The common cold, nasty flu, dry skin, vitamin D deficiency, Season Affective Disorder (SAD) or simply the perils of increased inactivity are all threats facing us during the cold and wet winter months. Here is a quick overview of some of the tips and recommendations I've stumbled across in numerous articles recently.
Hand in hand with the common cold
When it comes to avoiding catching a cold or going down with the flu it's best to focus on maintaining a strong and healthy immune system. Besides eating well, not getting chilled and getting enough sleep remember that germs are easily transferred between our hands and the things we touch. Be more mindful where you place your hands in public places, avoid touching your face at all times and get into a habit of washing your hands regularly. Keep a pack of anti-bacterial hand wipes or spray in the car or handbag for a quick and easy hand sterilisation.
6 people who may give you that cold - short slideshow on Huffingtonpost
That dry central heating
In a recent article in Irish Times I was reading about how winter takes it's toll on our skin too. Out in the cold then in to the heat of the retail stores or our homes. Central heating is believed to reduce the humidity in a room by up to 15% which causes the skin to dry more than normal. Tackle this by placing a bowl of water on the heater or use a purpose humidifier. That 'winter coat' moisturiser is a good idea too. Don't forget a sunblock factor is advisable all year round.
Water Water Water
Then there is the age old advice about drinking enough water but not too much - there is such a thing as over-hydration. A great mantra - Eat your water, “Water-rich foods such as fruit and vegetables are healthier for your skin than just water, because they are full of phytonutrients and antioxidants.”
Sleep is essential for any time of the year not just winter. We hear the advice all the time about switching off all electronics so as not to stimulate our minds during the final hour before bed - but, it's not easy when there's another episode of Mrs Brown's Boys or The Graham Norton Show waiting to be watched. Oh well, off to bed then.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is similar to a form of depression caused by the lack of natural sunlight. It causes low mood, reduced energy and generally feeling down with decreasing interest in the day to day.
Dr Mike, who is a Canadian Doctor and produces some great educational videos raising health awareness, suggests in a recent post that most people will feel a spell of the winter blues but this is not the same as SAD which can be far more debilitating. Dr Mike suggests that January and February can be the toughest months. He commonly sees a reduction in exercise during winter while eating comfort foods increase resulting in a decline in general fitness and well-being which contributes to the winter blues and the potential onset of SAD.
How to avoid SAD
Tanning bed? Doc says no!
If you can afford it then a short getaway to a sunny destination mid winter can be very effective in breaking up the long winter for many people. Another excellent option is light therapy using fit for purpose SAD lamps. These are special lamps with a lux rating of 5000-10000 lumens which people sit in front of for varying periods of time during the day. These lamps are said to positively influence our circadian rhythm and give out bodies a good boost.
A more thorough description about SAD can be found in this article over at Harvard Health.
What about vitamin D?
Dr Mike suggests 10-25% of population are likely to have sub-optimal levels of vitamin D. It is apparently a vitamin that is difficult to get from our diets and therefore advised to take in other forms such as a tablet. How much? The million dollar question apparently and the optimal dosage is not known but the general recommendation from Dr Mike is 700-1000 iu. This is something best to research further and possibly take professional advice from your doctor if you feel like supplementing vitamin D.
Those chillier mornings and darker evenings of winter may not offer much incentive to keep up the regular exercise routine but with a bit of preparation and the right mindset keeping active during the winter can be just as fun.
On the days when the weather is really not playing along for much sporting activity you can keep moving by taking the stairs instead of the lift at work or aim to walk twice as much in other ways.
What about the risks?
Sure, there are a few things to consider if planning to exercise in cold conditions. Your body has a self preservation mode where it redirects blood supply away from the extremities to the central core to ensure your heart and torso maintains sufficient heat. This can make the heart work harder at the beginning of exercise and cold feet could be less stable, combined with wet conditions, may lead to trips and falls, especially in the elderly.
Gyms and exercise studios are a lifesaver in the winter months for many people. Some exercise classes, such as Pilates, teach you movement routines easily practised at home. So you see there really shouldn't be any excuse for not keeping active during winter.
Good luck and stay warm!
By Simon Coghlan MSc, BSc Hons, DipMedAc, MISCP
Simon holds a Master of Science Degree in Physiotherapy and is a member of the Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists. A post graduate Diploma in Medical Acupuncture entitles him to accredited membership of the British Medical Acupuncture Society. Simon specialises in the integration of medical acupuncture techniques with manual therapy and therapeutic exercise for the treatment of musculo-skeletal pain and dysfunction.