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Detox Learning Center

When Health Freezes Over: Getting Sick as the Seasons Change

Autumn is officially here. The leaves will soon be changing color, the weather will be less stifling hot, and everywhere you turn, something will be flavored with pumpkin spice.

This time of year can be fun and exciting, filled with freshly picked apples, Thanksgiving dinners, holiday events, and gatherings with friends and family. But it can also be hectic, stressful, emotionally challenging, and overwhelming.

So as you begin planning your Halloween costume and digging your sweaters out of the back of your closet, it’s also a good idea to plan ahead for the sake of your health.

Wrap up in your coziest cardigan, sit down with a mug of pumpkin spice latte, and read on to learn more.

How Do Seasonal Changes Affect Your Health?

The change in the seasons can have a major influence on your health, both mentally and physically. This can be due to changes in human behavior, such as the usual increase in indoor gatherings during colder weather, allowing pathogens to move more easily from person to person. (1)

It can also be caused by environmental conditions such as weather, and their various effects on the body. In addition, certain microbes tend to flourish in the cooler temps and dryer air of fall and winter. (1)

Here’s a look at some of the emotional as well as physical health issues that are common this time of year.

Emotional Health Concerns

Seasonal affective disorder

Among the biggest complaints this time of year is the lack of daylight. Nothing throws off your groove like nighttime arriving at 4:30 p.m. It certainly doesn’t make you want to be as active. Who wants to go for an after-work run in the pitch dark?

If you’re a real night owl, you might thrive in the darkness of fall and winter. But for most people, the shorter days can affect energy levels, mood, and productivity. You might even find yourself feeling gloomy or getting depressed.

“Winter depression” is a real condition, officially known as seasonal affective disorder — or, appropriately, SAD for short. It is a type of depression that is believed to affect millions of Americans. (2, 3)

What are the symptoms of SAD?

Symptoms of SAD include: (2, 3)

  • Anxiety
  • Changes in appetite
  • Desire to sleep excessively
  • Eating too much and/or craving carbohydrates
  • Feeling antisocial or wanting to be alone
  • Feelings of guilt, hopelessness, inadequacy, or regret
  • Feelings of sadness or depression almost all the time
  • Lack of desire to live, with possible suicidal thoughts
  • Lack of energy, and feeling lethargic
  • Loss of interest or enjoyment in usual activities
  • Trouble focusing
  • Weight gain

SAD is more than just a case of the winter blues. It is caused by real underlying biological factors. Here are some of them.

Circadian rhythms

Otherwise known as your biological clock, your circadian rhythms are all the processes within your body — including behavioral, emotional, and physical ones — that are based on a 24-hour cycle. These processes are directly influenced by light and dark. (4, 5, 6)

That means that when it stays light out for shorter periods than usual, your biological clock may stop “keeping time” as accurately as it should. And when your circadian rhythms are off, this can lead to depression. (2, 3)

Melatonin

Another possible cause of SAD is melatonin levels. Melatonin is a hormone that is produced by your brain when it gets dark. It influences your circadian rhythms and especially sleep. Melatonin may also affect other bodily processes, such as decreasing brain degeneration and slowing the aging process. It also greatly affects the immune system. (7, 1)

When the seasons change, the production of melatonin can become imbalanced. Studies have found that people who experience SAD have excessive amounts of melatonin, which can actually cause them to feel sleepier and have less energy. (2, 3)

Serotonin

Yet another likely factor in those suffering from SAD is serotonin deficiency. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain — a neurotransmitter — that helps control your moods. Studies show that sunlight may affect serotonin levels and activity, and when sunlight decreases in the fall and winter, so does the amount of serotonin produced. This can make you feel a little down. (2, 3, 8, 9)

Vitamin D is also believed to affect serotonin activity. That means that when someone’s vitamin D levels drop in the winter due to less sunlight, their serotonin activity may also slow down. This can worsen their mood. (2, 3, 10)

Stress of the holidays

Even if you love this time of year, it can still have a real emotional impact. There’s so much pressure to get everything done, especially as the holidays ramp up. You surely have way more on your calendar and your to-do list in the fall and winter months than any other time of year.

There are presents to be wrapped, events to attend, and halls to be decked. There’s baking, costume-making, decorating, light-stringing, organizing, planning, shopping, and turkey-cooking. It’s enough to bring out the bah-humbug in even the merriest of elves.

And if you’re the one in charge, you have the added burden of worrying if everything will go off without a hitch and that your loved ones will stay happy. 

On top of that, dealing with interpersonal relationships this time of year can be tough. You might find yourself spending time with people you don’t regularly see — even if not seeing them frequently is by choice. Facing certain family dynamics may even bring up forgotten emotions or childhood trauma.

And finally, the holidays are not only a huge time investment, but a financial one. Economic anxiety this time of year can add additional strain.

All of these add up to stress out your body. And we know that being in a continual state of stress can damage your many organs and tissues. lead to an influx of inflammation, and lower your immune function.

Specifically, for emotional health, stress is often associated with depression, primarily because of the pro-inflammatory cytokines induced by stress. These same substances may also alter serotonin. (11)   



Physical Health Concerns

But even as you stress yourself to stay chipper in the darkness of winter and get all your holiday preparations wrapped up in a neat little Christmas bow, your physical health is also being affected. Here are some of the many autumn ailments that frequently occur.

Arthritis flare-ups

If you suffer from arthritis, you probably already know: Arthritis often gets worse in the winter.

That chill in the air comes with a drop in barometric pressure — or how much air pressure is in the atmosphere. When that air pressure drops, your tendons and muscles may expand. This puts extra pressure on your joints, which causes your arthritis to flare up. And it hurts. (12, 13)

In addition, cooler weather can make you more sensitive to pain, decrease your blood circulation, and encourage muscle spasms, all of which can affect your arthritis. (4)

The cold also causes your synovial fluid to thicken and take on an almost jelly-like consistency. The synovial fluid acts as a lubricant for your joints, helping them to move better. (4, 14)

But when that fluid gets colder and sludgier, it’s not going to allow your joints to slide and glide quite as well, causing them to stiffen. It’s kind of like putting frozen WD-40 on a rusty door hinge. It just doesn’t provide as much grease.

Asthma flare-ups and bronchitis

Lung conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, and COPD can be triggered by the cold. The cool, dry air of fall and winter can aggravate or even restrict your airways. That’s because the chilly, drier air can cause the protective fluid in your lungs to evaporate, leaving them open to becoming irritated and inflamed. (15, 5, 16)

Winter air can also cause you to produce additional or thicker mucus, which makes you more vulnerable to respiratory infections. This, in turn, can lead to further inflammation and tenderness, and exacerbate your asthma symptoms. You may experience coughing, shortness of breath, or wheezing. (5, 17)

Cardiovascular issues

When the weather cools off, your blood vessels constrict. This causes your blood pressure to go up. It also means that less oxygen is able to reach your heart through those narrow vessels. (6, 7, 8)

Your heart has to work harder to keep you warm enough when it’s cold out. As a result, your heart rate may increase dangerously. Like any other liquid when exposed to the cold, your blood can thicken. This decreases the circulation to your heart and could lead to a blood clot, which is a major risk factor for heart attacks and strokes. (6, 7, 8)

If snow is a concern in the winter months where you live, keep in mind that shoveling snow is a real cardiovascular workout! If you are not used to a lot of physical activity and start going at the snow with your shovel in the cold weather without warming up first, this can really stress your heart. Heart attacks from shoveling snow are not uncommon. (6, 7, 8)

Colds and flu

They don’t call this cold and flu season for nothing. Both these illnesses are usually more prevalent in the winter.

The common cold is especially common, with millions of cases every year. On average, adults get two to three colds per year — frequently in the winter. The flu, which may have as many as 41 million cases annually, also kicks into high gear this time of year. (18, 19)

There are a few proposed reasons for this seasonal surge. First, many experts support the theory that because we find ourselves more frequently indoors in closer contact with others and with less ventilation, it’s easier for viruses to move from person to person. (1, 9)

In addition, certain viruses, such as the flu virus, do much better in the low-humidity air of winter. They also tend to survive longer in colder temperatures. (1, 9, 10, 11)

What’s more, studies show that the drier winter air means an increase in airborne viruses that are more readily inhaled. When you sneeze or exhale, you expel viral particles and moisture from mucus, saliva, or water vapor. Because the air is dry, the moisture quickly evaporates, leaving the viruses suspended in the air where others will breathe them in. (12, 13, 14)

However, when there is more humidity, such as in the summer, the heavier droplets fall to the ground and bring the viruses down with them, where they remain further removed from human mouths and noses. (12, 13, 14)

Finally, toxins also play a role. This time of year, your body is constantly bombarded with pathogens, pollutants, and stressors — from sugary Halloween candy to holiday emotional burdens to harsh and biting weather. All that toxicity makes for an environment where cold and flu viruses can prosper while your body becomes more vulnerable. In some cases, the viruses even feed off the toxins in your body.

Ear infections

When you step outside without a hat on a cold day, you probably already know that your ears are among the first parts of your body to feel the chill. They quickly turn red, painful, and cold to the touch, like rosy little ear-shaped icicles. The ears are very susceptible to cold weather because they are almost entirely cartilage and have very little fat to keep them warm.

But it’s not just your outer ears that don’t like winter. Your inner ears can be sensitive to the cold as well. Cold weather causes the fluids inside your ear to thicken, and that can lead to buildup and clogging. (15, 16)

On top of that, with colds and flu so prevalent this time of year, there’s a lot more mucus and related fluids leaking into your Eustachian tubes, which connect the ears with the nose and throat. This can cause congestion. (15, 16, 17)

Viruses and bacteria can also get into the Eustachian tubes and set up shop there. They may even multiply, which leads to fluid build-up, inflammation, and infections of the middle ear. (15, 16, 20, 17)

Excess dryness

As temperatures drop, so do humidity levels. That means that beginning in the fall, your mucous membranes could start to dry out, allowing microbes to flourish inside your body. For example, studies have shown that it’s easier for bacteria to spread across dry mucous membranes. (1)

Your skin also dries out in cooler weather as the cold robs your skin of its moisture and oils. This can lead to chapped and cracked skin, along with other concerns. For example, psoriasis and eczema are both aggravated by frosty temps, so symptoms usually worsen in the winter. (21, 22, 23, 24, 25)

There’s even a condition that is essentially an allergic reaction to the cold. Known as cold urticaria, it causes people to break out in a rash with itchy welts or hives on whatever skin is exposed to the frigid air. (26, 27)

Immune function

With so many pathogens and illnesses bombarding you this time of year, it doesn’t help that your immune system can also take a hit. That makes it harder for your body to ward off any threats on its own to stay healthy. That’s why it’s so important to support your body’s terrain at the foundational level — to boost your immune system when it needs it most.

Research suggests that the immune system is weakened in the winter months. For example, the activity and numbers of white blood cells, which are your primary defenders, vary by season. (28, 29, 30, 11)

One study even found that genes that encourage inflammation — which is associated with almost all disease — increase in the winter, while those genes that prevent inflammation decrease this time of year. (31, 32, 33)

In addition, when the temps drop and the air dries out, this can affect your mucociliary function. That’s the process by which your airways clear themselves of any particles or pathogens that get trapped in the mucus there. Removing any debris helps to keep your respiratory system functioning at its best. (34, 35)

However, in the winter, your mucociliary function may be compromised, causing excess particles to accumulate in your airways. Research shows that toxins and pollutants in the air may also play a role. Mucociliary dysfunction may be another explanation for why respiratory illnesses such as colds are so rampant in the winter. (18, 10)

Nutritional issues

Holiday festivities often go hand in hand with poor diet choices. We tend to go into a “splurge” mentality from Halloween on. The increasingly common motto of  “Christmas calories don’t count” can be seen emblazoned on t-shirts and across holiday-themed dinner plates —which we pile high with rich treats greedily selected from the buffets of temptation offered at holiday parties.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with indulging a little — after all, who can resist a dark chocolate peppermint bark soufflé? But keep in mind that the excess calories we collect as we count down to Christmas really do count. They can cause weight gain, and all that sugar affects our immune system. (36, 37, 38)

Seasonal allergies

When is allergy season? In the fall, ragweed pollen is at its peak, and there are other fall pollinators, including mugwort, sagebrush, and Russian thistle. If you live in a warmer climate, you might be exposed to pollen year-round as many plants continue to grow and reproduce. (39, 40)

When the weather cools off, you’ll most likely be spending more time indoors. And that means that irritants in your home or workplace, such as dust mites, mildew, mold, and pet dander can become more of an issue. (41, 42, 43, 44, 45)

To make matters worse, when you turn on the heat, your furnace can churn up allergens and blow them through the air. That makes it that much easier to breathe them in and cause an allergic reaction. (19, 20)

Vitamin D deficiency

It’s very important to get enough vitamin D, because it provides a whole range of health benefits. It helps the body with a number of functions and even fights some diseases. Vitamin D is good for: (21, 22, 23)

  • Better sleep
  • Bone and tooth health
  • Boosting energy
  • Decreasing cancer risks
  • Fighting diabetes
  • Healthy pregnancies
  • Heart health
  • Immune support
  • Improving mood
  • Preventing weight gain
  • Regulating insulin
  • Skin health
  • Supporting lung function

Unfortunately, in the northern hemisphere, the average person’s vitamin D levels drop off significantly in the fall and winter. This happens for two reasons. First, the days get shorter, so there is less sunlight, which is a major source of vitamin D. (21, 22)

In addition, because of the cold weather during the winter, most people wear clothing that covers their bodies to a greater extent to stay warm. This hinders the absorption of vitamin D from the sun because less skin is exposed to sunlight. (1, 21, 22)

Weight gain and lower physical activity

Many people tend to gain weight in the fall and winter, especially due to the extremely decadent menu items often on offer and our holiday-time motivation to go back for seconds.

But weight gain is a concern because, on average, people become less active this time of year. As the weather gets chillier and darkness becomes more prevalent, people usually stay inside more and are less likely to exercise outdoors. So unless you’re a dedicated gym buff, it’s easy to break out of your usual physical activity routine and become more sedentary. (1)

How Can You Stay Healthy When the Seasons Change?

Now that you know some of the health concerns that often come with the change of seasons, what can you do about them? Remember that overall wellness starts with supporting your body’s environment, or terrain, so that you’re better able to fight the pathogens, toxins, and other issues that lead to those pesky seasonal flare-ups.

Here’s a look at possible methods to stay healthy, whichever way the wind blows.



Be mindful

To cope with the many stresses of this time of year, there are several mental-health practices that can help calm you, including: (46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53)

  • Journaling
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness
  • Yoga

Get your vitamins

To help make up for what you’re not getting from the sun, try to work some extra vitamin D into your diet, or take supplements. Getting sufficient vitamin D may even help relieve your winter aches and arthritis pain. (23)

Foods rich in this important vitamin include: (54)

  • Cod liver oil
  • Egg yolks
  • Fish such as sardines, salmon, swordfish, and tuna
  • Food and drinks that are fortified with vitamin D, including cereals, milk, and orange juice
  • Liver (beef)

Move it!

When fall and winter seem to be putting a damper on your health, remaining physically active can help in many ways.

It can give you more energy, improve your mood, lessen weight gain, strengthen your heart, and support joints to keep arthritis flare-ups at bay. It’s important to keep up a healthy weight to avoid overly taxing your heart or joints. And the endorphins you’ll get from exercising can make you happier, even when things are a little dark or stressful this time of year. (55, 56)

Because exercising outdoors can sometimes make matters worse, consider indoor alternatives, as long as they have good ventilation.

Remember the essentials

Essential oils can provide many health benefits, but they’re especially good for natural care for skin and other barriers of the body. If your skin gets dry or irritated when the seasons change, aloe is another possible solution. (57, 58, 59, 60, 61, 62)

Rinse, repeat

Nasal and ear rinses are great for cleaning out the mucus and other substances that can be causing congestion inside your head. (63, 64, 65, 66

See the light of day

If you find yourself having symptoms of SAD, invest in a SAD light therapy lamp. Designed to help get your circadian rhythms back on track, these lamps can be purchased from a variety of places at a range of prices. By providing light that is meant to simulate sunlight, they can help counteract the dreariness of winter and the effects of SAD. (67, 68, 69)

Take in water

When this dry season hits, you need to make sure you’re staying hydrated. Along with getting plenty of water, broth-based soups and tea without caffeine are also good options (bonus: they’re warm!). (70, 71, 72)

Also consider getting a humidifier to fight the dry air where you live or work. Keep it running while you sleep. (73, 74, 75)

Stretch

If you warm up your body before doing any exercise or shoveling snow, it will cause less strain on your body. Your chances of hurting yourself will decrease. (76, 77, 78)

Warm up

Making sure that your body stays balmy can help prevent a number of winter ills. When you go outside, bundle up in warm clothes, hats, and gloves to protect your vulnerable ears, joints, and organs. Try breathing through your nose, so the air will be warmed up by the time it hits your lungs. (79, 80, 18)

When indoors, if you think that your heater might be aggravating your allergies or drying out your skin and mucous membranes, use blankets or a comfy sweatshirt on days when turning on the heat isn’t absolutely necessary. And a hot bath will not only keep you warm, but can also help ease stiff joints. (81, 82, 19, 20)

Watch what you eat

You already know that you can influence your health through nutrition. During the cooler months, eat to support your immune system, which can use a boost in the fall and winter, and also to prevent the pain and discomfort that cold often brings. (83, 84, 85, 86)

Try eating inflammation-fighting foods, such as those full of omega-3 fatty acids (think oily fish, nuts, and seeds). Avoid foods that are known to cause inflammation, such as refined carbohydrates, excess sugar, fatty and fried foods, and red meat. (87)

‘Tis the Season

This time of year can be a real mixed bag. The cooler weather and the holidays come with a lot of good things, but they can also be trying times for your health and well being.

There’s turkey and stuffing, but also stuffy noses and stuffed-up sinuses. The hayrides are fun, but the hay fever is less so. And you might really enjoy the ghosts and spooks of Halloween, but the state of your health is not supposed to be scary.

Luckily, with a little bit of preparation and some good choices, you can still greatly lower your chances of getting sick this time of year. No amount of bad weather or holiday festivities should make you veer off your course to wellness. The seasons may be changing, but your health doesn’t have to.