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How Winter weather Affects Our Bodies

15.06.2014

The cold weather brings about a range of changes to our body; from increased appetite, decreased moods and apparent laziness, to dry skin and dull hair. It may sound depressing, but the way that the body reacts to the colder temperature is fascinating to say the least. “In our long period of evolution as humans, we don’t appear to have really adapted yet to cold weather” says Timo Partonen, Chief Physician at the National Institute for Health and Welfare. Cold weather can be seen as a challenge that our body is required to take-on, in order to maintain optimal health.

The way that your body gets through this challenge should make sense and explain the changes that you feel every winter. With the right attitude, and the right education the winter season can be a breeze.

Temperature regulation:

The body has different ways of protecting itself from the cold. “Shivering from the cold, for example, is one method of heat generation,” explains Partonen. Shivering is an involuntary muscle movement with the aim to create heat. With a strong will you can stop the action, but not for long. Extreme shivering can increase heat production by up to five times, resulting in maintenance of the ideal 37 degrees. Another method the body uses to protect itself from the cold involves constricting the blood vessels near the skin in order to prevent excessive heat loss.

The body has withdrawn the blood from the extremities in order to maintain the temperature around the vital organs. This is the reason we feel the cold in our hands and feet so strongly in winter. The vital organs are necessary for survival; fingers and toes? Not essential. Be sure to grab some great gloves and socks if you’re in a cold environment this winter!

Metabolism:

To maintain survival, the metabolism is boosted in the cold, providing more heat and energy for use by our cells. The metabolism can be boosted by as much as 20% when we engage in outdoor recreation for a couple of hours in sub-zero conditions. To produce the heat required for temperature regulation, the body makes use of energy obtained from food intake and from fat stores within the body. According to Partonen, an overweight person will stay warm more easily, thanks to a thicker ‘insulating layer’; but this doesn’t apply to the extremities, the toes and fingers.

In the winter there is a tendency to put on weight, in any case. This is not directly due to the cold weather, but the result of lifestyle changes that accompany the cold weather. Motivation to exercise decreases and the urge to stay in, rugged up, eating warm food in front of the TV increases. If you were to maintain the daily walks or the exercise routine along with maintaining appropriate portion sizes, theoretically, your weight should decrease at a faster pace during winter. A key thing to remember is that winter is not an excuse to change your eating habits for the worse. Don’t let the cold weather interrupt your good habits; summer is only a few months away.

Moods:

During winter the days are shorter. This lack of light can affect the hormones within our brain. Melatonin is a hormone that plays a vital role in our sleep/wake cycle by responding to a lack of light exposure. When it is dark or the environmental light is dull, melatonin is produced, initiating the sleepy sensation that precedes and promotes the action of going to sleep. When it is bright outside, melatonin is not produced. This may explain the sleepy mood that can be seen on a rainy or overcast day. Unfortunately, depending on where you live, all of winter may be rainy and overcast (i.e. London!). To combat this energy hurdle, turn your house or work lights on, go outside for daily walks in the middle of the day, and expose yourself to the sun when it shows itself. Studies have found that a 1 hour walk during the middle of the day can significantly decrease the sleepy mood often developed during winter.

In addition to melatonin, it has been noted that serotonin levels also fluctuate with the seasons, reaching their lowest point during winter. While serotonin has many important functions in the body, it is best known for its role as a ‘feel good’ hormone. Increased levels are associated with feelings of happiness and relaxation. In order to maintain or increase our serotonin levels, try eating more seafood, dairy, chicken, nuts, seeds and eggs as these foods contain certain ingredients that are required for serotonin production. Other ways to boost your serotonin levels include exposure to light (sun or bright indoor lights), planning for a fun trip away (next weekend or this summer), and exercise (increases production of serotonin). These hormones offer an explanation for why some healthy people experience low mood and energy during winter, and why there is a regular re-occurrence of depressive episodes in autumn and winter in some vulnerable individuals. This knowledge also offers methods to prepare and combat this change.

Muscle Joint Pain and Stiffness:

Arthritis can affect people all through the year, however the winter and wet weather months can make it harder to manage the symptoms. Currently there are several theories for identifying exactly how the weather affects the joints and fortunately all of these theories come with suggestions to ease the pain. The most common theory involves a drop in atmospheric pressure that results in an influx of inflammation to the affected joint. With the increased inflammation to the area, the joint swells, mobility decreases and pain levels increase. If there are any nerves in the area, they can be stimulated by the swelling, which can cause a further increase in pain experienced.

To prolong being affected by the cold, keep the affected joints warm through extra clothing, warm baths and/or natural heat gels. In addition to this, prepare for the cold weather by increasing or introducing some natural anti-inflammatories such as fish oil and/or turmeric. Once your joints have been affected by the cold, focus on decreasing the inflammation so that the swelling and nerve pressure decreases, resulting in a decrease of pain and swelling, and an increase in mobility. If pain persists, contact your primary health provider. If you are after natural anti-inflammatories, contact the Naturopaths at Australian Menopause Centre.

With the right attitude and knowledge, winter really can be a wonderful time of the year.