How to Stay Healthy This Winter

It's the most wonderful time of the year—until it isn't. Here's how to troubleshoot sniffles, holiday stress, and other winter woes before they sap your spirit.

Holiday Helpers

It seems to happen every December: Just as we're cruising into the heart of the holiday season, the universe conspires against us. The cold bug strikes. Stress levels spike. You're hit with a case of the winter blues. Humbug!

Because no amount of careful planning seems to let you completely sidestep these problems, Better Homes & Gardens® reached out to health and safety experts for their best on-the-spot fixes. Follow their advice, and you'll be back to your merry self in no time.

Problem: You feel a cold coming on. That is, you and roughly 31 million other Americans. The Gallup organization reports that on any given day in December, about 10 percent of the population has an upper-respiratory bug. There isn't a cure for the common cold just yet, but there is a tasty way to keep it from getting the best of you: Slurp chicken soup.

Research suggests that compounds in the broth—canned and homemade alike—quiet the activity of neutrophils, immune cells that contribute to inflammatory symptoms such as body aches, says Philip Hagen, M.D., medical editor of the Mayo Clinic Book of Home Remedies (Oxmoor House). A few extra ingredients can help you get even more bang from your bowl:

  • Super stuffy? Add garlic. The bulb's pungent polysulfides help break up sinus congestion and might have a germicidal effect, Hagen says. Mince a fresh clove and add to the broth before heating.
  • Trouble sleeping? Add rice. When eaten a few hours before bedtime, a small serving of starchy carbs encourages people to drift off sooner and sleep more deeply, according to a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
  • Queasy? Add ginger. This piquant root has been used as a stomach soother for ages; its gingerol compounds might explain why, Hagen says. Mince ½ inch of fresh ginger and heat with the broth.

Problem: Your family feast becomes a stress fest. Put all your relatives—and their range of personalities—in one room, and tensions can quickly mount. Etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore, author of Poised for Success (St. Martin's Press), shares her peacekeeping strategies:

  • If a political debate breaks out: Turn the group's attention away from world affairs and back to the day's festivities with a segue that's lighthearted but firm. Try, "You know what gets my vote? Dessert. Let's all elect to enjoy this delicious pie."
  • If nosy questions start flying: Make the conversation less personal by bringing in another person. For example, if your aunt starts grilling your out-of-work sister-in-law about her job search, step in and say, "Speaking of career moves, I hear we have an upcoming retirement in the family. Tell us about your plans, Uncle Ted."
  • If a feud flares up: Almost every family has some conflict simmering below the surface. If your cousins start arguing over your grandmother's will, acknowledge the disagreement and calmly shut it down. Try saying, "Clearly, this is a heated issue for you two, but I know you'll come to a faster resolution if you talk one-on-one. For today, let's focus on celebrating our blessings."

Problem: A long line sends your blood pressure soaring. At busy stores, waiting to pay creates more stress than cluttered aisles and aggressive crowds, according to a 2011 study of Black Friday shoppers. Long lines are particularly frustrating because they put you at the mercy of the store, says Richard Larson, Ph.D., an engineer at MIT who specializes in queuing psychology.

Follow his feel-good advice next time you're trapped:

  • Talk to strangers. Forging a personal connection with your fellow shoppers can deliver an emotional rush that makes a wait feel shorter, Larson says. A little gallows humor can't hurt, either.
  • Remember the real goal. Sure, your immediate objective is to escape the store. Ultimately, though, you're hoping to bring joy to the loved ones on your gift list. Take a moment to reflect on the deeper reason you're there.
  • Work off the wait. Addressing a few small tasks can rein in stress by restoring a sense of control. Try organizing your wallet or answering a few e-mails on your smartphone. Before you know it, you'll be next at the register.

Problem: You're forced to drive on a slick road. Ideally, you'd spend every snowy day curled up by the fireplace. But some commitments can't wait for fair weather.

When you must steer through snow or sleet, remember: "Your tires have a limited amount of grip available to do three things: accelerate, slow down, and turn," says Mark Cox, director of the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. "In poor travel conditions, don't expect them to do more than one of those things at once."

Here's how to navigate safely:

  • As you approach a bend: Gently apply the brakes. Your goal is to slow your vehicle until it has just enough momentum to coast through the curve.
  • As the car corners: Steer smoothly through the turn, doing your best to stay off the brakes and gas. If the front tires slide on a slick patch, resist the urge to wrench the steering wheel. Otherwise, the car could dart unexpectedly once the tires regain traction.
  • When the road straightens out: Accelerate gradually—flooring the gas pedal could cause a spinout. Maintain at least a 15-second following distance between your vehicle and the car in front of it. "It takes four to ten times longer for a car to stop on snow and ice," Cox says.

Problem: A major meal brings on heartburn. At holiday gatherings, you can expect rich food, cocktails, coffee—and a serious case of acid reflux if you sample all the offerings.

Unless your host is handing out antacid, keep these fast-acting fixes in mind:

  • Gum: Preliminary research shows that chewing gum can soothe heartburn by spurring saliva flow and increasing the rate of swallowing, which helps wash stomach acid out of the esophagus (without further filling your stomach). For best results, pop a sugarless stick and chew for 30 minutes.
  • A short stroll. Sprawling across the sofa on a full stomach encourages digestive acid to creep upward. Instead, remain upright and try to get some light movement. An easy 10-minute walk can speed relief, Hagen says.
  • A looser waistband. Tummy-cinching clothing and accessories can exacerbate heartburn by squeezing stomach contents upward, Hagen cautions. So free up space for your waist: Loosen your belt, undo a button, or slip off your tummy shaper and stick it in your purse.

Problem: You're hit with the holiday blues. Ever get the feeling that "joy to the world" applies to everyone but you? Take heart: About half of women find themselves feeling down in December, says Krystine Batcho, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York.

Restore your joy by rooting out the cause:

  • Financial strain. The commercial messages of the holidays can magnify money worries, Batcho says. Reset your perspective by seeking out activities that are meaningful (and free): Volunteer at a food pantry. Rediscover your favorite holiday songs. Gather your family and share stories by the Christmas tree. Then resolve to take a fresh look at your finances in the new year.
  • An infinite to-do list. You're planning and shopping for everyone else, but who's looking out for you? Don't suffer in stoic resentment; scale back and ask for support. Review your project list and ID tasks you can delegate, outsource, or drop. There's no shame in buying cookies from a bakery.
  • Feeling left out. If Facebook photos are any indication, everyone you know is having a terrific time without you. But appearances can be deceiving, and you're probably not the only one in your circle who's feeling a bit lonely right now, Batcho says. Make a date with a pal to reconnect in person for a mood-boosting reality check.

Problem: During a flight, your back starts killing you. Combine cramped seating, the stress of traffic and airport delays, and disruptions to your workout schedule, and your back can take a beating when you travel.

David Van Daff, vice president of the National Academy of Sports Medicine, offers a relief plan:

  • Dump the slump. Poor posture is a leading trigger of travel-related back pain. Tuck a small pillow or rolled item of clothing in the curve of your lower back. Place both feet on the floor. Pull back shoulders until they're flush with the seat, and position your head so your ears are aligned with your shoulders.
  • Picture relief. By altering breathing patterns, travel-related stress can cause the upper back and neck to tense up. Inhale slowly through your nose, filling your lungs with air. Hold for a few beats, then exhale slowly while visualizing the tension leaving your body. Continue for several minutes.
  • Get on your feet. Prolonged sitting can tighten hamstring muscles, pulling the lower back out of whack. If you can, stand and do this stretch: Position your right foot one step ahead of the left, pointing your left toes inward. Tense your tush. Raise your left arm and stretch your upper body to the right. Keeping your arm raised, return to the starting position and gently twist your upper body to the left until you feel a gentle stretch in your middle. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat on the other side.

Problem: You burn yourself while cooking. Yowch. While pulling gingerbread cookies from the oven, you bump your forearm on a hot rack and suffer a painful burn.

David J. Hufford, Ph.D., professor emeritus at Penn State College of Medicine, says some great first-degree burn remedies are within reach (along with a few duds to avoid):

Try it: Water. Cool H2O eases pain by halting the burning process and quelling skin inflammation. Hold the affected area under cool running water for at least a few minutes, or fill a clean bowl with water and submerge the skin.

Skip it: Butter. It's long been touted as a healing salve, but when left on a wound, it can promote bacterial growth and lead to infection. Ditto for other creamy animal products, such as yogurt and mayonnaise.

Try it: Black tea. The tannic acid in this brew might not sound soothing, but in fact, it's a potent anti-inflammatory. Place three bags of black tea in a small bowl and cover with cool water. Steep until water begins to darken, then dab on the liquid with a clean cloth.

Skip it: Ice. Don't be fooled by its numbing effect. After a few seconds, freezing temperatures only cause additional damage to injured skin.

Try it: White vinegar. Mixed with an equal amount of water, it's a gentle antiseptic that can help ward off infection. Pour the mixture over the burn and allow skin to dry.

Note: After treating the burn, cover the area loosely with a sterile gauze bandage. If your burn is larger than 3 inches in diameter or comes with severe swelling, pain, discoloration, or blistering, call your doctor ASAP.


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