In New England, winter can present all sorts of health challenges, ranging from
minor nuisances to the more serious. These include cold and wet weather; dry indoor air; trudging through snow, and far too few hours of sunlight, all of which wear on us emotionally and physically.
As pharmacists and pharmacy owners, we know well the effects of winter on
Colds and the flu, chapped skin, temperatures that chill us down deep, a feeling of malaise, and weight gain are conditions that many experience during the winter season.
There is, though, planning and action we can take to lessen the impact of the punch that winter delivers. For sure, as that great American statesman and
Boston native, Ben Franklin, said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of
First off, stay warm. What we have long heard is true – dressing in layers helps retain warmth. Wear a hat and wear gloves.
A vitally important act of prevention is to get a flu shot – which is a vaccine
against the most common types of flu that will circulate this season. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone six months of age and older get the shot. It is especially important for people over 65 years of age and those with certain chronic illnesses, such as asthma, other chronic lung conditions, and diabetes.
Stay hydrated. Because of a number of biological functions, unlike when it is hot out and we are sweating, when we are out in the cold and losing water we do not have the same thirst impulse. But you most certainly can get dehydrated when in the cold; of course this happens when you are exercising – but just the basic operations of the body, such as breathing (that is “vapor” you see when exhaling in the cold), also result in water depletion.
Severe dehydration can be life threatening; yet even minor dehydration contributes to dry skin and sluggishness in mind and body – and in frigid temps, being low on water makes a person more susceptible to frostbite.
Almost everyone is sunlight deprived in winter – and if you hold a full-time day job that is indoors the deprivation is particularly acute. Sunlight helps the body manufacture vitamin D which we need to absorb calcium that is necessary for healthy bones. Sunlight supports a healthy immune system. Light from the sun also causes the pineal gland to properly regulate the hormone melatonin which keeps our biological clock in order and promotes sound sleep.
We also know that sunlight boosts serotonin – a neurotransmitter (a chemical that carries messages between nerve cells). Scientific research shows that depressed people have lower levels of serotonin than those without depression, and that boosting serotonin levels can improve the mood of people who are depressed.
Those with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) are particularly sensitive to decreased sunlight and the “blues” that it brings.
During winter time, getting out in the sun without sunscreen if possible, for 10 to 15 minutes a day three days a week, provides the body with enough sunlight to
produce sufficient vitamin D for good health, and which can also help you stave
off illness, get more restful sleep, and feel better emotionally. When in the sun beyond those small stretches in which it is healthy to do so without protection, it is strongly recommended that you wear sunscreen to protect against damaging rays.
Other skin care strongly advised in winter is exfoliation and the use of a
moisturizer. Dry air outdoors andinside, and hard winds and cold air outside, chap and irritate skin. You may also want to use a humidifier in your home.
Regular exercise is among the most valuable components of a healthy lifestyle.
Cold weather and darkness can be a disincentive to exercise – even for the fairly
well motivated. What also happens during the cold months – with those cold months including the holidays – is that many not only significantly up their caloric intake, but also the percentage of their caloric intake that is unhealthy food.
Weight gain is frequent during the winter. To protect against gaining weight is a simple prescription, but not one to which people easily adhere: exercise, eat healthy and consume fewer calories than you expend.
On the exercise front, an inspiration to be active is to “earn” your wholesome
consumption of food and drink. Eating can be made more enjoyable when it follows a workout.
So how to make it – and this might sound paradoxical – easier to exercise in
winter, when it is cold outside and even the drive to the gym is more difficult
than during the times of the year of warmer and longer days?
Find a workout buddy. Sign up for classes at the gym. If you are able, get yourself a treadmill or stationary cycle or rowing machine – so you don’t have to leave your home to exercise. Perhaps pick up a snow sport such as cross-country or downhill skiing or snowshoeing.
And on the diet and eating front, the fact is almost all of us have ready access to
information on which food is good for us and which is not. Holiday meals and holiday parties can be occasions for, in healthy amounts, delicious fruits and vegetables, lean meats and fish, low fat dairy, and whole grains.
Desserts can be consumed in small portions. Red wine in place of beer can do the heart good.
Some people in New England love winter. We dare say that most, though – and we get more this way as we get older – are fonder of the warmer days of late spring, summer, and early fall.
We can, though, plan and act so that the bite of winter is not so severe.
As well, we can take the counsel of the New York Times columnist and author, Hal Borland, who wrote, “No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn.”