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Tips for an autumn health tune-up

By Sharon Owen

Rowan Health Department

As the weather begins to turn cooler and the leaves begin to change, many people begin to prepare their homes and cars for the upcoming winter. Activities center around servicing the home heating unit, having the chimney cleaned, having the car tires checked or replaced, and having vehicle fluids such as the antifreeze and wiper fluids checked.

However, most people do not think about the autumn tune-up that is needed by their body and brain as the season transitions. Many are happy for the less hot and humid temperatures and climate as autumn brings relief from the long summer. However, the change in the seasons messes with our body and brain. Here are some things you may experience during the change of season and some tune-ups that can be made to help you stay healthy through the autumn and winter months.

1. Your energy feels zapped and you sleep more: When the air becomes chilly, the days shorten, and the nights lengthen, you may feel the urge to crawl back into bed when it is your normal time to wake up. The tendency to oversleep is common in early autumn and findings show that many people sleep an extra 2.7 hours each day beginning in October. The change in light messes with your body’s circadian (sleeping and waking) rhythms making you feel sleep deprived and like you have less energy during your awake hours. To help attune your body to these changes, try going to sleep earlier in the evening and getting up a few minutes earlier to do some light exercise to get you going. Getting up at the same time each day helps you to synchronize your body’s clock, and exercise boosts your feel-good hormones and gives you more energy. In addition, pay attention to the temperature of your home during the sleep hours. Sleep studies set the ideal temperature for sleep between 60 and 68 degrees, which is often seen in the fall when air conditioning and the use of the home heating system is not needed. Autumn is a perfect time for snuggling into your bed with a comforter or soft blanket.

2. You become more dehydrated: Most people associate dehydration with hot summer days and exercise. However, several things may lead to dehydration in the autumn and winter months.  Many people reach for caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea, and hot chocolate. Caffeine has a diuretic effect, which means your body water levels decrease. Remember to keep a bottle of water handy to ward off the impact of dehydrating beverages.

3. Your respiratory system is affected by the temperature change: Many people with asthma may experience increases in attacks as the weather becomes colder and as fall allergens emerge. It is important to follow medical regimens prescribed by your doctor to lessen the chances of flair-ups due to asthma, leaf and other fall allergy producers. Remember that when the air outside is dry and when you begin using your heat, your sinuses and lungs get dry. Use a cool humidifier and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated. Remember to use only the water type recommended in the humidifier instructions and clean your humidifier to avoid bacterial growth. When going outside, wear scarves and warm clothing to protect your body, including your nasal passages.

4. The Flu: Flu season takes its effect out on as many people as it can. Flu and cold viruses are very contagious in crowded places, like the office, school, grocery store, and among family members and friends. It is important to protect yourself by getting your annual flu vaccination and staying vigilant against illness that is spreading in the community. Keep your wet wipes handy and clean any surfaces that may have been sneezed on or touched by someone that is ill. Routine cleaning in the absence of known illness is also recommended. If you or your child is sick, stay home — away from the office, school, shopping areas and other family, friend, and community events.  No one wants to share your illness. Self-isolation during your illness can help limit the ongoing passage of disease and illness.

5. Your appetite may change: With the chill in the air, our bodies begin to crave carbohydrates and warm comfort foods. This is nature’s way of helping our body maintain and regulate its temperature. Without planning, it is easy to gain 5-10 pounds during this transition and through the upcoming holiday period. How can you combat this craving and weight increase?  Remember to eat breakfast every day. Many studies link eating a healthy breakfast to consumption of fewer calories throughout the day. A nutritious breakfast will help maintain your glucose (sugar) levels and help prevent those mid-morning cravings. Oatmeal, yogurt and fruit are examples of foods to include. For lunch and dinner, focus on the use of healthy, local, fresh produce. Fall and winter varieties of squash, pumpkins, Brussel sprouts, broccoli, beets, greens, apples and pears will help ensure you are getting essential vitamins without taking in high calorie, fatty, cream-based and cheesy meals and casseroles. Roasting vegetables in the oven with your favorite herbs, preparing crock pot vegetable soups and stews will not only keep your cravings satisfied, their vitamins and minerals will help boost your immune system, also.

6. Joint Aches and Pains, increased blood pressure, potential for heart attack: Joint aches and pains may increase with the onset of cold and/or storm-related weather. Many people report these symptoms. Combat the aches and pains by staying active, keeping joints moving and wearing warm clothing to keep those parts of the body warm.

It is also reported that as the temperature drops, blood pressure may rise, headaches and heart rate may increase. The blood pressure rise is associated with a decrease in the air temperature which may cause you to feel cold and your blood vessels to constrict. Constriction of your blood vessels may cause your blood pressure to rise slightly. For healthy individuals, this increase is not usually of consequence. However, for those with elevated blood pressure or hypertension, it is important to take prescribed medication as directed by their physician and follow other instructions related to activity.

Springing forward the clock in November has also been associated with increased heart attacks in the days following the loss of the one hour in the day. A 2012 study by the University of Alabama showed that losing an hour of your day equals a 10 percent increase in risk for a heart attack in the 48 hours following the change. So rest and gradually tune your body into the time change by going to bed earlier and being mindful of added stress during the change in time when an hour of the day is lost.

7. You may feel blue or sad:  Shorter days and less light affect even the heartiest of persons.  However, for people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), fall and winter have a more profound effect. Recommendations for all are to spend 30 minutes a day outside when the sun is at its peak during the morning and early afternoon hours. Also, use of additional indoor lights during the autumn and winter season is helpful. Outside time during the day also helps replenish the “sunshine vitamin” better known as vitamin D, which is needed for bone health.

Follow these few helpful autumn tune-ups, get outside and enjoy the fall scenery, and you will be on your way to a more healthy fall and winter season.

Sharon Owen is director of nursing for the Rowan County Health Department.

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