Dismal driving conditions, frizzy hair and a higher electricity bill aren’t the only consequences of winter: Chillier weather and darker days can also take a serious toll on your health. Here’s how your well-being takes a hit when the mercury plunges—and what you can do to sustain the vibrancy you feel in balmier temps:
1. The winter blues
The winter blues are far from just a myth: Seasonal Affective Disorder—which, The Mayo Clinic reports, can strike a person during any seasonal change—is most ubiquitous during winter, when the cold weather, shorter days and dearth of sunlight engenders a number of season-specific symptoms, from oversleeping and weight gain to feeling exactly zero excitement for your favorite activities.
The solution? Taking preventative measures—and seeking help, if necessary. “Light therapy has been a mainstay of treatment for SAD since the 1980s,” the National Institute of Mental Health reports. The concept behind the method is to “replace the diminished sunshine of the fall and winter months using daily exposure to bright, artificial light” through the use of a light box. Psychotherapy, specifically Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, has also been demonstrated to provide relief, while exercise in winter operates as a natural mood booster—now and always.
2. Increased risk of heart attack
Reporting back results from a 16-year study that involved more than 280,000 patients, Science Daily found that heart attacks peak during the winter months. And while the holidays may bring heartbreak for some (particularly those who are isolated from their friends and family), the venerable journal found that this higher incidence was largely due to the drop in temperature—and was largely present in individuals who were predisposed to cardiovascular problems in the first place (chiefly those with diabetes, hypertension and atherosclerosis). “The body responds to cold by constricting superficial blood vessels, which decreases thermal conduction in the skin and subsequently increases arterial blood pressure,” Science Daily reports. “Other responses are shivering and increased heart rate, which raise the metabolic rate and in turn increase body temperature” which “may ultimately trigger a heart attack.”
How to safeguard your heart—no matter if you’re already in good health, physically and romantically? Keep your body moving (your heart is a muscle, after all), manage stress (which tends to spike during the holidays), beware of excess alcohol, get adequate sleep and ensure you know the warning signs of a heart attack.
3. Seasonal bugs
Trekking through the mall in search of the perfect present, taking your outdoor exercises into the gym, even getting together with friends and family for a festive meal can all wreak havoc on your immune system. “During winter months, people spend more time inside and in close contact with each other, such as in stores, malls and restaurants,” Harvard Health reports. “This means that the flu, coughs and colds are more easily spread.”
No need to pull a Grinch until Spring arrives, though. Carry hand sanitizer with you, frequently wash your hands with soap and water, and fill your plate with immunity-enriching foods like oranges, turmeric, ginger, garlic, spinach and almonds.
4. An aching head
It’s not just the impending holidays and their myriad stresses that can cause a headache—blame, too, the nippier temps: One of the causes of headaches is “constriction of blood vessels in the brain,” Xiang Li, MD and internist at Tri-City Medical Center in California, explains. “Cold weather can cause blood vessels to quickly narrow, reducing the flow of blood.” Sun glare, storms and the drop in barometric pressure can also cause chemical imbalances in your brain, resulting in the sudden desire to seek out a painkiller (or a dark, silent room).
Aside from the things you do in the name of health day in and day out—aim for adequate rest, eat a diet rich in fruit, veggies, and lean proteins, exercise often and cope smartly with stress—consider amping up your intake of vitamin D before autumn ends: the sunshine vite might help ward off an achy brain, Health reports. In addition to supplements, you may want to increase your consumption of fatty fish (such as salmon and tuna), eggs (with the yolks!), mushrooms, milk and oatmeal.
Numbness, tingling, gray-ish or white skin, a complete loss of sensation—all are signs of frostbite, wherein body tissue literally freezes in response to extremely cold temperatures (and is manifested through the constriction of blood vessels and oxygen to the frozen body parts). WebMD confirms that frostbite typically occurs in places that are farthest from “the body core, and, therefore, have less blood flow:” feet, toes, hands, fingers, nose and ears. Quick treatment relieves the symptoms of superficial frostbite, but “deep” frostbite, its severer cousin, can result in tissue damage and the loss of an appendage. (Your grandma said your fingers are going to fall off from the cold for a reason.)
How to avoid it—or treat it if it happens? First, wear adequate protective clothing and don’t stay in the cold for a prolonged period of time; if you are in the cold when frostbite arrives, find a warm haven immediately. Run the affected part under warm water or wrap it in a blanket, and rehydrate (preferably with something, yes, warm). And shy away from too many of those apres-ski hot toddys: “You are more at risk of developing frostbite if you have had alcohol,” Patient says, “which makes you drowsy or behave differently.” Less aware of “how cold you are and less aware that you are in danger,” the less likely you are to “get out of the cold, or protect yourself from it.” In other words, head for the lodge and nestle in next to the fireplace—snow is just as lovely when seen from a cozy, indoor place.