improve circulation.
It’s also important to watch your blood pressure. If you already have concerns about your heart health, it’s best to let someone else do your snow shoveling. And certainly, stop any activities immediately if you start to experience any symptoms.
In addition, ensure you’re eating plenty of healthy foods that have been shown to support circulation. For example, foods that are higher in arginine have been suggested to improve blood pressure. These include seafood, sesame seeds, beets, spinach, and turkey. In addition, foods such as beets, celery, and cabbage containing naturally occurring nitrates, which increase the body’s production of the potent vasodilator nitric oxide, may assist with opening blood vessels and increasing blood flow. And the Mediterranean Diet has also been associated with healthier blood pressure.
Despite these weird effects on health from the colder winter weather, there’s far more good than bad, at least in my opinion. Think of the fun activities that were made only for winter—from snowshoeing to skiing to ice skating to sledding. The Norwegians have a fun saying: Det fins ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær (which rhymes when said in Norwegian), which simply means, “There is no bad weather, just bad clothing.”
So, stay hydrated (inside and out), get enough daylight (or consider bright light therapy) especially in the morning, and then bundle up and enjoy those winter activities. Oh, and as you go about your winter activities, relish one big benefit of winter—an increased metabolism.