Five Tips for Winter Health

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One of the most common questions that health care practitioners get is how to proactively fortify one's health against winter viruses. Below are my favorite five tips.

— Tieraona Low Dog, M.D.

I live high in the mountains of northern New Mexico and autumn is fully in swing. Our mornings are now routinely in the mid-30s and the horses have put on their furry coats. Now is the time to fortify our bodies so we can get through winter without catching a cold or it’s insidious cousin, influenza. With the exception of high fevers and flu-like symptoms, most small aches and stuffy noses can be made much easier to bear with some common sense at home, as well as some tender loving self care. Being proactive gives us a much better chance of staying healthy this winter.

 

1. Hydrate & Eat Healthy

As the weather cools, the air becomes drier and humidity levels fall. Central heat, furnaces, and woodstoves make the air even drier inside your home and office, leading to dry irritated nasal passages. Small cracks develop in the delicate protective tissue that lines your nose, sinuses and throat. Your first line of defense is thus breached, allowing viruses and bacteria to gain a foothold. One of your best defenses is to stay well hydrated, drinking plenty of water, herbal teas, and other healthy drinks. Adults should make sure they are drinking at least 48oz of liquid every day. We all know healthy, balanced nutrition is good idea year round, but as you head into winter now is the time to load up on the garlic, onions, and leeks. These members of the Allium family definitely give your body some extra cold fighting protection! Invest in some high quality, live-cultured Greek yogurt as probiotics have been shown to reduce the risk of upper respiratory infections. For a real immune boost, include some shiitake or maitake mushrooms to your meals a couple times a week. The large complex carbohydrates, called polysaccharides, are what account for the potent antiviral and immune enhancing properties of these mushrooms.

 

2. Get Enough Sleep

We hear it again and again, but getting enough restful sleep is one of the very best ways to make sure your body is ready to take on the challenges of everyday stress, as well as potential illnesses and ailments. Sleep is when your immune system gets to rest and recharge–an important daily defense against those viruses and germs floating around our shared spaces.

If you are prone to seasonal affective disorder, you might want to purchase a dawn simulating device to help stave off depression. I particularly like the Sleep Cycle app you can get for your iPhone. You set a 30-minute window for when you want to wake up and it then finds the optimal time for you to wake up based upon where you are in your sleep cycle. These two tools can be really helpful for waking refreshed during the long nights of winter.

 

3. Keep up the Exercise

When the weather changes and the days get shorter, we may lose some motivation to get out and about, but exercise is a powerful way to keep your body in tip top shape. If poor weather prevents you from getting outside, take advantage of the slower, darker months to turn inward with a new stretching or yoga plan. Anything that keeps your mind-body connection active and your body limber is beneficial to your overall health. Regular exercise is well known as a mood booster, and as a bonus, it helps you sleep better at night (see step 2)!

 

4. Harness the Power of Dietary Supplements

After centuries of people using herbs to prevent and fight respiratory infections, research has now shown that many of these herbal remedies can give your body an edge. Black elderberry is one of my favorites. It’s a powerful immune booster that comes in syrup, tincture, lozenges or tablets. I keep some on hand at the ranch and take it as soon as I start to feel a little scratch in my throat or stuffy nose. Studies show that it has potent antiviral activity, even against the flu! Vitamin C and zinc should also be in your medicine cabinet. Taken regularly they can help keep you from getting sick and if you should catch something, they can help you fight it off. In general, take 200 mg of vitamin C twice daily. Take it more frequently if you start to catch a cold. Take 15 mg of zinc everyday (this is usually the amount in most multivitamins) and if you start to get sick, suck on lozenges containing 5-10 mg of zinc every 3-4 hours for 2-3 days. Note: High doses of zinc should only be used for short periods of time.

 

5. Don’t forget to wash your hands!

Last, but definitely not least, centuries of modern living have taught us the benefits of washing our hands to prevent the transmission of germs. Do yourself and everyone you come in contact with a big favor by washing your hands often. Use soap and wash for 15-30 seconds to get the most out of this super-easy preventative measure. (See my recipe for how to make your own homemade foaming soap).