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7 Ways to Keep Your Heart Healthy This Winter

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. It’s the hap-happiest season of all, or so the song goes. Unless, of course, you are one of the unlucky ones who suffer a heart attack, an AFib episode, or another heart problem during the cold winter months. 

Winter is a challenging time when it comes to cardiovascular disease. There is a clear seasonal trend in which heart conditions are exacerbated in the winter and tend to diminish in the summer months. 

Keeping your heart healthy year-round should be the ultimate goal. However, there are clear steps you can take to beef up your healthcare routine during the winter season, keeping your heart healthy and strong. 

Cold-heart facts 

When thinking of the dangers of winter, what comes to mind? Frostbite? Hypothermia? Treacherous driving on icy roads? One of the biggest dangers of winter is the exacerbation of cardiovascular disease. 

Americans are thirty percent more likely to suffer a heart attack during winter. Moreover, studies show that arrhythmias, such as AFib, also skyrocket during the colder season. People have more strokes during the winter months. In fact, nearly every cardiovascular disease goes up during the winter months, including: 

More people become ill and hospitalized in the winter months due to cardiovascular disease, and people are also more likely to die during the winter months. In a phenomenon called “holiday heart syndrome,” studies have found that cardiac mortality is highest during the Christmas and New Years holidays. In fact, more cardiac deaths occur on December 25th than on any other day of the year. 

Why is is it hard to keep your heart healthy in winter?

For healthy individuals, cold weather is no big deal. However, the cold may be enough for those with compromised cardiovascular systems to tip the scales negatively. 

When exposed to cold, the body responds by shunting blood from the skin to the internal organs, such as the heart and lungs. Essentially, the blood gathers around the central organs, keeping them warm. 

At the same time, blood vessels constrict, reducing the amount of oxygen-rich blood available to the heart. The work of the heart increases as it attempts to push blood faster through the narrowed arteries. Spending time in cold temperatures often results in the following: 

  • Elevated heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Higher oxygen demand
  • Thicker blood and increased risk of clotting

While cold weather is one potential cause of increased heart problems, it’s not the only cause. Studies have found that even in mild climates, more heart attacks happen in December and January than in summer. For example, Christmas falls during summer in New Zealand, yet cardiac mortality remains high. 

Other reasons for increased heart problems during the winter months include:

Less access to vitamin D  

Vitamin D is exceptionally cardio-protective, and low levels of this sunshine vitamin have been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Multiple studies show a relationship between low vitamin D levels and cardiovascular events.  

As we head through the winter months, we spend less time outdoors exposed to the sunlight. Moreover, those living in the northern parts of the United States lose access to vitamin D through the winter months. 

Lowered defenses 

Winter is cold and flu season. Exposure to winter viruses can compromise heart health for those with underlying heart issues. For example, studies show that individuals with heart disease are at six times higher risk of having a heart attack in the days following the flu. 

The heart must work harder when the body is busy fighting off infections. In addition, respiratory issues, such as COPD or pneumonia, may trigger AFib episodes, especially for those with a history of arrhythmias. 

Less physical activity 

When the temperature drops, many of us retreat indoors. But unfortunately, we already live in a sedentary society, and less activity leads to increased cardiovascular risk. 

Overindulgence 

Excessive and unhealthy eating occurs throughout the year, but the holidays tend to bring things to the next level. Overindulgence in processed, sugar-laden foods and alcohol is common during the holidays. Even those who eat healthily often use the holidays as an excuse to let loose. For those with underlying heart disease, the extra cookie or cocktail can be enough to tip the scales. 

Holiday heart syndrome, a term coined in the late 1970s, is a real phenomenon. Also referred to as alcohol-induced atrial arrhythmias, an excess intake of alcohol causes cardiac rhythm disturbances during the holiday season. 

Increased rates of depression and stress 

The winter months tend to exacerbate underlying mental health problems. Traveling to visit family can be stressful for some people. The darker days of winter can trigger seasonal affective disorder for some. And while the holidays are generally a happy time, they also bring about feelings of sadness and depression, especially for those who have experienced loss. 

7 ways to keep your heart healthy this winter

 

Maintain your diet

The holidays are typically a time of celebration with family and friends. Unfortunately, these celebrations nearly always focus on unhealthy food. With Christmas cookies to processed appetizers everywhere, it can be challenging to stick to your health goals during the winter months. However, it’s essential for heart health. 

Thankfully, mother nature has you covered. Some of the best heart-healthy foods are available in the winter months. Root vegetables, such as beets, butternut squash, and sweet potatoes, are incredibly healthy for the heart. Other cold-season superstars include kale and spinach. Studies show that just one cup of leafy greens daily lowers heart disease. 

The winter months are a great time to explore your kitchen. Perhaps try your hand at cooking wild-caught seafood, such as salmon. Seafood is packed with heart-healthy omega-3s, which lower triglycerides and increase high-density lipoprotein levels. 

Keep moving

The long, dark days of winter, coupled with the cold temperatures, can make motivation to exercise disappear. However, exercise is one of the best things you can do to keep your heart healthy in winter.  

Exercise strengthens the heart directly and reduces or eliminates some of the risk factors that can lead to heart disease, such as high blood pressure. Regular movement causes the heart to beat faster, opening the blood vessels and improving oxygen supply to all the organs- including the heart.

Don’t stop being active in the winter months. Instead of focusing celebrations around food, choose to take a long family walk or hike through the woods. Also, consider trying a new sport, such as snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. Just remember to bundle in layers to keep the heart warm in the colder weather. 

Limit alcohol

It’s no secret that alcohol consumption goes up during the winter months. Studies show that lower temperatures and less sunlight correlate with increased alcohol consumption, including binge drinking. 

The research surrounding alcohol consumption and the heart can be confusing. However, the bottom line is that reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption reduces cardiovascular risk in nearly everyone. 

Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it promotes water loss through increased urination. Not only does this contribute to dehydration, but it accelerates the loss of essential minerals and electrolytes. Moreover, alcohol use increases the heart rate and blood pressure, all while weakening the heart. 

Research shows that binge drinking is a significant risk factor for cardiovascular problems. For example, one study found that people who binge drink are 72 percent more likely to have a heart attack. However, it’s not just heavy drinkers who face risk. New research indicates that even one glass of wine might be enough to push the heart into abnormal rhythms, such as AFib. 

Winter is a great time to reduce alcohol consumption or eliminate it altogether to keep your heart healthy. Instead, consider finding a fun mocktail recipe you enjoy and share it with those you love. 

Reduce stress

Between the hectic schedules of the holiday, increased family interactions, and inclement weather, winter can significantly raise stress levels. 

Unfortunately, studies show that stress raises blood pressure and increases the risk of cardiovascular problems. In addition, stress is linked to increased heart attacks, AFib, and obesity.

Prioritize your mental health during the winter months. Make time to slow down during the long, cold winter days. Do your best to avoid stressful interactions, saying no when you need to. Meditation is an excellent tool to help manage unavoidable stress as well. 

Don’t skimp on sleep

The winter months are made for sleep. Our ancient ancestors rose and slept with the sun, sleeping more in the winter and less in the summer. Unfortunately, few people follow this healthy practice today.

The research is clear: sleep is essential for a healthy heart, so much so that in 2022 the American Heart Association added sleep to the heart health checklist

To best protect your heart, aim for 8-9 hours of uninterrupted, quality sleep during the winter months.

Spend time in the sun

With shorter days and more cloud cover, getting enough time in the sun can be challenging. However, as mentioned earlier, sun exposure is essential for solid heart health. 

When the UVB rays of the sun hit our skin, our bodies produce vitamin D, often referred to as the sunshine vitamin. Studies show that Vitamin D helps lower blood pressure and ward off cardiovascular disease.

While most people are aware of the importance of vitamin D, fewer know about another vital substance generated when sunlight hits our skin – nitric oxide (NO). UVA rays help to release nitric oxide, an important molecule that acts as a vasodilator and helps to keep blood vessels flowing smoothly. Nitric oxide also helps reduce inflammation and blood clots and is essential for healthy endothelial function. 

Aim to spend as much time outdoors in the sunlight for optimal heart health during the winter months. If you live in an area with little sunlight access during the winter, plan a sun-filled vacation or consider investing in a high-quality vitamin D lamp.

Support your heart with evidence-based supplements 

Less sunshine and lower availability of freshly grown food make it easy for our bodies to become depleted of essential nutrients during the winter months. So while food should always be our first choice regarding vitamin and mineral intake, sometimes our hearts need an extra boost, especially during the colder days of winter. 

Consider supplementing your diet with evidence-based vitamins. By keeping your immune system strong, you also support your heart. 

Next steps 

There isn’t one season that is more important than others when it comes to cardiovascular health. Achieving optimal heart health is a year-round venture. However, the winter can bring added stress to our hearts, making it much more important to focus on healthy choices during that time. 

If you are interested in learning additional ways to support your heart, consider joining a 21-day group coaching session. Not only will you learn strategies to keep your heart strong, but you will have support from a tribe of like-minded individuals also seeking their 100 Year Heart. 

Eat well, Live well, Think well

Medical Review: Dr. Lauren Lattanza 2022

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