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Winter Heart Health

By Alexis Eades

February Safety Tip

According to Patricia Vassallo, MD, a cardiologist at Northwestern Medicine, heart attacks are more common in winter. Why might this be? Northwestern Medicine has a lot of great advice!

A Quick Science Lesson

Cold temperatures cause our blood vessels to contract which temporarily raises our blood pressure. If a person’s baseline blood pressure was already very high, this bump up in blood pressure from the cold can be dangerous, increasing the likelihood of heart attack and stroke. People with angina (which is chest pain due to coronary heart disease) should know that this can worsen their condition.

Cold weather also affects how hard our body (specifically the heart) has to work to maintain a healthy body temperature. Very cold temperatures and wind make this especially difficult for the body to do. You may think about hands and feet when you think of hypothermia, but if a person’s body temperature falls below 95 degrees, this damages the heart muscle itself.

Performing activities that are more strenuous than you are used to, such as shoveling snow, in very cold temperatures can heighten these risks.  Also, emotional duress increases your stress hormones, and these increase your risk of heart attack and stroke. Many emotional stressors surface in the winter like end-of-year performance reviews, holiday stress, and tax season.

What Can You Do?

In terms of physical factors, you should dress for the weather, wear layers. If outside, come inside often to let your body temperature rise. Ask your doctor if it is safe for you to shovel at all. If so, those breaks to come inside will also give your heart a break from that strenuous effort. Avoid excess alcohol. According to Hopkins Medicine, “excessive alcohol intake can lead to high blood pressure, heart failure or stroke. Excessive drinking can also contribute to cardiomyopathy, a disorder that affects the heart muscle.”

As Northwestern Medicine says, see your doctor, know your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar numbers, and work with your physician to keep them within the normal range. Listen to your body and if you feel different, see your physician.

Remember how shoveling is a risky behavior if it is a more strenuous activity than your heart is used to you doing? One thing you can do to protect yourself is to exercise indoors or when it’s not so cold out, in order to establish and maintain a higher stamina for physical activity. In other words, get your heart used to activity. Regular physical activity has also been linked to having overall lower blood pressure as well.

Eating enough and eating foods that boost your HDL can also help you protect your heart.  Don’t go out into the cold without having eaten, so that it has energy readily available to keep you alive.

Want more advice on managing stress? Check out our past articles here, here, and here, for tips!

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