Winter can be a beautiful time of year – but it can also be detrimental to your heart health. Many studies have shown that there are more heart attacks during the winter months than other times of the year, and one study found that most cold-weather related deaths are due to heart disease, stroke and respiratory disease.
This time of year already poses various other health concerns – combating the cold and flu, avoiding slips and falls, and traveling safely. Being conscious of how winter affects your heart is an unwanted addition to this list – but one that could save your life.
Here are three reasons why winter can be hard on your heart – and what you can do to keep it as healthy as possible this time of year:
- It’s just really cold. Cold temperatures can have a large impact on your heart and the way it functions. Cold weather causes arteries to constrict, which raises blood pressure and pulse rate, ultimately putting more strain on the heart. In addition, cortisone levels fluctuate with temperature, causing platelets to become sticky and allowing clots to form more easily. Combine this with already constricted arteries, and you may notice some new symptoms – especially if you already have partial blockages.
What can I do? When you’re outdoors, make sure you wear proper clothing to keep your body temperature higher and avoid arterial constriction. If you already have an existing heart condition, avoid over-exerting yourself in extreme weather. Shoveling away the snow in your driveway is not a good idea for deconditioned cardiac patients, but don’t be afraid to go for short walks to get some fresh air. If you’re more inclined to stay where the temperature is warmer, find an indoor exercise program to keep you fit throughout the winter months. Try utilizing the indoor track at your local gym, chair aerobics at your senior center or even ballroom dancing with your partner.
- You’re not getting enough vitamin D. Aside from low temperatures, there are fewer hours of sunlight in winter along with less skin exposure to potential sun rays. A lack of vitamin D is associated with inflammation of the arteries. Some small studies have shown a correlation between low levels of vitamin D and the presence of coronary artery disease (blockages in the heart arteries) and angina (chest pain). Although the associations are not fully understood, low vitamin D levels may be a marker of poor nutrition and physical activity.
What can I do? Take a vitamin D supplement if you are deficient. To maintain vitamin D levels over time, eat foods like salmon, tuna, egg yolks, mushrooms, and, if you can stomach it, cod liver oil.
- You’re not fueling your body properly. During the winter months, many people have holiday celebrations with family and friends, which typically means less regular exercise and more consumption of sugars, fats and alcohol. Although we don’t want to deprive ourselves of our favorite holiday recipes or winter comfort foods, it’s necessary to aim for eating these less healthy foods in moderation. Consistent exercise and a balanced diet are crucial for maintaining heart health, and when these habits are put on pause for a few months, your heart – along with your waistline – are two areas that get hit the hardest, especially if you are already overweight or have high blood pressure.
What can I do? It’s very important to continue your healthy lifestyle habits throughout the winter months. Try a new healthy recipe to spice up a monotonous dinner menu. In addition, swapping unhealthy ingredients for healthier alternatives and exercising for even 15 minutes per day can help keep your heart healthy this time of year.
How healthy is your heart? Take the heart risk quiz now. Then, schedule an appointment with your primary care provider or find a heart expert at henryford.com or by calling 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).
Dr. Deirdre Mattina is a cardiologist who sees patients at Henry Ford Hospital and at the Henry Ford Women’s Heart Center at Henry Ford Medical Center – Second Avenue. Read more of Dr. Mattina’s articles.