How Cold Weather Affects Your Health

As the cold weather begins to set in, our bodies must prepare themselves for the harsh winter ahead.  Here are a few of the reasons that we are more prone to illness during the colder months, and tips on how to protect our bodies in lieu of these changes.  Read on to find out how to keep your immune system strong against the winter chill. <!–split–>

Vitamin D Deficiency: The human body needs sunlight to synthesize vitamin D, but as the weather gets colder, there are fewer daylight hours, so people go outside less and are covered up more. Some studies suggest that low levels of vitamin D can lead to weight gain by reducing fat breakdown and causing the body to store more calories as fat cells, instead of using them for energy.

Neural Chemistry: Melatonin and serotonin are hormones that play a part in controlling mood, energy levels and the sleep-wake cycle. Exposure to sunlight causes levels of these hormones to fluctuate. Melatonin is the hormone that helps you sleep and serotonin is connected with happiness and wakefulness. In the colder months, the brain produces more melatonin and less serotonin.

SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a type of depression with a seasonal pattern, occurring most often in the months when there is less daylight. It is most common between the ages of 18-30 and affects more women than men. People with SAD may have abnormally low levels of serotonin and high levels of melatonin, which affects sleep quality and happiness.

Viral Contagion: Most studies show the cold does not directly weaken the immune system; rather, the prevalence of people getting sick in colder months has more to do with how viruses are transmitted. It is not entirely clear whether this is an example of correlation or causation, but researchers have found the influenza virus (responsible for causing the flu) is transmitted more frequently in cold, dry environments than in warm, humid ones.

3 Possible Contributing Factors:

  • Mucus membranes in the nose get dried out in cold weather. When the membranes become dried out, their protective effects can be hindered and viruses responsible for the cold and flu can enter the body more easily.
  • The virus itself is more stable in cold, dry climates. In warmer months, the protective “shell” of the virus is weaker and less able to survive.
  • Aerosolized droplets of virus remain airborne for longer periods. Inhalation of virus containing airborne droplets (sneezes, coughs) is more likely to occur in regions of low humidity.

Muscle/Joins Stiffness:  Our bodies, which are about 70% water, can become more sensitive in colder weather. As temperatures drop, our bodies can lose elasticity, and it becomes harder to stretch (like when a rubber band is placed in a fridge). Colder temperatures can also cause painful changes in joint fluid thickness. Some studies have shown a strong relationship between cold, damp days and arthritic flare-ups. Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin K and vitamin C have been shown to help with achy joints. (Be careful taking vitamin K if you take Warfarin medication. Check with your doctor first).

Exercise-Induced Asthma:  People with exercise-induced asthma have airways that are more sensitive to changes in temperature and humidity. This condition usually occurs when there is increased ventilation of dry, cool air, which causes the lungs to lose heat and/or moisture and causes the airways to narrow during exercise. Symptoms include shortness breath, tightness in the chest, coughing or wheezing and decreased performance. Symptoms usually begin a few minutes into exercising and peak after about 10 minutes.

How to prevent exercise-induced asthma:  Warming up for 10 minutes can help prevent the onset of symptoms. If it’s cold, cover your mouth and nose to warm the air you breathe. Use an inhaler as preventive therapy 15 minutes before exercise.

Heart Complications: Some studies suggest that winter weather may increase a person’s risk of heart attack because cold temperatures cause arteries to tighten, which restricts blood flow and reduces the heart’s oxygen supply. This is why people with coronary heart disease often experience chest pain or discomfort during colder weather. Also, the change in amount of daylight hours can cause hormonal imbalance, which can lower the threshold for cardiovascular event.

High Blood Pressure and Cold Weather: Blood pressure is generally higher in the winter and lower in the summer because low temperatures cause blood vessels to narrow. In order for enough blood to be forced through the narrowed arteries and veins, higher blood pressure is needed.

Unique Injury Hazards: Cold weather creates unique injury hazards, including frostbite and hypothermia. Frostbite is when a portion of the skin or bodily tissue freezes from being exposed to the cold. Hypothermia can occur when the body temperature drops below 95oF. Under this condition, the body cannot generate enough heat to keep itself warm and the body becomes unable to regulate temperature. If hypothermia is not treated quickly, it can be fatal.

Weakened Hair, Nails, and Skin:

  • Split Ends: Cold temperatures can warp  hair cuticles and make hair scales weak. The point at which the scales shrink becomes a spot where split ends can form.
  • Weak Nails: Nails grow faster in warm weather than in cold weather because blood circulation slows down in cold weather. If nails are exposed to the cold for too long, the keratin used by your body to help nails grow is used instead to keep the rest of your body warm. The result is weak and brittle nails.
  • Red Skin: If temperatures fall below 10oC, blood vessels near the skin’s surface alternate between dilating and constricting. This happens because your body is trying to not lose too much heat, while simultaneously trying to supply the skin with enough blood for oxygen and nutrients. This phenomenon explains the red cheeks and nose that are characteristic of frosty weather.

For more information go to:

Your Parish Nurse, Kara