This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
For those who haven’t spent much time in colder climes, winter may have taken on a few misleading qualities. The cute, chunky, wool sweaters and evenings spent sipping hot chocolate following an afternoon sled ride only exist in films like A Christmas Story. Winter (at least for this writer) is more like a hell-frozen-over death trap, involving virus particles and the fact that even four layers of the mostthermal leggings won’t produce a warming effect in the frozen tundra that is the outdoors.
Yes, a wee bitter over here. Because even if you’re super careful about maintaining a relatively healthy lifestyle, winter is bound to grace you with some sort of ailment, whether it’s picking up a runny nose from a cube mate or packing on a few extra pounds through some post holiday boozing and bingeing. Fortunately, staying healthy and treating the most common cold weather inconveniences doesn’t have to involve a shopping spree at the pharmacy — some of the best remedies are sitting right in the pantry. Get ready to tackle old man winter with these all-natural ways to heal the blues, aches, sniffles, and itches.
Problem: Cold and Flu
Your weapons: Steam and exercise
So, you’ve been extra careful about washing your hands, you got the flu shot, and you’ve pretty much been avoiding all human contact since October. And, yet, you still came down with a nasty bug? Go ahead and place (part of) the blame on winter. “Spending more time indoors, coupled with the dry winter air, makes us more susceptible to picking up a virus since we are cooped up,” says Dr. Tanya Edwards, MD, director of Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. Both the cold and flu are caused by different viruses — the flu is highly mutable and the cold virus has more than 200 strands, making it difficult to nail down one vaccine or “cure” for either, says Dr. Neil Schachter, MD, medical director of the Respiratory Care Department of the Mount Sinai MedicalCenter and author of The Good Doctor’s Guide to Colds & Flu.
Figuring out if it’s just a cold that’s bogging you down or something more serious is pretty easy. “Colds attack the upper airways, causing a sore throat, sneezing, and congestion. They rarely cause a fever and last no longer than a week. The flu zones in on the lower airways and often produces a high fever. With a cold, you may have a scratchy throat and feel stuffy, but you can still be out and about, while the flu will leave you drained and exhausted, making it hard to even move,” says Schacter.
If a bug has you sniffling and wheezing, there’s no one-stop-shop cures yet (we’re hoping the miracle of modern medicine will fix this soon), but there are plenty of tricks that will tackle the most common symptoms. First off, hopping into a hot shower or steaming your face under a towel for five to 10 minutes will do wonders for your nose. “Steam loosens mucous and clears up congestion,” says Schacter. Similarly, a bowl of chicken soup — though science is still debating its medicinal properties — can also relieve some of the sniffles that accompany colds or the flu. According to a study in Chest, that soup can also reduce upper respiratory symptoms. Since viruses love to hang out in the mucous membranes found in the schnoz, mom’s go-to broth could cut some days off your misery, too.
Walking around in a sick daze certainly doesn’t give us much incentive to jump out of bed and head to spin class, but a couple minutes of daily fitness and meditation could actually knock a few days off your illness. “Moderate exercise and meditation increase the production of T-cells in the body, which are necessary for healthy immunity because they’re the ones fighting viruses and foreignparticles on the front lines,” says Schacter. Moving more on the reg might actually help repel colds and flus in the first place. “Studies in older adults have shown decreased infection risks and increased rates of vaccine effectiveness in those who exercised regularly,” says Dr. Melina Jampolis, MD, a physician and nutrition specialist in Los Angeles. How can you tell if you’re capable of hitting the gym? “I recommend doing a neck check: If your symptoms are above the neck such as sneezing and congestion, you can safely exercise. But, if you’re experiencing symptoms below the neck, such as coughing, stomach cramps, or body aches, it’s better to steer clear and just rest,” he says.
And while conventional wisdom had previously pushed vitamins, now experts say it’s okay to skip the vitamin aisle. There’s no harm in continuing to use vitamin C, but going crazy on the orange juice and Emergen-C won’t work wonders: A review of 30 vitamin C studies didn’t find any conclusive evidence that the vitamin actually helps ward off colds or flu. “Vitamin C may decrease the duration of your cold, but won’t have an impact on the severity of it and doesn’t play a role in prevention,” says Edwards. Same thing goes for vitamin D: A recent research in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that vitamin D didn’t reduce the length or severity of a cold.
Problem: Upset Stomach
Your Weapons: Lemons, Peppermint, and Ginger
The holidays may theoretically be over, but we can bet that a fair share of office parties have trickled into the New Year. Or maybe the blustery weather has forced you into a House of Cardsbinge-watching spree on Netflix, complete with several varieties of extra greasy/spicy takeout. Whatever your poison, it’s likely that a couple hours later, your stomach is feeling the brunt of the pain. To ease any tummy troubles, sip on warm water infused with the juice of one lemon. “This drink improves digestion, and the acid in the lemon can help break down any undigested food,” says Jampolis.
Prefer something warmer? Try ginger tea or fresh ginger steeped in hot water says Jampolis. This root, traditionally used in Eastern medicine, contains chemicals called gingerols that reduce inflammation in the stomach.. What’s more, research has found that ginger can also promote feelings of fullness, meaning you’ll be less likely to reach for those pigs in a blanket later.
Peppermint tea is also effective for an upset stomach because it opens up the lower esophageal sphincter, releasing pressure on the stomach, says Edwards. Studies have also shown that a peppermint brew has strong antiviral and antimicrobial properties and helps relax gastrointestinal tissue. However, Jampolis suggests avoiding peppermint tea if you have symptoms of heartburn or have been diagnosed with acid reflux. “Because the mint relaxes the sphincter muscle, acid may make its way up the esophagus, potentially damaging the tissue and not helping you feel any better.”
Problem: Winter Blues
Your Weapons: Carbs, vitamin D, and Tryptophan
As the temps continue to drop, that blah feeling tends to creep in. Instead of hitting up our usual TRX class or happy hours with friends, we prefer to bury ourselves under the covers with a planned reemergence sometime in April. Surprisingly, these “meh moments” are totally normal. “Winter blues are a real thing and can be attributed to decreased light exposure, less motivation to workout, and unwillingness to socialize because of colder weather and less sunlight,” says Jampolis.
While hibernating or relocating to a Caribbean island are not viable options for most of us, what we put on our plate can help lift a sunken mood. In the case of cold weather blahs, carbs are your best friend (take that Paleo), though this doesn’t mean ordering multiple rounds of Red Lobster’s cheddar biscuits. “Aim for whole-grain pastas, quinoa, or buckwheat, which help keep serotonin levels up,” says Jampolis. Consuming foods with tryptophan — found in nuts, seeds, legumes, soy products, and turkey — is also crucial, as this amino acid helps form serotonin in the brain, she says.
Vitamin D is a key player too. “Low levels of vitamin D have been shown to contribute to depression,” says Edwards. “You’ll want to get your levels checked via a blood test to determine how much you need to take, but the most common recommendation is somewhere between 1,000 to 1,500 IU.”
Besides sticking to a better diet, getting off your bum and burning a few calories also makes a world of difference. “Exercise is essential, as it may help fight depression in numerous ways by changing brain chemistry, improving insulin resistance (insulin helps tryptophan enter the brain), and helping to decrease the damaging effects of stress on the brain and body,” says Jampolis. And, there’s no need be a slave to SoulCycle or Bikram. “Movement is just as important as exercise, so you don’t need to have a vigorous gym session everyday. Even taking the stairs or getting off one subway stop earlier and walking will still count,” says Edwards.
Problem: Dry Skin
Your Weapons: Omega-3s and Zinc
Sure, your lizard-skin clutch will grant you looks of envy at the club, but the same can’t be said of your scaly dermis. The combination of low humidity, dry indoor heat, those long hot showers, and even too much boozing causes the outer most layer of skin to lift up and become loose, like tiles coming off a roof, explains Los Angeles-based dermatologist, Jessica Wu, author of Feed Your Face. “The cells become more visible and aren’t able to retain moisture, leading to dry skin,” she says. “Skin becomes itchy, red, and irritated.”
To soothe any reptilian tendencies, chow down on fatty fish twice a week. “Fish such as mackerel, sardines, and salmon contains the highest amounts of a type of omega-3, called DHA, which has been shown to relieve itchy rashes associated with dry skin and eczema,” Wu says. She also suggests incorporating foods high in zinc — think lean red meat, lentils, kidney beans, and pumpkin seeds. “Zinc helps heal wounds and repair dry skin, so it’s super important, especially in the winter when dry skin is everywhere,” she adds.
Your Weapon: Avocado
Dry winter air and hours of sporting cute beanies create static, which gives you that “someone rubbed a balloon on my ‘do” look. A quick fix is an avocado mask, which will help nourish and tame unruly tresses. “The fatty acids in this super food coat frizzy strands and help seal split ends,” says Wu.
So, maybe you can’t escape that constantly sneezing coworker or a bout of itchy skin, but, with these all-natural cures, at least you’ll be armed to fight back. Because, let’s face it, looks like we’re destined for at least six more weeks of winter polar vortex.
Illustrated by Sydney Hass
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