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Winter Deluge Health Survival
Along with the deluge of snow, a flurry of health issues can face Canadians over the wintertime. The colder weather brings with it an increase in cold and flu occurrence, dryer skin and air, more painful joints, as well as an increased risk for heart attacks and strokes, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
The months after the holidays are always the hardest to get by. Dreary and dark days brought on by the onslaught of snow and fluctuating temperature drops make winter a tough one to navigate. The key to staying on top is to have a manageable healthy routine that’s right for you.
Cold and Flu Season
Other than to arm your own immune system against this year’s nasty strain, you can also do your part by reducing the spread and contamination to others by getting a flu shot. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those particularly vulnerable to sickness include children under 5 years of age, adults 65 years and older, pregnant women, individuals living in long-term care facilities or nursing homes, and those who are immune compromised (e.g. HIV or AIDS, cancer, and those on chronic steroids). Studies show that flu vaccinations can help reduce the risk of illness by between 40-60% among the overall population during seasons when flu viruses are well-matched to the flu vaccine.
However, the effectiveness of such vaccines can vary for each person. Therefore, it is important to adopt other healthy habits as well. Get into the practice of washing your hands. Handwashing will help prevent the spread of germs and viruses.
Some research has pointed to the beneficial effects of supplementation with vitamin C, zinc, and echinacea for boosting immunity. Or, you can invest in good quality food right from your local grocery store. Fresh is always best when it comes to vegetables and fruits, but frozen ones also offer comparable quality when it comes to nutrition. Whole foods naturally contain macro and micronutrients that work symbiotically to help your body maintain a healthy immune system. Eat a rainbow of vegetables and fruits and choose dark green, orange, and purple-based veggies and fruits more often. Whole and raw foods contain less sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats (trans, saturated) that also help with weight maintenance. The more colourful your diet, the better.
However, if you find that you have a small appetite and generally eat very little, speak to your dietitian to discuss the possibility of tweaking your meals. Your healthcare practitioner may suggest the addition of snacks or a dietary supplement to boost your daily nutrition.
In addition, adopting healthy living strategies like not smoking (or quitting), committing to a regular exercise routine (at least 30 minutes per day), maintaining a healthy weight (within BMI of 18.5-24.9), moderating alcohol consumption (maximum 2 standard drinks per day for women and 3 standard drinks per day for men), getting adequate sleep (6-8 hours per night) and managing stress all play important roles to keep your immune system in top shape.
Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day. Aim for 1.5 to 2 liters of fluids and choose water, milk or dairy-alternatives where possible.
Your skin is the largest organ and it does so much to protect you. The skin provides a barrier from microbes and the elements, it helps regulate your body temperature, and it also allows you to feel sensation. Your body naturally loses up to 600 mL of fluid per day (slightly over 2 cups) through the lungs, skin, and respiratory tract. To maintain healthy skin, it is important to keep hydrated inside and out.
Drink plenty of fluids throughout the day. Aim for 1.5 to 2 liters of fluids and choose water, milk or dairy-alternatives where possible. If your mouth is dry and parched, chances are you are already dehydrated. Keep a water bottle on your desk as a cue to drink throughout the day. It is also a great idea to invest in a moisturizing lotion and apply immediately after a shower or bath so the moisture is retained in your skin.
When it comes to diet, choose foods high in vitamin A, B complex, vitamin C, and E. Sweet potatoes, dark, leafy vegetables, and carrots are great sources of vitamin A and help with skin maintenance and repair. Whole grains, eggs and bananas contain biotin, which is an important element for skin cells and for anti-inflammatory properties. Vitamin C is found in citrus fruits, leafy greens and in bell peppers and helps with collagen production – an essential component to skin elasticity and texture.
Lastly, nuts, spinach, whole grains, and olives contain vitamin E, which helps your skin feel soft and supple. Vitamin E oils, which are often found in body lotion and hand creams, can also help reduce the appearance of wrinkles and scars. If you wash your hands often, remember to reapply moisture using lotion made with vitamin E, glycerin, shea butter, and, or coconut oil.
If you experience more stiffness and joint pain at this time of year, it is important to visit your doctor first. Your physician will determine the cause of your symptoms and be able to offer the right support for you.
Often, joint pain is managed by a combination of medication, diet, supplements and exercise. Many studies have found that the Mediterranean Diet provides healthful benefits and some symptom relief that mimics the effects of common anti-inflammatory drugs. A diet high in plant-based foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds is also highly recommended in this diet. It also includes the use of monounsaturated fats (olive oil, canola oil) and polyunsaturated fats (corn oil, flax seed oil, hemp seed oils), which are healthy fats your body needs. In addition, the Mediterranean Diet includes the use of less salt and encourages individuals to eat more fish and lean poultry over red meats. Popular supplements are chondroitin and glucosamine for joint pain. If you choose to use them be aware they may interact with anti-coagulants (e.g. Warfarin). Inform your doctor, naturopath and dietitian, if you are taking supplements.
It appears vitamin D may do more than just help with calcium absorption. A recent meta-analysis study published in the British Medical Journal found that vitamin D may also be protective against the cold and the flu. A global analysis of 25 randomized controlled trials showed that daily or weekly vitamin D supplementation provided the greatest benefit for individuals with significant vitamin D deficiency (blood levels that were below 10 mg/dL). Supplementation had also cut the risk of respiratory infections by half. Such deficiencies may stem from chronic diseases that hinder the body’s ability to absorb the vitamin, nutrient-drug interactions, long-term inadequate diet, or malnutrition.
For most adults between 18-54 years of age, intakes of 600 IU (15 mcg) are considered safe and acceptable for health maintenance. Those between 55-70 years can aim for 600 IU (15 mcg), and those greater than 70 years can take up to 800 IU (20 mcg) daily. Just as it is important to have adequate intakes, it is also important not to exceed tolerable levels. Adults aged 19-50 years should have no more than 2,500 mg per day, and those greater than 51 years of age should have no more than 2,000 mg each day.
Heart Attack and Stroke Risk
If you have a family or personal history of heart attacks or strokes, it is important to connect with your family doctor or cardiologist on the regular. Your dietitian may recommend a heart healthy diet for you to follow. You may be asked to reduce your sodium intake to less than 2,000 mg per day (roughly 1 teaspoon of salt), limit processed foods to reduce trans and saturated fat, and include a daily 30-minute exercise regimen with moderate to vigorous physical activity.
Research on some supplements like omega-3 fatty acids (a major component in fish oils, hemp seeds and flax seeds), have been found to be protective against cardiovascular diseases due to their anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative properties. If you are thinking of taking omega-3 supplements, consult your dietitian to determine the right amount for you.
Of equal importance to health, individuals should also consider achieving a healthy weight range, BMI, and waist circumference. Studies have found that males with waist circumferences greater than 102 cm (40 inches) and women with circumferences greater than 88 cm (35 inches) are at higher risk for health problems like heart disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes. Be proactive and invest in a pedometer or an activity tracker to help you move more. Each little step counts towards your goal of achieving a healthier body!
Hearing music you enjoy may also be an effective strategy and tool for seasonal affective disorder.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Seasonal affective disorder is a particular type of major depression suffered by many during fall and winter. However, its symptoms are unique to each person. If you think you may have it, be mindful of how it affects your daily routine. Note any significant changes to your appetite, sleep patterns, energy, sex drive, memory, concentration, self-esteem, or personal thoughts. These will be important pieces of information your doctor will need to determine the best medical approach.
Your doctor may recommend light therapy in addition to medication to help regulate your body clock and synchronize your sleep and wake patterns. Some individuals have also benefitted from choosing brighter colours through clothes or household decor to boost mood. Hearing music you enjoy may also be an effective strategy and tool. In addition to the physical benefits of exercise, research has also found that it also helps improve one’s mood and reduces anxiety.
Rosanna Lee, RD, MS, MHSc, PHEc., is a Canadian and USA trained registered dietitian, professional home economist and health communications specialist currently practicing in Toronto. Her diverse interests include community nutrition education, public health advocacy, research, cooking, social entrepreneurship, media and social media, and mobile application technologies. Get in touch with Rosanna via LinkedIn.