The holiday season is here. We’ve compiled a short list of wintertime concerns that many people have:
If you’re lucky, the holiday season tends to be a time of over-nutrition. Knowing your body and what your energy requirements are is a first step to not overeating. Here is a simple calculator that will tell you how many calories per day you should eat (and how many if you want to lose or gain weight), based on your age, sex, BMI, and physical activity level: http://www.calculator.net/calorie-calculator.html. To make sure you eat what your body needs, there is one simple nutrition rule that everyone can follow:
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
These are the words of Michael Pollan in “Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual” (1). Avoid packaged, processed food products and eat a wide variety of real foods, and you will thank yourself for it.
Exercise can be difficult over the holidays when schedules are disrupted and the weather can sometimes get in the way. Enjoy what you can, in balance with enjoying any downtime that you may have. At home exercise videos on YouTube are a great thing, as they are flexible time-wise and remove any financial and equipment barriers to working out. Whether it’s getting outside for a 30 minute walk each day, doing snow sports, or playing with kids or dogs around the house, exercise will help with not only balancing out any gastrointestinal over-indulgences but also with reducing stress and improving mental health.
3. Keep warm – but not too warm
Early winter snowstorms have been hitting parts of the USA and Canada. With feet of snow and temperatures well below freezing, it’s no surprise that cold weather contributes to ill-health and mortality in older and vulnerable people during the winter (2). Heating is expensive, and many people are fuel poor over the winter.
– Wear layers of wool and thermal clothing, both at home and indoors. Long leggings and underwear, thick socks, and gloves are important. This sounds like a no-brainer, but it’s the first and obvious thing to do.
– Take advantage of natural sunlight in your windows during the day, but draw your curtains at night to trap heat in. The thicker the curtains, the better.
– Heat up a hot water bottle, or make your own rice bag – fill a sock (or other sack-shaped fabric) with rice, tie it up, and put it in the microwave for a couple of minutes (idea courtesy of Jack Monroe)
– Drink hot drinks and eat warm food. Your body itself is a major source of heat, and you have to keep that engine running.
– Get active – do some exercise at home to produce body heat.
– Keep the central heating around 18 degrees Celsius – or slightly lower if you can stand it. Temperatures from around 15-17 degrees activate brown fat, which is metabolically active fat that burns calories to produce heat within our bodies (3). This process is called “non-shivering thermogenesis” – the production of heat without shivering. It’s a win-win for your health and your heating bill!
There are other recommendations from other sources as well – the BBC has compiled a list of tips to help keep your house warm, as well as Jack Monroe’s list from “a veteran of freezing houses, wooden floors, and big windows”.
4. Getting sick
In the northern hemisphere, flu season typically peaks in February, which means the worst is still ahead of us (and holiday parties are a great opportunity for germ swapping). While the flu shot doesn’t protect against every cold, cough, and sniffle that’s going around, it does protect against more than half of the actual flu strains going around (yes, even when it’s a mismatch year.) A good read on the flu vaccine is Tara Haelle’s Debunking ALL the flu vaccine myths: Can the shot give you the flu? No. Is the flu actually dangerous? Yes.
To prevent colds and flu, wash your hands (although this is not a guarantee, because the flu is airborne, but hand washing still helps). Stay away from people who are sick, or if you’re the one who’s sick, keep yourself home for 24 hours after your fever breaks, as the CDC advises.
A lot of travel health concerns seem to focus on the air circulation: Is the air too dry? Does it pressurize us and squish our organs, like the Food Babe said? Read about how airplane pressurization really works on BrainStuff. The air outside the plane is cold, low-pressure, and dry, so it’s compressed (making it roughly equivalent to the air pressure in a mountainous place like Denver, so still less than most of us are used to), as well as heated by the engine, and mixed with air that’s been humidified by—ok this is just slightly gross—being in the air cabin already where people are breathing and releasing some moisture. That still leaves it fairly dry, but you can beat the dry nose feeling by drinking water and using saline nasal spray.
Stress can weaken your immune system, and can contribute to mental health issues like depression. This Mayo Clinic guide to managing holiday stress includes helpful tips like budgeting gifts rather than trying to solve problems by buying happiness, and planning some alone time every day to take a break from things that are pressuring you.
Enjoy the holidays, from all of us at PLOS Public Health Perspectives!
- Pollan M. Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. New York: Penguin Group Inc; 2009.
- Berko J, Ingram DD, Saha S, Parker JD. Deaths Attributed to Heat, Cold, and Other Weather Events in the United States, 2006-2010. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 76, 2014.
- Wenner Moyer M. Supercharging Brown Fat to Battle Obesity. Scientific American 2014;311(2). http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/supercharging-brown-fat-to-battle-obesity/
- Haelle T. Setting the Record Straight: Debunking ALL the Flu Vaccine Myths. http://www.redwineandapplesauce.com/2013/10/28/setting-the-record-straight-dubunking-all-the-flu-vaccine-myths/
- Centers for Disease Control. Personal NPIs – Everyday Preventative Actions. http://www.cdc.gov/nonpharmaceutical-interventions/personal/index.html
- Brain, M. How Airplane Cabin Pressurization Works. http://www.brainstuffshow.com/blog/how-airplane-cabin-pressurization-works-keeping-you-comfortable-in-the-death-zone-at-33000-feet/
- American Academy of Otolaryngology. Your Nose, the Guardian of Your Lungs. http://www.entnet.org/content/your-nose-guardian-your-lungs
- Mayo Clinic staff. Stress, Depression, and the Holidays: Tips for Coping. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-living/stress-management/in-depth/stress/art-20047544