Winter often arrives with a mix of excitement and dread: exhilaration for cozying up around a fire and the holidays ahead, and trepidation over the season’s side effects, from parched skin and the common cold to an extra five pounds come New Year’s Day.
Approached smartly, however, and winter can be savored as much as summer. Here are four ailments to stay aware of—and the natural routes you can take to thwart them:
1. Winter woe: Dry skin
That luminous complexion you enjoyed throughout summer and fall may be a thing of the past before the Winter Solstice even hits. Why? For all of the season’s glittering beauty, colder temps, frigid winds, heavy holiday meals and rooms starved of humidity can take a toll on your complexion. The result is often dry, itchy skin, which can not only taint your holiday spirit (and ruin those family pics) but also be downright unpleasant.
Natural fix: If you didn’t do so last season, invest in a humidifier as soon as possible; by increasing the amount of moisture in the air, you’ll help keep your skin’s barrier hydrated. Hydrate your insides as well—with ample amounts of daily water, yes, but also with fruits and vegetables with high water content, such as cantaloupe, celery and oranges. Gently exfoliate once a week, switch to a heavier moisturizer—particularly one with ceramides—and don’t forget to apply SPF (even if there’s no sunshine on the horizon). Last but certainly not least, limit your consumption of alcohol and sugary foods: Both can lead to glycation, a process in which excess sugar molecules attach to collagen fibers, rendering your skin at risk for dryness, wrinkles and premature aging.
2. Winter woe: Weight gain
Winter weight, holiday heft, Thanksgiving tubby—call it what you want but packing on the pounds from November to January isn’t just a myth: According to research out of John Hopkins University, people gain an average of five to seven pounds during winter. While much of it can be blamed on seasonal events—cocktail parties teeming with enticing eats, family meals that go on for hours—it’s also due to general lifestyle changes that occur when the mercury drops. Shorter days, longer nights and inclement weather can prompt a sedentary lifestyle, while Seasonal Affective Disorder—a condition that affects four to six percent of the population—may spur you to reach for comfort foods (which, chances are, is rarely an apple).
What’s more, a shortage of fresh produce and the nutrients they provide can actually increase your appetite. As M.D., endocrinologist, and author of Beat Overeating Now! Dr. Scott Isaacs says, “…micronutrient deficiency from skimping on fruits and veggies manifests itself as an increase in hunger since your body craves vitamins and minerals.”
Natural fix: Start with what you elect to put on your plate. Come lunch time, resist the urge to make a turkey melt with leftovers and head to the nearest salad bar instead, where in-fresh produce will give you the biggest boost of nutrients and flavor; add quality protein like sunflower seeds or fatty fish to the mix and you’ll feel sated longer. Since most holiday functions often include multiple options, aim to be persistently prudent with what you choose: white meat over dark, salad over sweet potatoes glistening with marshmallows, even pumpkin pie over sugar-laden pecan.
Next, don’t just maintain your usual workout routine but intensify it to compensate for the indulgences you do have (and try to take advantage of all the fun outdoor sports winter has to offer, such as skiing and snowboarding). Finally, pop a vitamin D supplement and head outside in the natural light whenever you can: A lack of sunlight can decrease feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin, thus potentially leading to depression and cravings, while inadequate Vitamin D levels can result in an increase of abdominal fat.
3. Winter woe: The common cold
We may get sick year-round, but winter does see an uptick in rhinovirus—the culprit behind your sore throat, tiresome cough, and flattening fatigue. While this may have less to do with the weather itself and more to do with those lifestyle changes (less exercise, heated rooms, and being in enclosed spaces around others’ germs), it’s key to arm yourself before the first blizzard arrives.
Natural fix: Boost your immune system—not only with the dietary strategies listed above but also with foods that are specifically high in vitamin C and zinc, such as avocadoes, blackberries, seeds and broccoli. Wash your hands regularly and be sure to dry them well; the CDC reports that wet hands are more likely to spread germs than dry ones. Avoid alcohol to help you calm down from the craze of the holidays and reach for ginger tea instead: Taiwanese researchers report that ginger can help stave off prevalent winter ailments like bronchitis, thanks to its ability to inhibit respiratory bugs from attaching to cells. And keep on keeping on: Exercise is one of the easiest, most effective ways to bolster your body’s natural defense mechanisms.
4. Winter woe: Joint pain
Ebenezer Scrooge’s misery might not have been due to the holidays after all: As Atlanta-based rheumatologist Dr. Kelly Weselman says, “muscles, ligaments and joints get stiffer with lower temperatures.” One likely reason, says orthopedic surgeon Dr. Laura Reese, is that the synovial lining of the joints (the “oil” that keeps our joints and cartilage healthy) “reacts to barometer and temperature changes.” Translation? Aches and pains that can take this wonderful time of the year to straight-up uncomfortable.
Natural fix: It may seem counterintuitive, but joint pain can be relieved by moving those joints. Merely going for a walk can increase function and mobility, while staying inactive may reduce your range of motion and escalate joint paint. Additionally, consider the inclusion of vitamin D in your diet and as a supplement—not only to ward off weight gain (see #2) but also to decrease inflammation, which can lead to sensitivity and pain, and to support overall bone health.
Exercise—it’s a recurrent theme here for a reason—builds muscles and bolsters bone strength, both of which can lighten the pressure on your joints. Further, spritz your home with peppermint essential oil: Not only will it fill your house with the scent of the season but it also presents properties that can naturally alleviate joint pain. Mazel tov, indeed.