Your winter health survival guideFind out how the cold season toys with your life—and what to do about it.
’Tis the time for snow-sledding, memory making and cozy nights by the fire. And for catching colds, feeling tired and craving carbs. The changes in weather, temperature and light this time of year have physical and psychological effects on your body that in turn can have a major impact on your overall health. Learn what these effects are and how to use them to your advantage, and you’ll have a happier, healthier winter.
The Winter Effect: Your Immune System
As the weather starts to change, probably the first thing that crosses your mind is the risk of getting sick, and with good reason. Up to 20 percent of Americans come down with the flu each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and we suffer from an astounding one billion colds. So get your flu shots (for the seasonal flu and H1N1) and follow these finer points of prevention.
Work with it
Be a germophobe: It pays to be obsessive about keeping your hands clean, since they’re a major way germs get into our bodies. One study showed a 45 percent decrease in respiratory illness among people who upped their handwashing to at least five times a day. A few easy and low-effort strategies: Carry your own pen, don’t share your cell phone, keep antibacterial spray or gel in your purse and use it after you’ve come in contact with lots of surfaces. Also, an important tip on technique: When washing your hands, be sure to lather outside the stream of water, not under the faucet—friction between soap and skin is what dislodges germs.
Getting plenty of H2O may help prevent viruses and bacteria from taking hold in your body once you’ve been exposed to them, says Riva Rahl, MD, medical director for the Cooper Wellness Program at the Cooper Aerobics Center and a staff physician at the Cooper Clinic in Dallas. “The mucus in your nose is actually one of the key physical barriers that keeps germs out of your body. When you’re not well hydrated, it dries up and doesn’t provide that barrier,” explains Dr. Rahl. Staying hydrated also helps your system distribute valuable nutrients while flushing out germs and toxins.
Being cold, and especially shivering, depresses the immune system because your body’s resources go toward raising your temperature rather than warding off germs. That makes it doubly important to focus on keeping warm. In cold weather, blood is shunted to your body’s core, so your extremities get cold first. Invest in gloves, warm shoes and a hat, and if it’s very chilly, think about wearing thin gloves under a pair of mittens. Also, to avoid overheating and sweating—which can ultimately chill your body—dress in layers. Fleece is an especially good insulator; use moisture-wicking synthetic fabrics (such as nylon and polyester) if you’re exercising.
Take time to unwind
Experts can’t emphasize enough how destressing strengthens your immune system. Research shows that people who engaged in mindfulness techniques like gentle yoga and meditation had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol (experts think too-high levels make us more vulnerable to getting sick). You can get similar results by simply taking 10 minutes a day to meditate or focus on slowing your breathing and relaxing your muscles.
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