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5 ways winter can affect your mental and physical health

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Winter isn’t all bad. Sure, the days shorten and the temperature plummets, but for many, that means cozy naps by the fireplace, movie nights under warm blankets, and family feasts over the holidays. To get through a Canadian winter, you have to make the best of it. But it’s also important to know the ways winter can affect you, and we’re not just talking about coughs and colds.

The fact is, winter can take a toll on your mind and body. But if you’re aware of the potential effects, you can take simple steps to mitigate them. Here are five ways winter can affect your mental and physical health, along with some tips to help you get through another chilly Canadian winter.

You’re susceptible to SAD
You're More Susceptible to SAD

Working in the winter often means commuting both to and from work in the dark, and the lack of daylight can really wear on a person. Common in the northern parts of the world, SAD—or seasonal affective disorder—is a mood shift brought on by factors that include a lack of sunlight and vitamin D. One of the ways to treat SAD is to use a light-therapy lamp. A 2011 study found that even 20 minutes in front of a lamp operating at 10,000 lux showed immediate improvement in the moods of patients with seasonal affective disorder, while research published in the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants found that morning light therapy also helped to regulate circadian rhythms. Another simple solution is to take a daily vitamin D supplement.

Your skin can dry out
Your skin can dry out

That beautiful glow you got this summer feels like it’s gone the moment snow starts. Dry, itchy, and even flaking skin is something most of us experience in the winter. An easy fix is to make sure you’re drinking enough water. Lack of humidity also plays a major role in drying us out. By cranking up our thermostats, we’re also drying out our houses and offices. A humidifier helps, but so does the right moisturizer. Creams rich in vitamin E will help to hydrate your skin back to its supple, summery feel.

Your allergies might be at their worst
Your allergies can get worse

Those with pollen allergies can look forward to reprieve when winter hits, but that doesn’t mean allergies aren’t still a factor in the colder months. Sure, there’s no ragweed to worry about, but an increased reliance on duct-based heating systems can wreak havoc on anyone who’s allergic to dust mites or sensitive to impurities in the air. If your dust allergies are flaring up this winter, cleaning your ducts will make a major difference. If that’s not an option, start small: wash and change your bedding frequently, sweep more regularly, and consider investing in an air purifier.

Your circadian rhythms can go haywire
You aren’t imagining it: winter can drain your energy, make you drowsy, and throw your sleeping habits for a loop. Shorter days and volatile weather shifts sap our motivation to exercise, and as a result, we end up spending more time on the couch at night, and sleeping in on weekends. It has to do with our circadian rhythms—essentially our bodies’ internal clocks—being knocked off track, and the results can range from lethargy and weight gain to mental fogginess and mood swings. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, limiting the amount of time you spend on your laptops and smartphones at the end of each day could help. A 2015 study published by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that using devices at bedtime suppresses our melatonin, alters the timing of REM sleep, and ultimately delays our circadian clock. Researchers at the University of Toronto meanwhile found that filtering out the blue light emitted by our devices—a feature offered by most smart devices—can improve sleep duration and efficiency. If you find your sleep patterns are struggling, a timed-release melatonin supplement is a non-habit forming way to get your nights back on track.

You may become irritable
You may become irritable

It’s not easy to be social during the winter. Cold temperatures mean we’re spending much of the season indoors, and we tend to be less social than we would be during the warmer months. The result is that our bodies produce less oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that’s released during positive social interactions. If you’re feeling isolated and it’s affecting your mood, increasing oxytocin levels is as easy as exercising or meeting a friend for a quick coffee date. Pets can be a boon to boosting oxytocin as well. Got a friend with a cute dog? Live near a park? Studies have shown that spending as little as five minutes with dog or cat can increase your oxytocin.

REFERENCES:

  • Impact of light-emitting eBooks before bed
    Anne-Marie Chang, Daniel Aeschbach, Jeanne F. Duffy, Charles A. Czeisler. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jan 2015, 112 (4) 1232-1237; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1418490112

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