Chronic illness and cold weather can go two ways. For some people it’s cosy – but for others it brings severe pain. If you’re someone who needs to survive winter (like me) then this article will prepare you.
All it takes is a quick drop in temperature for your joints to stiffen and your muscles to spasm. I know the feeling.
Every single chronic illness I have is badly affected by the cold.
My energy levels drop, my brain fog gets stronger and my pain is more persistent. My hands and feet burn like they’re on fire, and my skin changes to hues of red, purple and white.
I know that winter means your social commitments, professional responsibilities and daily activities are all cut down. This is especially true for most chronic nerve, joint or muscle pain.
First of all, it’s important to know that you’re not going crazy. Cold weather and chronic illness can be an awful combination.
Not to mention that cold weather can also affect your natural immune response even more – which is kind of important. You don’t want to deal with a creaky body and the flu.
Secondly, you need to know that it’s possible to manage wintertime better so that you aren’t so badly affected by the weather. And I know this because I have spent 12 years working on it myself.
This article tells you almost everything that I have learnt about how you can look after yourself this winter.
Chronic illness and cold weather should be something you plan for – not something you run from.
Keep As Warm As Possible
It’s a natural reaction to keep warm when you feel cold. But we’re about to take things to a new level.
Staying warm will help you with pain management because:
- It helps you maintain circulation – especially in your hands and feet where you can feel the most tender.
- It eases the stiffness in your joints and promotes a healthier range of motion.
Here are the three most important things I suggest you do to keep warm this winter.
Look after your hands and feet
You should really avoid treating your extremities like an afterthought if you can. I say this because I often did the same. But your hands and feet are precious and serve a purpose.
There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to type on your computer, make dinner, slide a ring on to your finger or even wear closed shoes when your hands and feet are swollen and achy.
Keeping warm will solve a big portion of this problem.
- Protect your hands and feet by wearing thick gloves or socks.
Look for anything made from insulative materials and that won’t cut off your circulation because it’s too tight.
- In public use good judgement about how strong you are.
I wouldn’t walk with your hands in your pockets unless you’re feeling well. It’s better to keep gloves on and let your hands be free to catch the rail when you feel shaky. (Instead of falling over.)
- Make sure you wear boots with traction outside.
Thick rubber soles under your boots will stop the cold air from seeping through making your feet cold.
- Embrace comfy slippers at home.
The more ridiculous the slipper – the better. Make them fluffy, plush, extravagant, colourful… it doesn’t matter as long as they make your feet happy.
- Don’t shock your extremities.
This is especially true if you have Raynaud’s phenomenon, like me. It can make your blood vessels spasm and only cause more pain.
Wear warm and dry clothing
It’s no secret that the clothes you wear impact how warm you feel. But there are some things that will particularly benefit you if you have a chronic illness and want to get through cold weather smoothly.
- Get your hands on wool clothing.
Wool because is breathable (ie. it accommodates temperature fluctuations), it’s super comfortable and soothes sensory hypersensitivity.
Whether it’s clothing, underwear, blankets or even bed linens – think about what you need most and make an investment into woollen items if you can.
And if wool isn’t for you – honestly any insulative and breathable materials will do. Try to stick to natural fibres and not synthetic.
- Dress in layers.
It’s a struggle to regulate your body temperature, which is why dressing in strategic layers is helpful. Bundle yourself from your underwear all the way to your snow jacket. Just make sure each layer is easily removable.
For example, try wearing leggings and socks instead of wearing tights. That way you can get your feet into a warmer without needing to strip off your pants first.
- Think joint or area specific.
If certain areas hurt more than others – give them special care. If your legs are more sensitive, make sure you keep them the warmest.
And if your joints are a problem – then it’s time to bring back the 80s and embrace your leg warmers (hand warmers, arm warmers - you name it!)
Keep the house and car warm
Depending on your indoor heating situation – this can be a great help in keeping consistently warm.
- Cover your steering wheel.
Even if you’re not a fan of these – please give them a go. You don’t need a fuzzy leopard print one. It’ll help you keep your hands comfortable, warm and relaxed while you drive.
- Keep your car seats heated (and even your couches at home).
If your car seats can heat up automatically – I’m sure you’re already taking advantage of it. But if they don’t, try to get a heated pack or warm blanket to make your trip more comfortable.
- Make door-handle cosies.
Anyone with Raynaud’s – this is for you. Even turning brass doorknobs can be painful in winter.
So if you have someone who likes to knit, I’d suggest commissioning them to make you some door cosies. Otherwise you can also just cover them with a piece of cloth and an elastic band.
- Get creative with dish washing
Just because you’re washing dishes, it doesn’t mean you need to take your gloves off. Just place your kitchen gloves over your normal ones while you scrub.
Healthy Habits to Boost Immunity
Patience is key here. Healthy habits don’t give you immediate results – but their effects are long lasting when they kick in.
“Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.” ~ Jim Rohn
Here’s what you can do from home to keep your body strong, resilient and warm.
Exercise to strengthen and protect yourself
Exercise helps eradicate the effects that cold weather has on your body quite nicely. It warms up your muscles and improves circulation.
It’s challenging to exercise when you’re in pain – so take things easy and slow. Remember that exercise doesn’t mean hitting the gym and busting some Romanian deadlifts.
5 exercises you can try
- Gentle movement exercise
Things like yoga, Pilates or tai chi are all great options. Not only do they stretch your muscles out, they also help lubricate your joints. So you're left feeling loose and relaxed – not stiff and creaky.
If you'd like to give yoga a try and you have chronic pain – this guide will help you find the type that's right for you.
It’s an oldie but a goodie. Whether it’s around the park, a garden, inside a mall – if your legs allow you to walk then take the opportunity to clock in some steps. The colder it is, the more I recommend choosing indoor options.
- Controllable gym exercises
I know I said the gym isn’t necessary – but it’s still an option. Especially since it's cold outside and gyms are kept nice and warm.
Things like the elliptical, treadmill, rowing machine or bikes can help get your heart rate up and use your muscles in a controlled setting.
This is a great low-impact exercise that activates your whole body. Just make sure you’re in an indoor, heated pool. (We're trying to stay warm here.)
If you’re not a fan of exercise but you enjoy dance – this could be a fun option to try. Just watch a session first before you give it a go – just to see if you like it.
An online instructor is often good enough, so you can definitely do it from the comfort of your warmed up living room
Eat for vitality
“Let food be thy medicine, thy medicine shall be thy food.” ~ Hippocrates
I’m not telling you to follow a specific diet or how healthily you should eat. I’m just asking you to do your absolute best to eat nutritiously.
Your dietary habits help your body become stronger and more resilient from the inside out. This is exactly what you need to tackle the harshness of winter.
It takes discipline, thought and planning – but it’s worth it when your wellbeing is at stake.
If you need a push – start by filling your home with healthy foods. So when it’s time for a snack you’ll find berries instead of sugary biscuits.
Even if you’re doing intermittent fasting – keep your meal times relatively consistent. Your body needs energy to keep fighting and if you start skipping meals it can make you super tired. Which only makes you less productive when the cold weather has you hibernating.
This is always a little harder to remember in cold weather because you don’t feel like drinking as much. But remember that dehydration can also be one of the reasons you feel pretty tired.
So instead of drinking a bottle of water – switch to herbal tea or even some hot water and lemon.
Pack your meals with tons of fresh veggies
Salads, soups, sides – it doesn’t matter. Just make sure vegetables are present in two of your meals every day. They're packed with ample minerals and vitamins that all boost your immune system and build your resilience.
Often in winter I prefer making soups like minestrone or butternut stew. I'm not a big fan of salads when it's cold because I want food that will warm me up.
Get enough Vitamin C
Foods that are high in Vitamin C have lots of health benefits – one is that it helps boost your immune system.
So dig into strawberries, kiwis, citrus fruits, broccoli, cauliflower, green peppers, red peppers and brussel sprouts.
Know what’s inflammatory and stay clear of it.
Certain foods can contribute towards chronic inflammation. Which isn't great when we know that cold weather can lead to quite a bit of inflammation itself.
Especially since doctors now know that chronic inflammation can really increase your risk of even further disease or illness.
Certain things to avoid include:
Eat foods rich in antioxidants
Antioxidants can undo a lot of the damage caused by things like inflammation. Basically boosting your health and protecting your body from chronic disease.
One of your best sources of antioxidants are berries. But if you want an in depth list then here’s a good resource to look at.
Dose up on omega-3 fatty acids
This isn’t only for a strong body but a clear mind too. It really helps with brain fog, mental health and… it also fights inflammation. As you may well know, these are all challenges that can be especially hard in winter.
One of the best sources of omega 3 is fish. But you can find out more about it here.
Get enough Vitamin D
When cold weather sets in, days become shorter and we spend less time outside – we get a lot less natural vitamin D which we need to keep our spirits and energy levels up.
So if the sun comes out try to spend some time under the rays. Alternatively you can look for a decent Vitamin D supplement. One that I highly recommend is from Metagenics.
Did you know that if you have arthritis, research shows that a deficiency in Vitamin D can increase sensitivity to arthritic pain?
Create a Cosy and Comfortable Lifestyle
There’s nothing wrong with embracing a little extra self-care so that you don't feel overwhelmed by the cold weather and your chronic illness – you can actually manage it.
Indulge in massages
The benefits of massage are fantastic at anytime of the year. But you might find they are even more effective in winter. Besides the fact that massage helps loosen your muscles and ligaments (preventing cold creakiness). They can also:
- Decrease the levels of your stress hormone cortisol;
- Lower your blood pressure;
- Reduce inflammation; and
- Boost your mood.
Whether it’s physio, OT, standard massage or even using foam rollers at home – this is such a good way to loosen your muscles and warm your body up.
Soaks and treatments
- Showers, saunas or stream rooms
Hot showers and baths are great as it is to help warm up your body when it's cold and stiff. So if you’re someone who benefits from the heat – then I suggest giving saunas and steam rooms a go too.
Please chat to your doctor before attempting anything like this though. Sometimes extreme of heat can make things worse so proceed with caution.
- Home paraffin wax treatment
I'm sure you've come home in winter with freezing cold hands and feet. While your instant reaction is to warm them up by the heater, I would actually suggest emerging your hands or feet in a paraffin dip instead.
I love paraffin treatments because, unlike water or a heater, you can’t burn your skin in the process. Another awesome benefit is that it holds the heat in for longer than a standard water soak.
Muscle gels and packs
Body spasms that happen as a result of tightened muscles can be super painful. And cold weather can shorten your muscles even more.
Gel packs, rubs or sprays can be super useful here. One of the best things you can do for good results is shower or bath just before bed and then cover yourself in some soothing muscle gels.
Here’s the link to one of my favourite gels that I like to use because it’s so easy to apply.
The right blankets
Weighted blankets that are soft to the touch and instantly warm you up are a dream come true. It’s a fundamental home item that I never go anywhere without.
I suggest going for a heavy fleece blanket, here’s one that I particularly like that you can buy online.
I recommend getting 2 so you can have one in your room and one for your lounge.
I know this depends on your work schedule, but if you can increase your zzz’s during winter – do it. But try to keep to a routine. Too much sleep can actually make you sleepier. (Weird I know!)
Sleep deprivation can greatly impact both your immune response and your overall sense of health. So maintaining a regular sleep pattern is important (although it’s often not easy).
Sleep isn’t the only important thing – remember that you don’t need to strain yourself when it’s not necessary. taking the time to chill and do a hobby that you enjoy is very restorative.
Please understand, I’m not telling you to “be happy” or “be positive”. I’m telling you to laugh. If you have a good comedy series, a light-hearted movie, a good book, a friend that always cracks you up – try to laugh.
Just a little laughter can help reduce stress, activate your immune system and even burn calories.
What does this mean?
More energy and better health just because you laughed. All things that can feel difficult to achieve when the weather is miserable and it's leaving you with lots of pain.
Be prepared and remain consistent
Unless you live a nomadic life where you can chase the summer – you have to face the winter every year. So there’s no point in dreading it if you can plan for it.
The more prepared you are for the situation – the easier it is to remain calm when it realises.
Here’s what you can do to be prepared and consistent in your approach:
- Think about how you want to protect yourself in advance.
What is it that hurts you the most or gives you the most hassle in winter? That’s what you need to focus on first. Make sure you have the resources to look after those things in winter as best you can.
- Remember that the change of weather will be harder on your body.
Your body will feel the change in temperature – it’s only normal and it’s completely okay.
- Say no – it’s okay I promise.
The weather changes are a legitimate excuse for needing more “me time” or because you need to do less.
Adjusting to weather takes a bit of time. And no, you may not find yourself as healthy as you feel in summer. But it’s not about that. It’s about making the winter better than it used to be.
Changing your schedule according to the weather is okay.
You do need more time to rest when it’s cold, so listen to your body. It’s not something you should feel guilty about.
I hope these suggestions help you keep a little warmer this winter. And if you feel that I’ve missed anything out – I’d love to hear your tips on how to survive the cold weather when you have a chronic illness.