Health File


Preparing For Winter Living

The shortest, darkest day of winter has thankfully passed, but Canadians still have the two coldest months to endure. Here are tips, bits of news and observations to help you be prepared to welcome spring with a healthier body and in a healthier frame of mind.

The importance of sunshine. The dark months affect both our bodies and our minds. Our bodies make vitamin D when the sun is at the right angle in the sky and UVB (ultraviolet B) rays are absorbed by the skin. In the northern hemisphere at this time of the year, neither happens. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to many health risks, including type 1 diabetes, infections, diseases, multiple sclerosis, high blood pressure, rickets and some forms of cancer while maintaining optimum levels is associated with three to five years of increased life expectancy.

Those for whom a midwinter trip to the sunbelt is not possible have to top up D levels through diet. The list of foods rich in vitamin D is short, and includes fortified milk products, salmon, shrimp, sardines and cod. In winter, supplementation is necessary. Health Canada recently increased the daily recommended intake of vitamin D to 600 international units for adults, and set the tolerable upper intake level at 4,000 IU. The Canadian Cancer Society recommends 1,000 IU daily. But The Vitamin D Council says the adult human body uses 3,000 to 5,000 IU daily; it recommends how much to take and when and how to take it on its website

Lack of sunshine also affects us psychologically. The amount of light hitting the retina affects the mechanisms that govern the sleep/wake cycle and appetite. Dim winter light conditions cause more serotonin, the “feel-good brain chemical” to be converted to melatonin, the hormone that induces sleep and is associated with depression. Dropping serotonin levels spark cravings to eat carbohydrates, which causes release of insulin, which is needed so the amino acid necessary for serotonin production can get into the brain.

Resisting the urge to hibernate can help us weather the winter better. Many people find that a walk in the sunshine, especially in the morning, helps with the mid-winter blues. The Canadian Mental Health Association,, estimates up to three per cent of Canadians suffer Seasonal Affective Disorder, a form of clinical depression associated with winter. For these folks, light therapy can help, but it requires daily eye exposure to doctor-recommended special fluorescent lights.

Eat for the season. Just when our immune systems need nutritional bucking up, the selection of produce decreases and prices increase and we crave sugary desserts. Luckily, colourful local winter fruits and vegetables deliver the complex carbohydrates needed for serotonin production and are packed with disease-fighting vitamins and flavonoids. The bright yellow and orange seasonal veggies—sweet potatoes, squash, pumpkin—boost serotonin production. Dietitians of Canada’s website,, suggests boosting immunity with vitamin C rich foods like citrus fruits and foods rich in zinc (meat, seafood, seeds, cooked dried beans, peas and lentils) to defend against viruses. And spice it up if you want—research is showing spices and herbs like thyme, oregano, rosemary, sage, cayenne, onions, garlic and ginger have anti-viral and anti-microbial properties. (And no, you don’t need to eat an acre and a half to ensure therapeutic benefit; consider them as small enhancements to the nutritional main course).

Don’t hibernate. Although cold snaps sap the will to exercise, “by decreasing our physical activity, we’re essentially ‘hibernating’ our hearts, which is not good for them,” says The Public Health Agency of Canada. The WinterActive link on its website,, has dozens of suggestions for activities for both those who embrace the great white outdoors, and those who prefer to remain inside. It also warns about the dangers of heart attacks while shovelling snow, and to avoid outdoor activities when the thermometer plunges to 40 below.

Protect yourself from winter bugs. Wash your hands more frequently and sanitize shared surfaces in the home and workplace. A survey by the Health and Hygiene Council Canada found almost all Canadians know hand-washing helps avoid cold and flu bugs, but nearly half of us don’t wash up before eating. Its advice includes washing hands more often; not touching the eyes, nose or mouth; and immediately throwing out tissues after use.

If you haven’t yet had a flu shot, do so now—the season runs into April. It’s estimated 10 to 25 per cent of us come down with it each year and the Public Health Agency reports up to 8,000 people, mainly young children and seniors, die from complications like pneumonia. Its website,, lists locations of flu shot clinics across the country.

Get enough rest. It’s easier to burn the candle at both ends when it’s still dark when you get to work and dark again before it’s time to go home. But stress, fatigue and sleep deprivation all depress the immune system and put out the welcome mat for colds and flu, warns the Canadian Naturopathic Foundation. It recommends six to eight hours of rest to allow the body to repair and heal, and de-stressing with modest exercise and enjoyable downtime activities like reading and writing in a journal.

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