After it finally starts warming up in the spring, many people venture outdoors, only to become as sick as they were in the depths of winter. Why does this happen, and how can you avoid it? Spring cleaning is hard enough without having to get rid of a cold at the same time.
It makes sense that people get sick right after the holiday season. Not only are weather conditions just right for viruses, we tend to get together with people we may only see once a year, and who may have come from across the country or across the world to be there. They bring with them germs they’re used to, but we’re not. Add in a schedule upset and eating a different, sweeter diet than we normally eat, and we’ve created the perfect storm.
But after a month or so, all those swapped illnesses have run their courses. And if we have anything, it’s cabin fever. In my area, we didn’t see grass from the beginning of December until mid-February, and much of that time we had over a foot of snow on the ground, as well as several inches of ice. Can anyone say “cocoon”?
So you’d think that with all this in the past as everything warms up in the early spring, we’d all go outside and get healthier. But pharmacists and doctors notice an uptick in the number of respiratory infections at this time of year. Why? It’s not like it’s not roughly the same weather as back in October and early November, and we just did all the new germs. Shouldn’t we be healthier?
The generally accepted germ theory of the last 200 years seems to be only part of the picture. There are a number of other factors that can determine whether or not you get sick.
Part of the issue is that over the winter, we’ve been inside, where it’s impossible to get enough sunlight for our bodies to get enough vitamin D. More and more, scientists are realizing the large effect that vitamin D has on the immune system. D interacts with so many macrominerals and vitamins that there isn’t a system in the body it doesn’t impact. Unless you’ve been taking around 4,000 IUs of D daily, you are likely low on it, making you much more susceptible to illnesses as you come out of hibernation.
Another factor is that when the weather warms up, in many parts of the country it’s much warmer than it was, sometimes 40° F in the course of a week. 45° F can feel very warm if you’ve been having to go out when it was 15°F within the last couple of weeks! So much so that you might go out wearing only a windbreaker or only in shirtsleeves. But if it were 80°F and dropped suddenly to 45°F you’d be bundled up.
That’s what you’d typically do in the fall, being used to much higher temperatures. At least where I live, we only get a couple of weeks of that in-between chilly weather before it turns honestly cold. But in the spring, that chilly weather that seems so much colder than true winter can last a couple of months. And especially when it goes from being bitterly cold to simply chilly, many of us are inclined to shed our heavy coats and sweaters and get outside.
Cold in itself does not cause disease, any more than getting wet does (April showers, anyone?) But if you have an immune system that’s recently been challenged by an onslaught of new germs, and you’re already low on vitamin D, the stress of being more chilled than you think you are can be just the chink in the armor the invaders are looking for. And before you know it, you’re sick. Which is why the pharmacists and doctors in my family can count on working longer hours when it first starts warming up outside.
Even more interesting is the 2006 study published by Dr. Ron Eccles in Oxford’s Journal of Family Practice. According to the study, being chilled may contribute to getting sick by constricting the blood vessels in the nose, making it more difficult for immune factors in the bloodstream to make it to the infection site. So infections that enter the body through the nose, like colds and flu, are harder to fight off. Specifically, the study chilled volunteers by soaking their feet in cold water! So what your grandma and generations of grandmas before her said turns out to be true: Don’t get too cold, and keep your feet dry.
What You Can Do To Prevent Getting Sick
First, repair your armor: load up on vitamin D, ideally the natural form found in cod liver oil. Your doctor can run a test to see what your blood level is. The 25(OH)D test is the one to look at. Deficiency levels are below 50 ng/ml; ideal is 50-70 for most people. People with cancer or heart disease can have up to 100 without having excessive levels.
Optimal intake levels of vitamin D won’t make much difference if the nutrients it interacts with aren’t present. Make sure you get enough calcium, magnesium, vitamin K, and vitamin C. Potassium, sodium and phosphorus are also affected by either vitamin D or by one of the major nutrients it catalyzes.
Secondly, put on your coat and keep your feet dry! Be careful and don’t stress your system too much. Think back to October. If it was 70°F out yesterday instead of 26°F, what would your reaction have been in October? Wouldn’t you have been wearing your winter coat and long pants, instead of the shorts and windbreaker you have on now? It’s relative perception, but it can get you sick if you don’t take it into account. It’s also more likely to be rainy in the springtime, no matter how badly you want to ditch the boots and go back to your flipflops.
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