7 Ways Your Body Changes in Winter When the Temperature Drops
Your heart, your brain, and your skin are all impacted when the cold comes in.
Ah, winter. 'Tis the season for holiday parties, cups of hot cocoa, and fun times by the fire with the whole family. However, winter time isn't all fun and games: It's also the season marked by drier skin, increased depression levels, and more headaches than usual. To help prepare you for what's to come, we've outlined how exactly your body changes in the winter. It's time to take back your health as the temperatures drop!
Your blood pressure rises.
In the winter, your blood vessels constrict in order to maintain core body temperature. However, while this is a natural (and necessary) response to the cold, it can have a negative effect on your health by increasing your blood pressure. This rise in blood pressure "can cause more stress on the heart" and ultimately lead to a heart attack, according to Sanjiv Patel, MD, a cardiologist at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute in Fountain Valley, California.
There is less blood flow to your brain.
Have you ever noticed that you tend to get more headaches in the winter than you do in the summer? Well, there's a scientific explanation for that.
"When you go outside and the bitter air hits something called the trigeminal nerve, blood vessels in the brain constrict, leading to the headache," the experts at Blue Cross Blue Shield's A Healthier Michigan explain on their website. This phenomenon is more commonly experienced by migraine sufferers—so if you know that you get headaches on the regular, make sure to wear a hat and some earmuffs!
Your serotonin levels drop.
Depression is a common concern in the winter months. In fact, this season-specific mental health issue is so prevalent that it even has its own name: seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
But what exactly causes this winter health issue? When researchers from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark studied individuals with SAD in 2016, they identified the root of the issue as an increase in the serotonin transporter protein, or SERT. As lead study author Brenda McMahon explained in a statement, "SERT carries [mood-boosting regulating] serotonin back into the nerve cells where it is not active, so the higher the SERT activity, the lower the activity of serotonin."
Your skin dries out.
In the winter, humidity levels dip. And this can do some serious damage to your skin.
"When the air outside is cold and dry, the water in your skin evaporates more quickly; this makes your skin feel dry and tight, and makes it look flaky," writes Jessica Wu, MD, a Los Angeles-based, board-certified dermatologist, on Everyday Health. "In fact, your skin loses more than 25 percent of its ability to hold moisture in the winter."
To keep your skin more moisturized in the winter, make sure to wear protective clothing and apply lotion every day.
Your airways get irritated.
The cold and dry winter air doesn't just dry your skin out. According to the American Lung Association, it can also mess with your airways—especially if you deal with issues like asthma all year round.
"Dry air can irritate the airways of people with asthma, COPD, or bronchitis," the organization explains. "This can cause things that get in the way of winter fun, like wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath." To avoid these painful predicaments, the association recommends covering your nose and mouth whenever you're outside and primarily working out indoors in the winter.
Your cholesterol levels rise.
In 2014, researchers from Johns Hopkins Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease presented a paper that showed that cholesterol levels tend to be higher in the winter months. Interestingly enough, this phenomenon can at least partially be explained by yet another winter health issue: vitamin D deficiency. Shorter winter days mean less sun exposure, and since sunlight is needed in order to convert cholesterol into vitamin D, the winter months mean both less vitamin D and more cholesterol in the bloodstream.
You hold on to more "baby fat."
Brown fat—otherwise known as "baby fat"—is a type of fat that converts energy into heat. The body tends to hold on to this fat more in the winter in order to stay warm—and as a result, you might just find yourself packing on a few extra pounds once the temperature drops.
Looking for scientific proof that your winter weight gain is natural? In one 2014 study published in the journal Diabetes, researchers exposed male subjects to a cooler environment every night for four months. After just one month of this exposure, the men had an average 42 percent increase in brown fat volume. The good news is that when the subjects were placed back in a neutral temperature, their brown fat volume returned to normal.