The winter blues and holiday stress. Pesky colds and seasonal flus. Eggnog and gingerbread overindulgence. As the weather changes, our health risks change, too. Here’s how to keep your health high when the outdoor temperatures drop.
Winter wellness woes
“In winter, we often see a decline in mental wellness as outside activities decrease, natural light from the sun decreases, and stress increases as family holiday time approaches,” says licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Cynthia Shaw, PsyD. “We might notice increased fatigue, decreased motivation, social withdrawal, and low mood.”
But mood changes aren’t the only health risks during dreary winters.
Heart attacks occur more frequently when temperatures plummet, in part because cold weather puts a strain on your cardiovascular system. Holiday stress doesn’t help, either.
Dry, irritated skin increases between summer and winter, typically attributed to winter’s drier air. For instance, those with eczema experience more flare-ups.
The cold and flu are more prevalent because the viruses survive better in crisp, dry air. Bronchitis, whooping cough, and pneumonia are also more common.
Over half of all annual weight gain in Americans occurs during the holiday season—mainly due to all those holiday treats.
Indoor air is at its worst in the winter. Breathing this air is linked with an increased risk of disease, from cancer to diabetes.
This holiday season, give your mental and physical health the gift of wellness.
Ho, ho, humidifier
A humidifier restores the moisture in your home’s air, relieving dry, itchy skin and improving the health of your respiratory system. It may even help reduce your risks of catching a winter virus such as the flu, especially if it has a compartment for diffusing antiviral essential oils like oregano, lavender, and lemongrass.
Lighten up your mental health on cold, dark days
An estimated 11 million Americans experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD) every year. This form of depression is triggered by the lack of sunlight in the winter.
But feeling a bit blue can also be compounded by other factors, according to psychologist Dr. Bruce L. Thiessen, such as loneliness during the holidays or financial stress when gift shopping.
Thiessen recommends three proactive ways to lighten your mood.
Get into the sun
“There’ll be occasional warmer, sunnier days in the forecast,” Thiessen says. “Make the most of each one, planning outdoor activities in advance.”
Brighten your home
Light therapy boxes may help combat SAD. Thiessen also recommends finding ways to brighten your home, such as cheerful paint colors or holiday lights.
Jingle around the clock
“Create a ‘sunshine playlist’ of cheerful songs,” suggests Thiessen. Music helps us cope with stress, depression, and anxiety.
Unwrap better nutrition
In the winter, studies show that people may eat fewer fresh fruits and veggies, overindulge in unhealthy foods, and crave the comfort of carbohydrate-rich snacks and meals.
It’s also known that our circadian rhythms affect hormones such as leptin that stimulate our appetite and hunger cravings, with sunlight (or lack thereof) having a big influence on these rhythms.
These dietary changes and lack of sun can create nutritional deficiencies.
Low vitamin D levels in the winter are common. “This can contribute to several health concerns, including low mood and a weak immune system,” warns Dr. Yelena Deshko, a board-certified naturopathic doctor.
She also points to holiday meals and higher alcohol consumption during the winter as further contributing to nutritional imbalances.
Deshko recommends focusing on four supplements in the winter.
“Your body doesn’t store it and needs constant dietary top-ups,” says Deshko, noting that winter factors such as stress or a cold may increase the amount of vitamin C you need.
“The vitamin D you stockpiled during summer is often depleted by winter,” she warns. Talk to your health practitioner about your vitamin D levels and visit your local natural health retailer to choose a supplement that’s right for your needs.
“The importance of B vitamins cannot be overstated—they’re involved in virtually all bodily processes and are essential for metabolism, energy, memory, and healthy skin, to name a few,” explains Deshko. “Adding a daily full-spectrum B complex, specifically around the holidays, may help ensure optimal health.”
“The liver is your body’s main organ of detoxification,” says Deshko. “It can use extra support this time of year. Look for a supplement that contains milk thistle, curcumin, dandelion, schisandra, artichoke, and N-acetylcysteine.”
String lights without high-strung stress
The winter season can feel stressful for many reasons, whether it’s uncertainty about the new year, or the chaos of juggling holiday festivities and your family’s schedule. It can also trigger many emotions.
“There are expectations associated with the holidays,” explains Thiessen, and when our expectations aren’t met, it can feel upsetting.
It’s also common for the holidays to be reminders of personal loss, triggering grief and sadness. Then there are the stereotypical big family gatherings, which Thiessen warns can sometimes bring up “old resentments and produce toxicity.”
“Try exercise,” suggests licensed clinical social worker Iris Waichler, MSW, LCSW. It’s one of the most effective—and most recommended—ways to manage stress because it releases feel-good hormones.
Mindfulness is also a powerful winter stress buster. “Meditation helps us focus on the present and block out stressors,” says Waichler. “It relaxes the body and the mind, and even alleviates winter depression.”
Whichever holidays you observe (or don’t), giving your body and mind more peace and better nutrition is a gift that’ll last a lifetime.
Supplements for stress
Deshko recommends taking adaptogenic herbs, such as Panax ginseng and Rhodiola rosea. They may help lower stress hormones and support your adrenal glands, which are taxed when you’re stressed.
Other adaptogenic herbs known for their stress-busting properties include Withania somnifera, also called ashwagandha, and medicinal mushrooms like Cordyceps militaris.
Five winter health hacks
Gain brown fat
Unlike most body fat, brown fat boosts metabolism and metabolizes fat and blood sugar. Exposure to cold temperatures activates your brown fat.
Shovel your way to health
Torch those holiday calories with winter chores and sports. For example, a 160 lb person burns 432 calories in an hour of shoveling snow, 576 calories during ice hockey, and 504 calories when ice skating.
Grow better air
Houseplants such as English ivy and peace lilies help clean polluted indoor winter air, and that touch of greenery indoors also boosts your mental health.
Spice it up
Many holiday spices are surprisingly healthy. Cinnamon is a powerful antioxidant, ginger fights inflammation, and nutmeg may lower cholesterol.
Drink before you feast
Sipping a glass or two of water before a meal has been shown to significantly reduce cravings and help prevent overindulging at your next holiday meal.