Winter Health Special, Part 1

Many of us feel that staying healthy in winter is almost an insurmountable challenge. We struggle to find motivation, reduce our activity levels, argue with our family and co-workers about the perfect heatpump temperature, and frequently succumb to the dreaded coughs and colds. But is there a way to stop wallowing in our own misery for three months and enjoy this season?

Here are a few tips from urgent care doctor and Regional Executive Officer (South Island) Anastasia Boulais, who was born in Northern Russia with its -20 deg Celsius temps, 4-hour day length, 6-month long winters. This more than qualifies Anastasia to share her perspective and lifestyle tips that will help you stay well through winter.




I am not going to reprimand you for craving hearty dishes. In fact, I am going to encourage it. Winter is not the time for salads. If you want to curb your sweet cravings you need to be sated. The best way to ensure satiety is to structure your meals around a good source of protein and seasonal root vegetables. Slow cooked meats are a perfect cheap winter meal: lamb shanks, beef stews, curries, pulled pork, and many other delicious dishes full of nutrients and high satiety value. If you are somebody who feels the cold it is imperative that you eat enough, especially protein, to keep your metabolism firing through winter months. Be a rebel and have your leftovers for breakfast: starting the day with a high protein meal is proven to ward off hunger. And it’s a lot easier to say no to a piece of cake at morning tea when you are full of delicious meaty goodness. Don’t forget your vegetables and winter fruits, like persimmons and citrus, to keep up the micronutrients, especially vitamin C.

Don’t feel bad about sleeping longer in winter. Our circadian rhythm is anchored to natural light so it’s no surprise we feel like we need to get some extra zzz’s. Turn off your TV early (is a reality show outcome really that vital?) and aim for an extra sleep cycle. Remember, we function in 90 minutes cycles, so it is reasonable to aim for 7.5 to 9 hour shut-eye time in winter. Sleep is essential for your immune system. One study found that efficacy of flu vaccine was reduced by over 50% in those who were sleep deprived for 4 nights in a row.

While the darkness is one side of the circadian rhythm coin, it is the light that sends the signal which determines our sleep-arousal state. Unfortunately, in winter we frequently leave for work in the darkness, spend our day under artificial lights, and then return home after sunset. Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression which is associated with darker winter season and it responds well to light therapy. But you don’t have to feel clinically depressed to be affected by darkness. Lack of energy and motivation, daytime sleepiness, trouble concentrating – all can be related to the lack of sunlight. Set yourself a goal to get outside every day. The light intensity (illuminance) on a most miserable cloudy day is still higher than what you will get in the brightest office. A short 10 minute stroll will do wonders for your alertness, energy levels, and the ability to fall asleep later that night.

Now that you have learned about the previous 3 factors you know why you may not feel like training hard in winter. While I want to encourage you to be active, you may need to back off early morning and late night intense exercise in favour of sleep and recovery. Focus on your strength development and addressing individual weaknesses through the winter months. A good gradual warm up is essential in cold conditions to prevent injuries.

Those of you who know me probably expected and dreaded me saying this: you need to have some cold exposure in order to be able to tolerate the cold. Our modern environment has effectively shielded us from temperature perturbations turning Western humans into a pampered species which can only function between 18 and 25 degrees Celsius. Contrast that to our ancestral past when we were exposed to the bitter cold during Ice Ages and oppressing African heat in interglacial periods. You don’t have to give up your merino tights and shiver without the heat pump. Instead, you build up your cold toughness by doing what Russian and Finnish “walruses” have done for centuries – cold water immersion. Your shower is a good place to start: alternate 30 seconds of cold water exposure with hot, and build up to a minute or two of standing under cold water. Alternating cold plunge tanks with soaking in hot pools is a fun activity at Lake Tekapo and Hanmer Springs. Find your own controlled environment to push your boundaries and you will learn to enjoy rather than hate the cold days.

Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon!