The logs are burning in the stove, a mug of comforting Masala Chai is in my hand, and I am watching the snow fall. It gives me comfort, being sheltered inside my house, especially after a walk in the snow. And I love watching the sky blend with the heaps of snow-white fluff. It puts me in the mood to write.
This cold season has been the worst in Ireland in years. First we had a row of stormy winds and hurricanes (the ex-hurricane Ophelia even inspired me to write a blog post about Hygge), then snow once December came. In fact, we’ve had more snowfalls this winter than I can count, which isn’t normal for Ireland at all. We have had years without any snow. Last year there was hardly any frost. But this year ‘The beast from the East’ decided to pay us a visit – a winter storm coming all the way from Siberia, bound to bring temperatures as low as -10 C and accumulations of snow up to 40 cm. Brrr.
I have once heard of a ‘Siberian Winter’ in England, sometime around 2005. Living in West Siberia at the time, I nearly died laughing – such temperatures (I think it was -5 C) are not even close to Siberian winters, where the average temperature is about -20 C and can go all the way down to -35 C and even lower in the northern regions. At the time using the term ‘Siberian winter’ seemed like overdramatizing. But having lived in Ireland for almost 10 years, I am not that critical anymore. I still remember what it feels like to go out in -30 C, when you gasp for air but it’s too cold that you can’t breathe, I remember what it’s like to not feel your feet even though you wear woollen socks on top of 2 pairs of regular socks and your leather boots have real fur inside. And yet I can tell that 0 C in Ireland feels just as bad as -10 C, and -10 C feels at least like -20 C if not worse. And it definitely doesn’t help living in a country that is so not used to the cold and snow that once the real snow hits, the country stands still.
But enough of comparing! I can’t describe to both sides how the winter is in another country, it is just something that must be experienced to understand.
Today I wanted to talk about the cold weather and how it affects your health.
When it comes to weather, people say many different things. And to each their own, I understand, but recently I’ve heard some people say that cold weather is good for health because it trains the immune system. Some even say that the cold is good for you because it reduces inflammation in the body, probably based on the fact that we apply cold packs to reduce the swelling when we’re injured (or some scientific research?). But is it really so? How does the weather affect you? Let’s see.
Negative Effects of Cold Weather on Your Health
It is no news that when we are exposed to the cold for a long time we risk getting what is called the ‘cold injuries’. These cold injuries include:
- Hypothermia, or abnormally low body temperature.
- Frostbite, or freezing of the skin (usually face, hands and feet) that causes numbness at its early stages.
- Chilblains, or tissue damage due to cold and humidity.
- Trench foot, or a painful white foot after exposure to cold and damp conditions.
But these are not the only side effects. How does the cold really affect your health?
Cold weather weakens your immune system
Of course, we talk about accidental hypothermia and not the one induced as a form of therapy, but hypothermia, or a lower body temperature that is a result of exposure to cold, may reduce your immune function. When you’re cold your body starts shivering to keep warm and shuts down the immune system, making you more likely to catch an infection. It should be noted that it’s not the cold itself that makes you sick, it is rather the effect the cold exposure has on your body that makes you more prone to it. So short-term exposure to mildly cold temperatures will probably not raise your risks of infection.
Cold weather makes you more likely to catch an upper respiratory infection
The reason for this is the constricted blood vessels in your nose. As you breathe in the cold air, the vessels constrict to prevent the loss of heat, thus also preventing the infection-fighting white blood cells from reaching the mucous membranes that filter out the harmful microorganisms. What’s worth adding, is that the damp cold air makes you even more likely to catch an upper respiratory infection (such as bronchitis), especially when combined with exercise.
Cold weather may worsen your asthma
Or even trigger an asthma attack, especially when the cold is combined with a physical exertion.
Cold weather negatively affects your joints
This especially applies to elderly and those suffering from arthritis. But despite the claims that the cold reduces inflammation, the cold may actually induce inflammation. Only medically-controlled therapeutic hypothermia may have an anti-inflammatory effect on some organs, such as brain.
Cold weather increases the risk of cardio-vascular disease
Many studies have shown a link between the cold weather, inflammation and heart disease. Statistically, more heart attacks happen in winter than in summer period, and the risk is further increased after shovelling the snow in people who are not used to such vigorous activities.
Cold weather increases your chances of having headaches
This is again because of the vasoconstriction. The constriction of the blood vessels may cause tension-type headaches. I have had loads of them during winters in Russia – they are no fun.
Cold weather is bad for your skin
Combined with dry air specifically, it is very drying and destructive for your skin. It also doesn’t help that we try to heat our homes because it further makes the air dry, resulting in cracked lips and knuckles and dry skin in general. A good moisturizer and a humidifier may help to improve the condition.
Other factors for frequent infections in the cold months
We do not necessarily get sick only because it’s cold outside. Although the cold weather may lower your guard down, it usually happens if you are exposed to the cold for a prolonged period of time. Then how come that we get sick more often in winter? The answer lies within the fact that cold weather makes us stay inside more often, or use public transport instead of walking. Staying indoors with large groups of people means closer contact and more chances of spreading germs one to another. We also tend to keep the windows shut to keep the heat inside, thus not letting the air to circulate and filter out those germs.
Another factor for frequent infections is the vitamin deficiencies. We don’t eat too many colourful fruit and veg in winter, which are rich in immune-boosting vitamins A and C. We also don’t get much sunshine, especially farther north. Even if the winter days are sunny, the sun is not as high as in summertime, and we get less UV exposure. No matter how bad the UV rays are for our skin, it is still essential to be exposed to the sun light at peak times for 15 minutes a day, without sunscreen, to produce enough vitamin D. Vitamin D is essential for immune function and the lack of it simply makes us weak.
10 Things To Do To Stay Healthy When It’s Cold Outside
You can take the following steps to avoid all the side-effects of the cold weather.
- Wear multiple layers of light, loose-fitting clothing and re-adjust according to the temperatures. This strategy is better than just wearing tight and very warm clothes, which are less insulating and may harbour dampness.
- Avoid spending too much time out in the cold. It can be good to go out and get some fresh air, but don’t act brave and get inside as soon as you start to feel uncomfortable.
- Wear hats, scarves and gloves to prevent the heat from escaping and protect your skin as well.
- Make sure you eat enough. Nutrition is the key to health, and your diet should always be varied and rich in vitamins. But it makes even more sense in winter. You can also put your mind at ease about carbohydrates and some fat – we actually need more of those during the cold months as they provide us with more energy that is needed for insulation. Please note: I did not just give you a permission to eat that cake in whole 😉 Choose warming soups, stews and curries – they are particularly pleasant when it’s nasty outside.
- Drink plenty of warm liquids. If you’re worried about excess caffeine intake, switch to naturally caffeine-free Rooibos or calming Chamomile. If you’re into spices, try Masala Chai or Lemon and Ginger tea – they are excellent at keeping you warm and protected.
- Ask your doctor about a vitamin supplement, containing vitamins A, C, D and Zinc. But please do not experiment with vitamins if you have no experience with them. The safer choice is to go for a multivitamin rather than individual vitamins as their dosage is usually higher.
- Take warm showers instead of hot and try lowering the temperature gradually before you come out of the shower. This way you won’t feel too cold when you do. Remember though that you shouldn’t go out of your comfort zone.
- Wash your hands regularly, especially after being in public places. Keep your distance from other people who are sick and avoid large crowds whenever possible.
- Open a window for 15 minutes twice a day to let the fresh air filter out the germs. Go to another room if you feel too cold or put another layer of clothes on. Better yet, go for a 15 minute walk.
- Use a good rich moisturizer and a humidifier to protect your skin in the dry and heated environment. Your skin needs extra care in winter months, just like in the sunny season.
I hope you enjoy the snow. I know I do.
Stay warm and healthy.