It happens every year. The holidays approach, the weather cools, and just as the season really begin to get busy, you begin to feel sick. We all know the feeling: fatigue, headache, sore throat, low energy. Why does the winter seem to be married to illness?
The answer, according to Dr. Anthony Lyon with the Ash Center in New York, is a combination of overtiring our bodies at the exact time we ask them to battle the cold weather. And when you add the element of enclosure—more people are cooped up together in the winter months, germs spreading as the heat blasts—well, it’s a sure recipe for sickness.
So how can you protect yourself when everyone at the office is catching the flu? The trick isn’t to avoid the ill, but to focus on priming your body to fight off any pending sickness that may be sneezed your way.
In addition to eating well (come on, leafy greens!) and avid hand-washing, Dr. Lyon offers tips for staying well, even when you seem to be the only one.
Breathe better. Lyon suggests you battle exhaustion—a leading cause of illness—by improving the way you breathe. Lyon notes that improper breathing can impact the 5 main reasons why you feel tired: sleep disruption; overwhelming stress or anxiety; gastrointestinal upset and suboptimal digestion; immune system dysregulation; and chronic neck and low back pain.
So how can you breathe better?
“When asked to take a deep breath, most people bow out their chest, lift their shoulders to their ears and breathe in a very vertical manner,” says Lyon. “This is the style we have adopted after years of reacting to challenging situations, including physical or emotional trauma. But, by breathing like this, you are actually perpetuating a sense of fear and unrest by sending a signal to your brain that you are in ‘flight or fight’ mode. Instead, expand your abdomen when you inhale and make it look like a pregnant belly, which engages your diaphragm, and dissipates turmoil by telling your vagus nerve that all is fine and it is okay to rest, relax and digest.” Lyon explains that when you can rest, relax and digest, you give your body the best chance to restore and recover, and protect itself from germy invaders.
Move your muscles. Lyon promotes movement as a surefire way to stay healthy. And while any physical activity is great for keeping your systems moving, Lyon says that weight training to build stronger muscles can help ward off winter illness. “We are only starting to learn all of the health benefits that strong muscle confers, including its role as an endocrine gland,” says Lyon. “Muscles secrete proteins, hormones and other vitally important messenger molecules that send signals to direct essential activities elsewhere. Keep your muscle happy so your immune system will be primed and ready to go.”
Adjust your bedtime. We all know catching enough zzzs can help us feel rested and give our body ample time to fight potential illness. But Lyon stresses it’s not just how much you sleep (aim for 7-8 hours), but when. Lyon recommends falling asleep by 10pm at the latest. “By going to bed at a decent hour, your sleep will be physiologic – which means it is congruent with your body’s normal functioning. Right around 10pm is when certain organs need to start the housekeeping work to prepare you for the next day, including your brain, which needs to detoxify from the day you just had. When you stay up late, the housekeeping cannot be completed, leaving you fatigued the next day.” If you have a ton of tasks on your to-do list, Lyon says you’ll be better off turning in at a decent time and waking up early.