How To Keep From CRACKING UP This Winter
It is easy to forget that our SKIN is our BIGGEST ORGAN as it just sits there day after day, and during the winter months it is often covered up, so we don’t even see it!
Just as all organs in the human body have many important functions, our skin is no different.
- Our First Line of Defense – Skin is our protective covering, our shield of armor so to speak. It is a barrier to foreign objects to prevent injury or damage and pathogens (bacteria and viruses that cause illness). It also serves as protection from UV rays and helps in preventing dehydration.
- Immune Function - Our skin is full of multiple types of cells which communicate directly with our brain/nervous system as a huge component of our immune system. These cells are capable of destroying foreign cells that don’t belong AND regenerating new cells regularly. Without these functions, we would never be able to heal cuts, scratches and other injuries.
- Production of Vitamin D - When exposed to sunlight, our skin synthesizes (and utilizes) Vitamin D. This substance (calciferol) is essential for building bone tissue and keeping our bones strong because we cannot absorb calcium without Vitamin D! This important nutrient also plays a huge role in fighting inflammation, maintaining neuro-muscular and brain function, and is an important antioxidant.
- Temperature Regulation and Detoxification - Our skin is full of somatic sensory receptors which help us recognize heat, cold, pain, pressure and prevent us from injury. Our many sweat glands within the skin serve to regulate temperature by cooling the body as well as excreting toxins when necessary, through the skin.
Seeing many of the important functions of our skin listed here, it only makes sense that we should want to keep our skin healthy and strong, just like we would our heart or kidneys.
Our skin is much like the tread on the tires of our car or truck…as long as the tires are well inflated (hydrated) and don’t have holes or cracks in them, they help our car move along smoothly. However, if we have punctures or excessive cracks, we begin to have trouble moving the vehicle along and may even experience a blowout. The same is so true for our skin. This is our protective layer, our first line of defense against injury or pathogens (viruses or bacteria which make us sick). If we have holes, cracks or irritated areas on our skin, this leaves us vulnerable to pathogens. These open areas provide the perfect environment for viruses and bacteria to imbed themselves and grow, causing illness and disease within our body.
Taking good care of our skin during the winter months is even more important AND more challenging. Although our skin seems to be exposed less in the colder months, it takes quite a beating! Nowadays, most of our clothing is washed in perfumed detergent and dried in dryers with yet more chemicals in dryer sheets. Although many of us enjoy the “clean or fresh” smell on our clean clothes, the smells are created by chemicals. These chemicals leave a residue which is very drying and irritating to our skin. As we are bundled up in layers to stay warm, we are exposed more and more to this residue.
Another culprit responsible for drying out skin in the winter months is our heating systems. Although they keep us warm and cozy, they are constantly blowing out warm, dry air which not only stresses the outer layer of our skin, but it also wreaks havoc on our mucous membranes. These mucous membranes are found in our nose, eyes, mouth, throat, esophagus, lungs and in our digestive tract! The main role of these mucous membranes is protection. They trap foreign objects/pathogens and help us to remove them via their mucous production (gross…I know!). This is an amazing and important system in our body and is like the gatekeeper of our immune system.
Over the years in my practice as a nurse and health and wellness coach, I have repeatedly heard people reference “the change in weather” or “the cold” being responsible for the spread of illness. In reality, neither the weather nor the cold has anything to do with the spread of illness. Any illness is spread by direct OR indirect contact with an infected person. Indirect contact includes surfaces such as door handles, counter tops, phones, shopping carts, writing and eating utensils, etc. What allows the spread of illness more easily during the winter months is the fact that we are indoors and in close quarters more often. The chances of direct contact with an infected person as well as contact with a contaminated surface are literally quadrupled as a result of this. This reality coupled with heating systems that run non-stop drying out our skin and mucous membranes are, in fact, the real culprits responsible for the spread of illness this time of year!
Once we have dry, cracked skin and dried out, irritated mucous membranes revealing these open areas all over our body, we are sitting ducks for all kinds of pathogens to enter and grow. Throw in being sleep deprived, chronic stress and poor hydration to the equation and we are an even easier target for bacteria and viruses to take over our system. THIS is why illness spreads so easily in the winter months!
Awareness is key. Armed with a little knowledge, we can begin to flatten the curve and actually prevent the spread of illness!
Here are 8 Simple Daily Practices to keep your skin and mucous membranes in tiptop shape throughout the winter months.
- HYDRATE, HYDRATE, HYDRATE…aim to drink ½ your body weight in ounces of water each day. For example, if you weigh 150 pounds, you will want to drink 75 ounces of water each day. The human body is made up of approximately 60% water! It only makes sense that ALL of our systems and organs function most optimally when they have adequate water. Not to mention, well hydrated skin and mucous membranes resist drying and cracking AND perform better as our protective outer armor.
- SLEEP at least 7-8 hours in every 24 hour period. Our body regenerates cells, fights inflammation, repairs tissue and regulates our hormones when we sleep. This is basically when our immune system “powers up” much like recharging the battery on our cell phone. If we get behind on this critical part of our natural rhythm, systems which regulate one another begin to break down. Essentially, this leaves our immune system VERY VULNERABLE to attack from pathogens. Weakened systems are easy targets.
- WASH your hands and body with mild, natural soaps such as those with a base of coconut oil, shea butter, aloe vera, olive oil and pure essential oils. Avoid heavily scented soaps and antibacterial soaps. IT IS NOT NECESSARY to wash with antibacterial soap! The friction from rubbing our hands to our body with mildly foaming soap is all that is necessary to remove dirt and debris. Excessive use of antibacterial soaps, sanitizers and antibiotics over the years has played a huge role in creating “superbugs” such as MRSA. Excessive use of any soap, especially those made with heavy perfumes and chemicals, only dries out our skin and leaves it vulnerable to cracking and tearing.
- RINSE your nasal passages and throat with a gentle saline mixture once or twice a day. These kits and saline packets can be found at any drugstore and come with multiple options to gently spray or rinse your nose and throat. This actually feels amazing and provides relief to redness and irritation caused by dry heat. Not only does this remove debris such as dust, pathogens and pollens, this gentle rinse also replenishes the moisture to our mucous membranes and helps them to remain a strong barrier to viruses and bacteria.
- APPLY natural, hydrating lotions/oils to your skin once or twice a day. Again, look for lotions with a base of coconut oil, shea butter, olive oil and pure essential oils. Read your labels and avoid lotions with excessive chemicals (especially alcohol) and mineral oil…these actually prevent our skin from breathing.
- AVOID washing your clothes in scented laundry soap laden with chemicals. All of these ingredients are highly drying and irritating to our skin as we are bundled in layers during the cold weather. Use small amounts of natural, unscented soaps and try adding ½ cup of white vinegar to your laundry as a softener and detergent booster instead of dryer sheets and “super powered” cleaners.
- SUNSHINE is necessary for our body to produce Vitamin D. Try to get at least 20 minutes of exposure to sunlight each day. If you are not able to do this naturally, there are sun lamps or happy lights that emit UV light and help us to produce Vitamin D. In lieu of natural sunlight, one can sit in front of one of these lights for 20-30 minutes a day. If you know you are not getting enough sunlight on a daily basis, you may want to check with your healthcare practitioner and get your Vitamin D level checked. Many Americans are deficient in Vitamin D which is a necessary nutrient and powerful antioxidant our immune system depends on. Luckily, this nutrient can be supplemented easily into our diet.
- HUMIDIFY your indoor air, if possible, especially if you run dry, central heat in your home throughout the day. Small humidifiers can be placed in individual rooms or at the bedside as needed in larger homes. For smaller homes or apartments, simply heating a large pan of water on the stove at low heat creates humidity in the air. All of this prevents drying of our skin AND mucous membranes (eyes, nose, throat and mouth).
Your skin is YOUR BIGGEST ORGAN. Remember this in your daily routine and the important role it plays in your immune system function. With these 8 simple daily practices during the winter months, your skin will thank you and serve you well as a soft, supple coat of armor and a major defense against the spread of illness.