By Jessica Park
After the rush of the holidays come the winter blahs – we’re more tired, less motivated, or fighting a nasty cold. But this slump isn’t inevitable or unpreventable. Boone Hospital Center’s Health Promotions Nurse Brenda Wilson has a short list of simple things you can do to feel well all year round.
Proper hydration isn’t only a summertime concern. Heavier clothing makes us sweat, but sweat evaporates more quickly in cold air, so we don’t notice when we’re perspiring. Indoor heating also makes the air dryer, which slowly dehydrates us.
“We lose more fluid than we think we do,” Brenda explains. “It’s why our skin gets dry in the wintertime. Water is a nutrient that carries other nutrients throughout your body. You have to have fluid for your body to function properly. Dehydration can make you feel tired, dizzy or light-headed.”
You don’t need to drink a glass of ice water, either. Hydrate with warm beverages like tea, apple cider or hot chocolate. Limit caffeine and alcohol – both can dehydrate you. Up your water intake by eating fruits and vegetables with high water content, like pears, tomatoes, cucumbers, celery or spinach.
“Drink fluids like you would any other time of year,” Brenda advises. “If you’re exercising, definitely make sure you stay hydrated.”
Our need for exercise doesn’t change with the weather. Regular physical activity is good for our bodies and moods. You don’t need to big resolutions to get fit, either. Joining a gym or hiring a personal trainer are great ways to stay motivated, but they’re not your only options.
“Just do something different,” Brenda recommends. “Go to your favorite big-box store and walk laps around the aisles before you make your purchase. It’s an easy way to get extra steps!”
You can exercise at home, too. YouTube and fitness sites offer video instructions and online classes for free or minimal costs. Brenda also recommends a smartphone app, like 7 Minute Workout, which mixes cardio with resistance training: “The resistance training uses bodyweight, so you don’t need equipment!”
If you lack the space for a treadmill, Brenda recommends using resistance bands, which can be used for many exercises and store easily.
When exercising outside during winter, dress to stay warm but not overheat. Dress in layers and wear moisture-wicking fabrics. Avoid exercising outdoors in icy conditions – black ice can make a slippery surface look deceptively safe. And don’t forget your sunscreen.
“You’ve got to keep using sunscreen, period,” Brenda says. Even with shorter days and less time outside, we risk exposure to skin-damaging UV rays that cause premature aging or skin cancer, including melanoma.
On a bright day after a snowfall, you can get a bad sunburn, because the snow reflects sunlight. Before you shovel snow or ski, apply sunscreen to your face and other exposed areas of your skin. Sunscreen adds a protective layer of moisture on cold, dry and windy days.
Don’t avoid the sun, either. Studies have shown that changing light levels in winter can cause seasonal depression. Spending 5 to 10 minutes outside on a sunny day or sitting in a naturally lit room can boost your mood.
Get your vitamin D
Exposure to sunlight can boost your body’s vitamin D production – except during Missouri winters. Brenda says, “Where we are, latitude-wise, we don't get the best rays of sunlight for vitamin D, which is our primary source. And while sunscreen protects your skin, it further limits vitamin D production.”
Too little vitamin D can make you feel exhausted or depressed. Because your body uses vitamin D to build a responsive immune system and strong bones, a deficiency might make you prone to infections, osteoporosis and other health conditions.
Brenda recommends foods high in vitamin D like fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel), dairy products, egg yolks, vegetables and fruits, and fortified orange juice. If you have risk factors that make it hard to get adequate vitamin D from food, like a gastrointestinal condition or vegetarian diet, talk to your primary health care provider about supplements. If your provider suspects a deficiency, they can check your vitamin D levels with a blood test.
Eat your fruits and vegetables
When it’s cold we often enjoy comfort foods with grains, meat and dairy – and not many vegetables or fruits. Brenda says, “When we skimp on fruits and vegetables, we skimp on nutrients and fiber. Fiber keeps you regular, helps you feel full, and can lower your LDL cholesterol.”
Enjoy a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables, like citrus fruits and root vegetables in the winter. Find a recipe online with a vegetable or fruit you haven’t eaten before or didn’t like growing up.
“A lot of us glaze over at the idea of root vegetables,” Brenda says. “But preparation makes a difference. Roasted vegetables are wonderful. My husband and I thought we hated brussels sprouts because when we grew up, we only had them boiled. But roasted or pan-seared brussels sprouts with a little balsamic glaze or parmesan are stellar!”
Don’t share a cold or flu
“If you're sick, stay home and don't share!” Brenda says. “Limit contact with family members as much as you can. Just because one person has a flu or cold doesn't mean the whole house has to get it.”
Proper hand hygiene is a key defense against infectious disease. Clean your hands before touching your eyes, nose and mouth; before preparing or eating food; and after using the restroom. You can use alcohol-based hand sanitizers if your hands aren’t visibly dirty.
Cover coughs and sneezes using your arm or your shirt, not your hand. Colds and flu spread through moisture droplets that spray when we cough or sneeze. The viruses can live on surfaces.
“If you cough into your hand, you're inevitably going to touch something else, and those germs can lay there for a few days,” Brenda explains.
If you have flu symptoms, see your primary care provider within 48 hours to get tested, so that they can prescribe antiviral medication to lessen the severity of your flu. Flu symptoms set in rapidly and include extreme fatigue, body aches and fever, which are less common with colds.
Finally, if you’re sick, don’t push yourself. Taking a sick day helps you recover more quickly. Give yourself time to rest and stay hydrated.