I try to let the garden rest over the festive season. There may be a leek or a frost-sweetened parsnip to pull for today’s winter-warmer soup or a displaced birdfeeder to hang back up after last night’s bluster but I have pretty much trained myself to look at the garden this end of the year and not be out trampling and compacting it. It is healthier for it, but is the time inside healthier for us? The cold weather at this time of year can have an impact on our general health and also trigger underlying conditions. So, should we avoid it at all costs?
Personally, I like to take a few bracing walks in December and January and even the odd winter dip in ocean - as a short-term exposure to cold weather actually activities your immune system. It's said your system perceives the shock of the chill as a threat and so hits the alarm bell for more natural killer cells and other immune cells to prepare to deploy.
While lots of autoimmune conditions such as psoriasis and arthritis do flare up in winter so too underlying conditions can be perceived as worsening. In part that’s because cold weather is both a mood depressor and a stress trigger – two accelerators of pain perception and both contributors to a sense of unwellness. Because cold weather exposure can act as a vasoconstrictor, it often occasions a temporary disruption of normal services in the veins and capillaries that carry nutrients, t-cells, endorphins and other health agents to where they are needed – so if you are suffering a prolonged freeze in the garden as you tidy up or potter about just to avoid another rerun of a tired old movie or series on the television.
You may even be looking worse. One of the most noticeable implications of what cold does is to our skin: chapped lips, dry flaky patches, rosy cheeks etc. It is not all the cold's fault – it is more that the movement between the amped up indoor heating (which is drying) and the outside wind, rain and sleet (which is surface stressing) is simply too much stress for your skin to not signal its distress.
It might just be time for an avocado skin mask or at least some avocado on toast - surface hydration is important to skin as it navigates between those interior and exterior environments and the natural oild in avacados mirrors the skins natural oils so closely that it’s a near-instant rejuvenation. I say on toast as nutritionally, foods rich in omegas and vitamin e offer a great circulation boost to remedy the capillary constriction of cold and deal more effectively with the dehydration of dry hot indoors.
A couple of times in my horticultural career I was foolish enough to brave the elements on the coldest of days and keep working. Usually trying to save wind-rocked or flooded borders and shrubs. And as the old say about how "no good deed goes unpunished" rang true with the consequences of backache, heartache and chilblains, I often had buyer’s remorse on the day’s venture.
Chilblains can be nasty; it’s not quite frost bite buts as close to that sort of discomfort you want to get.
In essence, it’s a retreat of circulation from the area and strong cold reaction. it generally results in localised redness of hands, ears, lower legs or feet with some swelling, often as ‘skin bumps’ which upon re-warming of the area become tender and blue or develop itching or burning sensations. In severe cases, blisters and ulcers can form. They normally heal within a week but it’s a sore week. If you’ve made the same mistake or don’t want to make it, then the trick is to get spicy; Sipping a strong cup of ginger and cayenne tea, or munching a spicy snack that includes both, can help to improve circulation to the extremities - without triggering the pain of an external warm-up.
Cold weather can exacerbate Raynaud’s disease which is a year-round complication of blood supply to fingers and toes, marked by colour changes, tingling and often pain. The standard medication is prescribed vasodilators.
Natural vasodilators include essential fatty acids (omegas) which also help improve tolerance to cold. Back to that avocado on toast or a supplement of evening primrose until spring. Cold weather can trigger a heightened awareness of pain - hence the old “I can feel it in my bones”. So, this time of year is naturally triggering creaky to painful joints. If you have Arthritis, a flare-up is to be expected not just because of the immune reaction but also because barometric pressure changes in winter put more stress on joints. A diet rich in essential fatty acids will diminish pain, coat the joints and improve mobility.
When it comes to the increasing evidence/study upon the psychological impact of coldness upon ‘worsening symptoms” in winter. It’s as if we are meant to take a little hibernation break and sit by the fire or gather with friends and family. All the Christmas lights, all the New Year’s Eve fireworks, it’s all a way to light the way. To inject some cheer while we wait for warmer days to return.
This article is about cold impact not low light so I haven’t gone into seasonal affective disorder but cold also dampens enthusiasm and mood. So be it sadness, numbness or physical pains, a vitamin D supplement or some fortified food will increase your happy hormones right now when you need it boosting the most.
You can also increase your mood and thus decrease your symptoms by tricking your brain – for starters, having a warm cuppa in your hand can switch on positive emotional response similar to holding a loved one’s hand (they call it social surrogacy) and because the human brain is slow to differentiate between reality and reality TV, sure why not binge a comedy or romantic boxset to borrow some warmth and happiness. Soon enough the snowdrops will be up and seed packets will yearn to be sown and winter will be last year’s news. Until next year, thanks for your readership this year and I wish you every health and all the green thumbs in the one to come.