‘Tis the season for flu, colds, dry skin, seasonal depression, laziness and weight gain. As winter quickly approaches here in the northern hemisphere, those of us in the cold north are getting ready for at least 6 months or more of potential anguish. But, maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.
I have lived in Wisconsin all my life and have dreaded this time of year every single year since I was old enough to notice. Every year, I have dreamed of living in a warmer climate, but family and friends have had a compellingly affectionate (though somewhat annoying) tendency to keep me here. In fact, not only have I not moved south, but 7 years ago, I moved over 100 miles further north!
After living through many, many cold winters, I have learned a few lessons on how to maintain the best health possible when the arctic winds start blowing through.
Eat A LOT More Greens
I mean A LOT. This time of year, I am eating as much as a pound of greens per day. Usually in green smoothies and large salads.
Nothing works better than leafy green vegetables at keeping your immune systems strong to ward off colds and flu, keeping your blood circulating, and helping maintain a healthy blood sugar level to keep you energetic and warm.
Eat Less Sugar, More Fat and Fiber
Yes, I did say “more fat”. Now you have another justification to eat fat. But before you get too excited, let me clarify that when I talk about “fat”, I’m not talking about pounds of bacon and french fries. Instead, choose fats that are healthier for your body: avocados, nuts, coconuts, etc. Of course, if you have problems maintaining weight or a habit of unhealthy over indulgence, you’ll want to proceed with caution. However, cutting back on sugar will help with weight maintenance and food cravings, so you’ll probably be OK eating more fat.
High sugar foods, especially those with a high glycemic index, will give you short, unhealthy boosts of energy followed by a crash where you are left in a cold sweat. Not only does this make it difficult for your body to maintain warmth, but it also stresses your immune system leaving you vulnerable to the active winter viruses.
A side note on 80/10/10: If you are on an 80/10/10 diet, you should completely ignore this suggestion (I probably don’t need to tell you that). Just make sure you’re getting enough calories. A healthy, low-fat, raw food diet should need no adjustments for cold weather since with such low volumes of fat in the blood stream, your body will have no trouble maintaining consistent blood sugar levels. But, if you are not able to maintain a strict 80/10/10 diet consistently, high levels of sugar can be harmful.
Avoid Hot Showers
I love a hot shower on a cold winter day. The problem is that it’s hard to get out. When I finally do get out, my skin is dry, itchy and vulnerable to becoming chapped.
Our skin plays an important role in our body’s immune system, and it needs moisture and oil to function best. So, dry skin is not only uncomfortable, annoying and unattractive, it is also makes us more vulnerable to illness.
Tips to avoid hot showers:
- Keep the bathroom toasty warm. Use a space heater or some other mechanism to warm up the bathroom before getting yourself all wet. If you’re worried about energy consumption, stop worrying. It is much more efficient to heat the air with a space heater than to heat it with your hot water heater. Most of the heat produced by your hot water heater ends up going down the drain.
- Seal everything up. Put your bathrobe on the floor covering the space under the door. Close the shower curtain and use the moisture from the shower to seal it against the wall.
- Close the drain. If your shower is in your bathtub, close the drain to keep the heat in the warm water from going down the drain. The air will be much warmer and you won’t feel compelled to huddle yourself under the hot water. Yes, you will probably have to clean your tub more often, but if you’re as cold intolerant as I am, it will be worth it.
- Warm up before showering. Do some physical activity to warm up your body before getting in the shower.
- Don’t get any more wet than you have to. I know some people like to wash from top down in order to keep dirtiness from draining down to the already cleaned parts, but seriously, unless you work in a coal mine or haven’t showered for a week or two, don’t worry too much about it. Instead of turning the water on and jumping in head first right from the start, soap up your body starting with your feet first and get wet as needed. Wash your hair last. Once your hair is wet, you are much more vulnerable to cold. If you wait until the end when the bathroom is already nice and warm, it won’t be so bad.
- Take a warm bath. Not too hot or you’ll run into the same problems. Add some essential oils, such as jojoba, to the bathwater to help moisturize your skin.
Avoid Moisturizers Made With Alcohol & Sodium
Alcohol and sodium are common bases for moisturizers. Though they may give you fast, temporary relief from chapping or dryness, they can exacerbate the problem in the long term.
Instead, use oils, such as pure coconut oil, or moisturizers based on honey or pollen. Even petroleum jelly will work. These will give you better long term relief. Some may come with a higher price tag, but you will use a lot less.
Get As Much Sunshine As Possible
Not only does sunshine provide Vitamin D, but it also seems to have some strong anti-depressant properties without the frightening side affects you get with the pills. Considerable evidence suggests that exposure to sunshine also improves the body’s ability to digest food efficiently.
Keep Your Home And Work Environment Bright
I’m not sure if it’s just a placebo affect or not, but when I keep bright lights on during the day, especially if it’s cloudy and dreary outside, I feel more focused, energetic and hopeful.
Light boxes are popular in far north places such as Alaska and dark, dreary places such as Seattle. Again, I don’t know if the affects are psychological or physiological or both, but whatever the case, a lot of people report significant health and mood improvements from using them.
Spend As Much Time Outside As You Can Stand
In all the harsh winters I’ve lived through in Wisconsin, there were three winters that didn’t make me miserable. In fact, I kind of enjoyed them. One was a winter during which I spent a lot of time in California, but that doesn’t help my case here. Another was when I biked 10 miles each way to work and back through the winter. The third was when I maintained an outdoor running habit through the winter.
Many, if not most, of the problems we experience in the winter don’t come from exposure to the cold weather; they come from being sealed up indoors for months at a time with no fresh air or sunshine. The air pollution we experience in the worst industrial cities in the US doesn’t compare the the poor air quality of a sealed up home.
Get outside as much as you can. Go sledding, skiing, snowshoeing, walk or bike to work, walk around the neighborhood and stay in touch with the neighbors you usually only see in summer. You’ll be surprised at how much better it makes you feel.
Don’t forget to dress for the weather. If you live up north, don’t be ashamed to dress like a northerner. Thermal underwear is not just for lumberjacks. It will keep you warm inside and allow you to wear your best looking stuff on the outside. The more layers the better!
Open A Window Once In While
Again, many of the winter related problems we experience come from being sealed up indoors with no fresh air or sunshine. The air quality in a sealed up home can be many times worse than the worst industrial cities. Opening a window once in a while will help alleviate this.
A good place to do this is in your bedroom before going to sleep. If it’s not ridiculously cold outside, you could leave the window open a crack all night. Otherwise, just leave it open for a while, then close it before tucking yourself in for the night.
Keep Your Home Humidified
There are three main reasons people in cold weather climates get more colds in the winter. The first is the increased exposure to other sick people in enclosed spaced. The second and third have to do with how the body protects itself from viruses.
The mucus membranes in our sinuses are capable of flushing out viruses and bacteria if they are operating at their peak performance. Cold temperatures slow that process down, giving viruses more time to spread before they can be flushed out.
Dry air makes this even worse. When the mucus in your sinuses dries up, it is not able to flush out the viruses and other toxins quickly enough. Thus, you become more vulnerable to viruses.
Use a large humidifier or central humidifier to keep your home at around 45% relative humidity. More if you are experiencing sinus problems. But, don’t allow it to stay above 50% for an extended period of time as that may promote the growth of germs, bacteria and molds which will keep your immune system busy, again making you vulnerable to viruses.
Remain Physically Active
Physical activity warms up our bodies and helps us maintain a healthy circulatory system to help keep our bodies warm all day long. It also releases endorphins that help combat depression. And if that’s not enough, regular moderate exercise makes the immune system stronger to keep the nasty winter viruses away.
I’m not the kind of person who likes to set aside time for an exercise routine or trips to a gym. In the summer, it’s easy for me to stay physically active because I love being outdoors. But, in the winter, it’s much harder. So, I fill my idle time with physical activity. I’ll do stretches, simple calisthenics and lift dumbbells while I’m waiting for my computer to complete a process. It keeps me warm, energetic and prevents RPS.
If you work in a cubicle farm, like I used to, your co-workers might think you’re silly, but sooner or later, they’ll be joining in.
If you have the time and the means, having a short break in the middle of winter can do wonders for your spirit and health. There’s nothing like stepping out of an airport in the middle of a cold, dark winter and feeling a warm summery breeze. I’ve had several experiences in my life where I had been sick with a cold for weeks at a time that I just can’t shake, and after spending a few days in a warm place, I feel fresh and vibrant again.
It’s usually best to plan a trip closer to the end of winter. It can be depressing to spend a week basking in the warm sunshine only to return immediately to face several months of dismal darkness and cold.
Winter doesn’t have to be a time of illness and misery or putting the good life on hold until spring comes around again. With these tips, we can learn to tolerate, and perhaps even love winter.
As always, I’m interested in hearing your ideas as well. How do you stay healthy and happy during the winters?