This Is How to Stay Healthy in the Winter
The long winter months can be trying for many of us. Between the bitter cold, the dwindling sunshine, and the inclement weather, it's a lot to deal with after what has already been a difficult twelve months.
And of course, it's a time of year where we tend to be extra concerned about our health.
Right now, a lot of us are worried about how to stay healthy in the winter season. But there are a few simple steps that all of us can follow to take better care of ourselves while we wait for warmer days to return.
1. Get a Flu Shot
The health question on most people's minds at this time is the status of the emerging COVID-19 vaccines. But it's not the only vaccine that we need to be thinking about.
The CDC estimates that the 2019-2020 flu shot prevented up to 7.5 million cases of the flu, including over a hundred thousand that would have required hospitalization and more than 6,000 that would have been fatal.
With many hospitals being pressed to capacity and even beyond due to the pandemic, preventing thousands of additional hospitalizations due to the everyday flu is essential in relieving some of the strain that the healthcare system is facing.
Even if you're still social distancing as much as possible, the relative hardiness of the flu virus means that you can still have ample opportunity to be exposed. Hence, getting your flu shot is one of the best moves that you can make to ensure a healthy winter.
2. Practice Good Hygiene
Along with getting a flu shot — and a COVID vaccine as soon as one is available — the next best thing that you can do is to practice immaculate hygiene.
Washing your hands thoroughly and frequently is the most basic precaution that you can take. Particularly if you're caring for or cohabitating with someone who falls ill.
If you find yourself out somewhere where handwashing amenities are insufficient or unavailable, hand sanitizer makes for a serviceable second choice. In order to ensure that it's effective though, make sure that it contains at least 60% alcohol by volume.
In between handwashings, try to avoid touching your eyes, face, and mouth as well. These are the most common points of entry for pathogens like the flu or the common cold.
3. Keep Your Surroundings Clean
Your hands aren't the only things that you should keep clean. Keeping your surroundings tidy can be pivotal to staying healthy all throughout the year.
Think about surfaces that you touch often like doorknobs and light switches, or surfaces prone to being soiled like those in the kitchen, bathrooms, and laundry area. These all merit special attention and need to be attended to frequently, whether someone in the household is ill or not. And any materials handled by children should also be cleaned thoroughly and frequently with an appropriate disinfectant.
Air quality is another major factor in keeping your home healthy. Even setting aside potential pathogens, the air in your home can become filled with allergens, pollutants, and other irritants that can negatively impact your health.
To minimize their potential effects, you should — at a minimum — vacuum carpets and upholstery twice weekly. And make sure to change the filter as needed. You should also make a point of changing bedding at least once a week.
But particularly in the wintertime, you'll want to check on your HVAC system. As you'll probably be running the heat more than you normally would, you can expect your filter to accumulate debris that much faster. Replacing air filters once a month will help keep your home free of harmful irritants.
4. Eat Well
Your body's natural immune system can protect you from a wide variety of illnesses — assuming that you take care of it in kind. In order for it to run at its peak efficacy, you need to fuel your body with all of the raw materials that it needs.
Unfortunately, many of us don't meet our daily recommended allotments of crucial vitamins and minerals even at the best of times. So during the winter when our immune systems are being especially taxed, it's important to make sure that you're choosing healthy, nutritious options whenever possible.
As a rule, minimally processed, organic foods are the prime option. Most processed food contain genetically modified foodstuffs, which among other potential health risks may be linked to weakened immune systems.
But as it is winter, fresh, organic produce and other staple foods can often be out-of-season. In these cases, you might supplement your diet with vitamins in order to ensure that your immune system has all of the raw materials that it needs to run smoothly. Just be sure to do your own vitamin research first to make sure that any supplements you choose can actually meet your needs.
5. Rest Your Body
Fuel isn't the only thing that your body needs to run at its best. A lack of quality rest will not only leave you feeling exhausted, but it will leave you vulnerable to illness as well.
When you sleep, your immune system is able to focus on producing anti-infection agents like antibodies and cytokines. Without these, it's practically impossible for your body to resist viruses and hostile bacteria. So getting enough sleep is vital to giving your body the time it needs to bolster its natural defenses.
Even setting aside the need for your immune system to build up those protective agents, a lack of sleep increases the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in your body. An excess of cortisol is related to a plethora of negative health outcomes, and in the short-term can lead to increased inflammation in the body. So even if you don't get sick directly because of a lack of sleep, you definitely won't be feeling your best without it.
6. Take Time to De-Stress
In addition to resting your body, it's important to take time out to rest your mind and de-stress.
High levels of stress can have negative impacts on your musculoskeletal system, cardiovascular system, endocrine system, gastrointestinal system, and nervous system, among others.
But especially of concern during the winter are the effects that it can have on the respiratory and immune systems.
Extreme stress can cause rapid breathing and shortness of breath. For a person suffering from seasonal allergies or common winter-time illnesses like the cold or the flu, this can exacerbate their symptoms.
And then again, there's the problem of increased cortisol levels.
Cortisol is called the stress hormone because it is released in response to what the body thinks are dangerous situations, and it plays a number of roles like regulating the immune response. When it works as intended, your body would trigger increased immune system activation in preparation for a potential injury.
The problem is that your body can't tell the difference between the stress of a life-threatening situation and the stress from say, a frustrating day at work. It responds similarly either way. And when stress becomes chronic, this increased level of activity becomes unsustainable.
So over time, these increased cortisol levels start to wear the immune system out, leaving you vulnerable to infections. To avoid this, learning about your stress response and what you can do to manage it will help keep you healthy this winter.
7. Get Some Sun Where You Can
We see less sunlight per day during the winter months. And not only does this limit the about of time we can enjoy the outdoors, but it can negatively impact our health as well.
For instance, a lack of sunlight is believed to be the driving cause behind seasonal affective disorder, also known as the "winter blues". This is a form of depression that occurs during the winter, believed to be caused by a drop in serotonin levels due to decreased sun exposure.
But how can less sunlight affect your brain chemistry? Well, researchers believe that it is due to the reduced intake of vitamin D.
When we absorb sunlight through our skin, our body uses it to produce vitamin D, which we need to produce serotonin. And since many of us get a large chunk of our vitamin D intake from the sun, the lack of it can cause those winter blues.
And since vitamin D is also crucial to a healthy immune system, the lack of sun exposure that comes with the season can also inhibit our ability to fight infections. Healthy levels of vitamin D also help regular sleep cycles. And since we need sleep in order to refresh our immune systems, a lack of sunlight can deal double damage to our disease-fighting abilities.
8. Stay Active
While getting quality rest is important to staying healthy, it's just as important to take regular exercise.
Staying active helps promote overall better health, including producing a healthy balance of hormones that promote regular, high-quality sleep, and strong immune response.
And exercising outdoors, weather permitting, is also a great way to get a little added sun exposure.
9. Remember to Hydrate
It's easy to remind yourself to stay hydrated during the heat of the summer. But it's important to remember that even if you're not working up a sweat, dehydration can still happen anytime.
In certain regards, the winter can be just as bad as the summer in terms of dehydration.
For one, people tend to feel less thirsty during the winter. Meanwhile, their body is still functioning as normal and going through fluids at its usual rate. Over time, this can leave you dehydrated without even noticing it.
It's a similar story with sweat — or the lack of it. Without that indicator that our bodies are losing moisture, it can be easy to forget to hydrate.
And once we get dehydrated, our bodies start to suffer. Especially if we get sick.
Flu symptoms like sweating, runny nose, and vomiting all dehydrate us. Hence why you're always told to drink lots of fluids if you're ill. Making sure that you have plenty of water in the tank to begin with can help minimize that danger and prevent merely unpleasant symptoms from becoming a larger problem.
10. Treat Your Skin Well
During the winter, the cold, dry air can sap the moisture right out of your skin. That would be bad enough, but if you're getting dehydrated as many of us are, your skin is being assaulted on all sides. Meanwhile, if you've been good about washing your hands frequently, they're also at risk of drying out.
All of this can cause itchy, flaky skin. Not only is this unpleasant, but cracks from dryness can undermine your skin's protective barriers and leave you open to infections.
To avoid that, make sure that not only are you drinking plenty of water, but you're keeping your skin hydrated and protected as well.
11. Avoid Travel Unless Absolutely Necessary
Travel is one of the largest vectors of disease. It tends to involve large numbers of people gathering in confined spaces, often with little ventilation that could help mitigate the transmission of airborne pathogens. And due to the large numbers moving through shared spaces, sanitizing surfaces like seating, armrests, and tray tables is often not feasible.
That's why traveling during the winter — and during this winter in particular — is a health risk.
Avoiding travel is one of the best decisions that you can make to stay healthy during the winter. But if you must travel, be sure to take steps to travel as safely as possible.
Knowing How to Stay Healthy in the Winter Protects You, and Everyone Around You
Staying healthy during the frigid months is always a concern, and this year more than most. But by following these basic guidelines, the best chance of protecting not only your health but the health of your loved ones.
If there's one major takeaway from the 2020 pandemic, it's that our collective health is only as strong as the least cautious among us. So by concerning yourself with how to stay healthy in the winter, you're helping to protect everyone you come in contact with.
The especially dedicated among us might consider using supplements their bodies an extra boost this winter. But buyer beware: if you're doing your supplement shopping online, you could be leaving yourself vulnerable to less-than-scrupulous dealers. To make sure that doesn't happen, check out our list of the top mistakes to avoid making when shopping for supplements.