Every January half of the population of Canada leaves the frigid north for warmth and sunshine. The other half head south in February. In January, snowbirds from the US Northeast jam the north-south interstate freeways fleeing to the sunny state of Florida.
I experienced freezing weather when I grew up on a traditional small New England farm in a house without central heating, where the damp cold penetrated to your bones. Later, I spent a few years in Canada, including a winter in Nova Scotia, and then three winters in the Colorado Rockies huddled around wood burning stoves.
In the winter of 1986, I studied Chinese medicine in Beijing. Coming from San Diego, I was unprepared for the cutting winds that blew from the icy steppes of Mongolia into the alleys of Beijing. I quickly adapted. With the help of Chinese friends, I dressed in quilted clothing and wore the dark blue greatcoat worn by peasants. I donned a cap with padded ear flaps. I drank ginseng-laced herbal soups.
But, I learned the most about how to stay warm in freezing weather from indigenous people. I lived among the Yupik Siberian Eskimos in Alaska where it was below zero for months on end. I conducted fieldwork at over 12,000 feet among Quechua people in the Peruvian Andes, which I documented in my book Light of the Andes.
For those who don’t go south in January, here are five secrets I learned from traditional Chinese medicine and indigenous people, plus some recent science, on how to winterize your body.
- Stay Warm. Even if it’s freezing outside, you have to keep warm inside. Retaining your body heat not only keeps you comfortable but prevents hypothermia, a condition that can kill. Keep your body heat in with these practices:
- Wear a hat.
- Wear a scarf.
- Wear warm socks.
- Wear gloves.
- Keep Hydrated: In the winter, drink warm fluids like soups and herbal teas. Never drink cold or iced drinks. During winter sports, never eat snow or suck ice sickles. Carry a thermos filled with hot water.
- Take Vitamin D3: Not enough vitamin D is one reason why we get sick more often in winter. Researchers found that low vitamin D levels reduce immunity. Low levels of vitamin D have been shown to impair the body’s antimicrobial peptide system that plays a key role in regulating the immune response to viral infection.
- Take Warming Herbs: Ginseng is the emperor of all herbs. It is considered warming and fortifying to the body. When prepared with the Chinese herb Fu Zi, processed aconite (Aconitum carmichaeli i) , common ginseng becomes reddish and is considered to have a greater warming effect in the body. In northern China and Korea, the favorite warming winter food is ginseng chicken soup.
- Read a Long Book: Indigenous people tell long stories to help pass the winter months. Winter is the time to pass along wisdom learn from the elders and listen to legends of the ancestors. To wait out the winter, pick up a big book of fiction or non-fiction. Why not learn more about how to stay healthy?
Most cold-weather deaths are caused by leading killers like heart disease, stroke, and respiratory illness. Complications of influenza claim more lives when temperatures drop. Winter deaths are most common among children under five years and those aged 75 and older.
Humans cannot drink antifreeze like you put in your car’s radiator to keep it from freezing. But armed with these secrets, you can stay well and warm during cold weather. Don’t underestimate the power of winter.