Staying Healthy during The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
Although technically winter doesn’t start until the 22nd December, these past few weeks sure have felt like it.
What impact does winter have on my health? Is it bad or good for me to go out in the cold? Is Christmas really the most wonderful time of the year?
Baby it’s Cold Outside
Winter brings with it cold, dark, rainy days but it also brings with it Christmas, New Years and other religious festivals. There are good and bad things that come with winter just like any other season. The same can be said about health at this time of year. Yes there are more cold and flu viruses going around but, at the same time, winter kills off disease ridden insects and microorganisms. Cold weather also increases your heart rate and metabolism to keep you warm and subsequently burns off brown fat, it also increases blood pressure which can lead to harmful medical conditions.
As you can see there is a balancing act with health at this time of year. In this blog we will discuss all the health concerns around winter and address any common misconceptions about ‘the most wonderful time of the year’.
Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow
Our bodies will naturally react to the cold. On a cold day in order to keep the internal organs nice and warm, blood is shifted away from the skin towards the organs. This is why your hands become icy cold on a cold day, because not only is the outside air cooling the surface of the skin, the warm blood that was underneath the skin is being sent to more important areas. It is always a good idea to keep the middle nice and warm to help prevent this from occurring, as well as wearing gloves.
Shivering is another way the body stays warm in the cold. The movements throw off heat allowing the rest of the body to stay warm. Shivering cannot be controlled and will increase the colder the body gets. Voluntary movement on the other hand such as jumping up and down or rubbing your hands together is another way to generate heat; sometimes eliminating the need to shiver.
Although it feels very cold outside at the moment you’re unlikely to experience frost bite in this country. As long as you are wrapped up warm and don’t spend all day out in the cold it is unlikely that you will catch frost bite. Frost bite occurs when the fluid in your skin and muscles freeze, which then leads to cell death and then frost bite.
The same can be said about hypothermia. Hypothermia occurs when your internal body temperature drops, this only occurs when the body loses heat faster than it is being produced. Unless you are outside in the cold unprepared or you fall into cold water the main ways to prevent hypothermia, according to the NHS, (1) are
- keep your home at a temperature of at least 18C
- keep windows and internal doors shut
- wear warm clothes
- use a room thermometer
- Things to remember at this time of year: wrap up warm, don’t stay in cold places for too long, keep your home warm and check on relatives and loved ones to see how they are coping with the cold.
All I Want For Christmas is a Healthy Immune System
There is evidence to suggest that cold weather during winter suppresses the immune system. (2) But what is the immune system?
The immune system is your way of fighting off disease. It consists of multiple structures all across the body as well as, multiple responses to fighting off disease. When you get a fever thats your immune response raising the bodies temperature to slow the diseases spread. Getting a cold results in a blocked nose because the blood vessels swell trying to get more white blood cells to the area to fight off the cold. The immune system has evolved over time to detect foreign bugs and then destroy them. Without the immune system even catching a cold could be life threatening.
Studies suggest that inhaled cold air cause your body to respond by constricting blood vessels in the airways, diverting the blood away, as well as suppressing of immune responses. This leads to an increase risk of catching an infection when breathing in cold air. (2)
However, once you get a cold your body will remember than strain of the virus. This means that if you ever come into contact with that strain again your body will know how to fight it and you won’t get ill from it. The reason why you get a cold pretty much every year is because the virus mutates, meaning the body can’t recognise it from before.
So what can I do to help my immune system? The best way to help your immune system is to stay fit and healthy over winter. How do I do that I hear you ask? Here are some helpful tips to try.
Walking in the Air
By keeping active and moving around outdoors you increase your heart rate, which pumps blood all around the body. This blood is important because it supplies your body with vital nutrients as well as removing some waste products. You also improve lymphatic drainage by contracting your muscles. The Lymphatic system is the waste removal system of the body, by increasing the drainage of the system you will inevitably fight off the disease quicker. Any sunlight you absorb whilst staying active will also give you lots of vitamin D. Vitamin D is needed to keep bones, muscles and teeth healthy. (3)
During sleep your body heals and repairs, this means that if you get plenty of sleep it will aid your recovery. Sleep is all about routine, although it may be tempting to have a lie in don’t! You will feel a lot better if you go to bed and wake up at the same time everyday, that being said you still need to find the right amount of sleep for you. The average time adults need to sleep is between 7 and 9 hours. As well as sleep, mindfulness/meditation is important to reduce the amount of stress you are experiencing. Stress also suppresses the immune system, so by reducing that you will inevitably improve your immune system. (3)
Mistletoe and Wine
By eating a healthy well balanced diet you are fuelling your body ready to fight off disease. All the vitamins and minerals gained through fruit and veg will be vital in maintaining a healthy immune system. Try and increase the amount of fruit and veg you eat over the winter period by one each day. As well as eating fruit and veg drinking a glass of milk can also help your immune system. This is because milk contains protein, vitamins A, vitamin B12 and calcium, all vital nutrients and vitamins for your body. Semi skimmed milk is a better choice than full fat, or if you don’t like milk try another dairy product such as cheese or yogurt. (3)
Slippin’ Around the Christmas Tree
With the weather cooling and the classic British rain it is not uncommon for it to be a bit icy under foot. This can lead to falls and injuries; if you do fall and injure yourself it is always best to get it checked by a professional, such as a chiropractor or osteopath, to make sure it is only minor injury. However, it is preferable to not fall in the first place. Some useful tips to help you stay on your feet are
- Plan your journeys with extra time to avoid rushing on ice
- Wear suitable footwear with plenty of grip
- Use special care when exiting buildings and cars
- Walk on designated walkways and footpaths
- Take short steps or shuffle for stability.
- Bend slightly forward and walk flat-footed with your center of gravity directly over your feet as much as possible.
- Keep your hands out of your pockets.
- Be prepared to fall. If you fall, fall with sequential contacts at your thigh, hip and shoulder. Avoid using outstretched arms to brace yourself.
- Bend your back and head forward to avoid hitting your head against the ground. (4)
Unfortunately there are no Christmas Songs about Osteopathy… Yet
Looking at winter from an Osteopathic point of view, we can help you with any injuries picked up over the winter months. When looking at how blood vessels work in the cold it is not uncommon for little niggles and aches to become worse. This is potentially because the muscles are becoming more tired more quickly, due to them guarding and protecting certain injuries. This is a normal healthy response however, it does lead to an increase in aches and pains.
Osteopaths can first identify the cause of the problem and then help manage the symptoms associated with it. There are also techniques we can use to improve your lymphatic drainage thereby, acting on your immune system. We can also give lifestyle advice to help boost your immune system over the coming months and reduce the likelihood of falls and injuries from occurring.
This is the most wonderful time of the year and by following the steps above you give your body the best chance of staying healthy throughout the festive period.
Mourtzoukou, E.G. and Falagas, M.E., 2007. Exposure to cold and respiratory tract infections. The International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, 11(9), pp.938-943.
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