Winter doesn't have to be 'cold season' if you take good care of yourself. [Photo: Bigstock]

Brrrring it on! Staying well in the winter

3 November, 2011

You can feel it in the air. Everything is slowing down. Autumn is giving way to winter the skies are getting darker, the nights longer.

While our susceptibility to certain illnesses such as hay fever, is less pronounced in winter, this time of year does bring with it some health challenges including, dry skin, chilblains, colds and flu.

It’s not just our bodies that respond to cold. Our minds and emotions do too. In the natural world, autumn and winter represent the end of a cycle of activity that spans from new growth to flowering to fruiting and finally to ‘death’. Autumn is harvest time, when we begin to stock up for the long dark winter months. Our bodies know this even if our minds don’t.

Studies have shown that in the autumn, our energy intake, especially from carbohydrates, can increase by around 222 calories per day. At this time of year (rather than in winter as many assume) we are most likely to put on weight – possibly as a kind of thermal insurance against the coming winter.

Body heat is generated in part by digestion. This may be one reason why, and as it gets colder, we tend to feel hungrier and less satisfied by a meal that would have left them full in the summer.

Winter, in the natural world, also means slumber and hibernation. Birds do it, bees do it, but humans have long since lost touch with this particular rhythm – at least on a conscious level.

Even though we fight it in our minds, our bodies do appear to initiate their own mini shut down which for many of us this can lead to feelings of fatigue and in extreme cases winter depression.

These health challenges aren’t inevitable though and with a little forethought winter can be a glorious part of the year to live through.

Perchance to sleep

When winter lethargy becomes severe it turns winter depression.

Daylight and darkness regulate the release of all kinds of hormones in our bodies. Levels of these hormones change as the days lengthen and shorten. In winter levels of the nighttime hormone melatonin, which makes us feel sleepy and hungry, may rise while levels of serotonin – the feel good hormone that gets us up in the morning – may be drop.

Known formally as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), its symptoms include fatigue, carbohydrate craving, overeating, weight gain and oversleeping, all on top of the emotional experience of depression. These symptoms disappear over the spring and summer months.

While the concept of a ‘winter depression’ was met with scepticism when it was first described in the early 1980s, it is now widely accepted as fact.

SAD undoubtedly makes coping in winter all the more difficult. But research suggests that SAD may simply be an extreme manifestation of what all of us experience in the winter.

It may even be that the symptoms of SAD are a form of primitive protection. In our caveman past, semi-hibernating when there wasn’t much food around could have been a useful way of conserving energy and getting through winter.

Even now, having a natural low, especially in winter, may be important for recharging our batteries and enabling the natural ‘high’ that is a common experience in spring and summer.

Dry skin

While it’s hardly in the league some other seasonal health challenges, winter skin changes can affect our confidence and health.

As the temperature drops the first change you may notice is you skin tone changes. Winter pallor is the result of blood being drawn away from the skin in order to maintain your internal heat balance.

Winter weather also brings with it a whole range of other skin disorders from chilblains to urticaria. Women, in particular, are prone to chilblains, painful swellings, patches or blisters on the feet, hands, face and ears caused by exposure to the cold. Once these develop, they will return again and again with repeated exposure to cold.

While dry skin can be a problem at any time of the year, cold weather can dry out your skin in two ways: directly, because cold air generally has low humidity, and indirectly, from central-heating systems. Dryness is a very common skin problem and is often worse during the winter when environmental humidity is low (thus the name, ‘winter itch’).

Human skin is composed of several layers of cells that are partially protected from dehydration by an insulating blanket of oil. Once those oils are stripped away, either by cold, windy weather, or too much washing or the modern obsession with ‘exfoliating’ – or a combination of both – the skin can dry out.

Skin, of course, is a barrier. It’s designed to keep harmful things out as well as keeping healthful things in. When skin begins to crack and get sore, it allows bacteria and other microbes to penetrate this protective barrier.

Colds & Flu

Winter is commonly referred to as the cold and flu season. Beginning in late August or early September, the incidence of colds begins to increase slowly for a few weeks and remains high until March or April, when it declines. But although this ‘cold season’ tends to correspond with winter weather, you can’t actually catch a cold from being exposed to cold.

Catching a cold is not a random event. What makes us susceptible to colds and flu is as much to do with our lifestyles as anything else.

We may for instance live, work and take our leisure in poorly ventilated, sometimes overcrowded environments that encourage the concentration of the hundreds of viruses that are known to cause the sneezing, scratchy throat and runny nose that everyone recognises as the first signs of a cold.

Washing your hands, covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough and not soldiering on to work or school when you are ill, are all important ways of avoiding spreading or catching colds. But if exposure were the only factor, each of us would get sick every time we were exposed.

Many people in a room can be exposed to the same virus but only some will become infected. Susceptibility, not exposure, is the key and this is likely to be influenced by a number of things.

People who are ill with heart complaints, asthma, chronic kidney disease or diabetes or who are taking medications (for instance, steroids) are, of course, more susceptible to colds and flu. People who smoke are also more susceptible to upper respiratory infections.

But other things also influence our susceptibility of viral infections. Winter weather is inherently stressful and the ability of stress to reduce immune function has long been recognized. Today, evidence is strong that the single biggest risk factor that puts otherwise healthy people at risk of catching a cold may be stress.

Staying well in the winter

Research show that most of us, sensibly, treat colds and flu at home. Those wishing to use more natural methods of preventing and ameliorating symptoms often turn to what could be described as the big three: vitamin C, zinc and echinacea. Currently there are any number of nutritional/herbal supplements that contain some or all of these in varying amounts – each purporting to help fight cold and flu.

Decades of research have gone into vitamin supplementation and immunity, and many nutrients have been found to be important for shoring up our immune defences. The most popular of these are vitamin C and zinc.

The role of vitamin C as a preventative continues to be debated but studies show that a dose of 1-8 g of vitamin C daily can decrease the severity of symptoms of the common cold by an average of 23% and reduce the duration of a cold by around 48%.

Zinc has long been promoted as a remedy and preventative for colds and flu. In one recent study, a nasal gel containing zinc was found to significantly shorten the duration of the common cold if taken within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms.

Evidence for zinc lozenges is more inconsistent. Around half show them be effective in the treatment of the common cold –the other half suggest they are not.

In the trials where they were effective participants took the lozenges in one or a mixture of  the following ways: a) by beginning therapy very shortly after onset of symptoms; b) by using zinc gluconate or glycine-sweetened zinc gluconate; and c) taking multiple doses per day of between 13-23 mg zinc per dose, show that zinc is effective.

Zinc nasal sprays are problematic because they often contain menthol which can be hard on the mucous membranes in the nasal passages. Zinc nasal sprays are known to cause a loss of the sense of smell in animals, and there have been reports of people losing their sense of smell from repeated heavy use of  zinc nasal sprays. For temporary relief from a stuffy nose consider a salt water or saline spray or make your own salt-water rinse (see below).

Echinacea, one of the best-selling over-the-counter herbal preparations. It’s not entirely clear from the research whether taking echinacea ‘just in case’ is an effective way to prevent a cold. However, several studies have shown that echinacea can work to relieve symptoms, reducing both severity and duration of colds. The key with echinacea as with other remedies may be to treat at the first signs of cold or flu.

Beyond the big three elderberry has been shown to enhance immunity and protect against respiratory infections. A regular dose of elderberry syrup or tincture in the winter may be one of the most effective ways of boosting your immune defences.

There are, however, lots of other ways to maintain wellbeing when the weather turns cold.

Try these first

When colds or flu strikes we all hope for a magic bullet to make things right quickly. But most of the methods we use to deal with cold and flu are still shots in the dark. Simple, traditional approaches, which invariably involve rest, liquids and warmth may not be a glamorous as having the latest jab or the latest medicinal panacea. But in the end they appear to be just as effective, less prone to adverse effects and less expensive.

If you are a looking to prevent or treat winter illness consider these 16 natural alternatives:

Eat well. Winter diets can be low in essential nutrients like Vitamins C and A. Go out of your way to include fresh, deeply coloured vegetables in your daily diet such as spinach, broccoli, tomatoes and peppers. Avoid foods which destroy these nutrients such as sugar, caffeine and trans fats.

A little less protein and a little more carbohydrate in your diet can help boost serotonin levels – but instead of a muffin or a cookie, opt for complex carbohydrates such as wholegrians, rice, and pulses.

If you are particularly tired try eliminating all white starchy foods from (white sugar, white rice, potatoes etc) your diet for a week or two and se if you feel better. Many people suffering from winter lethargy find this does the trick.

Don’t medicate, meditate. Stress deeply and quickly depresses immune function and  may be the single biggest risk factor for the flu. Meditation and yoga can reduce stress and so help improve immune function in adults. Hypnosis has been shown to have the same effect. Studies have shown that relaxation is an effective way of treating recurrent symptoms of cold and flu in children as well.

Research shows that it is not just the stress of work and family that are influential. The stress of being lonely and disconnected from your social group is equally devastating to immunity.

Strive to find a balance between the ‘inner’ work of meditation and the ‘outer’ work of enjoying friends and family.

Stay hydrated – with water, herbal teas and even chicken soup. Consider also functional herbal teas such as nettle and echinacea. This will help boost immunity and is also good for keeping skin healthy.

Sleep. We live in a 24/7 world and this may be responsible for more chronic illness than any of us can imagine. If you are feeling tired, stop. If you are feeling sleepy sleep. Getting enough sleep can help regulate hunger and blood sugar and reduce the stress responses linked with immune suppression.

Turn down the heat.  Our ability to adapt to winter chills can be made less effective if we heat our homes, schools and offices too high during this time. A heated building means that the impact of going out in the cold is all the more stressful and shocking for the heart. In midwinter, the difference between indoor temperature and outdoor temperature can sometimes be as great as 20º-30ºF (10º-15º C).

Under such circumstances, your body may find it difficult to adapt quickly. The respiratory tract may respond with spasm to the sudden inhalation of cold dry air and our immune response may be dampened leading to eventual illness.

Turn up the light. Sunlight is the best light for boosting health. Even in winter, when it seems sunlight is in low supply, getting outdoors for 20 minutes a day (minus the SPF) will boost your body’s ability to make vitamin D and this in turn can have a profound effect on moods. But bright artificial light – the kind you can get from artificial light boxes – has also been shown to reverse the symptoms of SAD, including carbohydrate craving. Early morning exposure to light appears to be more effective than exposure late in the day.

Act quickly. Most of the research into cold and flu remedies, both conventional and alternative, show that taking action at the first signs of a cold or flu is beneficial administer these very early on in an infection.

Get moving. Sitting at home by the fire is a pleasant winter pastime, and when you are tired it’s important to respond to the need to do nothing. But being too sedentary may also be one reason why we get sicker at this time of year. There is a wealth of research that links regular moderate exercise with improved immune function and reduced susceptibility to the common cold.

Try regular moderate exercise which has been shown to boost immunity. But steer clear of heavy, bursts of exercise every once in a blue moon – these have been shown to suppress immunity for several hours post-exercise and may leave you  more vulnerable to upper respiratory tract infections. If you can take exercise in the open air, rather than in enclose potentially germ-ridden environments, so much the better.

Reach for the garlic.  Garlic (Allium sativum) is not only an anti-viral agent, but also has an effective antibiotic effect and does not disturb your friendly gut flora. Fresh is best, but if you are taking supplements use those made from dried garlic and not stream distilled variety (which has little or no beneficial alliicin).

Try a saltwater cure. using salt water to irrigate your nasal passages can help helps break up congestion while also removing virus particles and bacteria from your nose. Try this recipe:

Dissolve 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon baking soda in 8 ounces of warm water. Fill a bulb syringe with this mixture (available at most chemists or health foods stores). Lean your head over a basin and while holding one nostril closed gently with your finger squirt the salt mixture into the other nostril. Let it drain. Repeat two to three times, and then treat the other nostril.

Don’t overdo the tipple. Many of us believe that a little ‘nip’ of something on a cold winter’s day will help take the chill away. But consumption of alcohol is completely counter-productive to the body’s own cold survival mechanisms. Alcohol causes a sharp decrease in core body temperature by causing the blood vessels to dilate. This sends blood to the superficial layers of skin and tissue (thus the glow in our cheeks) where it cools rapidly. As this blood cycles back into the deeper tissues of the body, it causes the core temperature to drop rapidly, increasing the risk of hypothermia.

Treat your skin. To prevent this, you may need to change the way you treat your skin in the winter, not washing with water that is too hot or too cold, using good quality moisturiser applied onto damp skin and a humidifier to restore moisture to home or office air. During the winter you may want to consider a richer moisturiser than you would use in the summer months. Make sure it’s made from nutrient rich plant oils and waxes rather than petrochemical-derived oils. Keep

Take care of your feet. Winter isn’t stiletto weather. When it’s cold outside consider warm, sensible shoes that keep your feet warm and help you balance and keep your grip on slippery or snowy pavements.

Steam inhalation. A warm moist inhalation may make you feel better though opinions vary as to the usefulness of inhaling warm moist air. If it works for you keep doing it!

Good manners. It’s pretty simple. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. It sounds obvious but it is amazing to see how many people don’t do it. When you cough or sneeze vapour containing infectious microbes is expelled at over 120 miles per hour easily reaching most people in your immediate vicinity. The viruses that spread colds and flu are spread chiefly by vapour and not by personal contact.

Wash your hands. Hands are one of the main vehicles for transmitting viruses from person to person and surface to surface. Wash thoroughly and frequently during the day especially after going to the toilet or before preparing food.