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Winter Strains on Your Heart

“Every time you go out and it’s cold, your heart has to work that much harder to maintain your core body temperature,” says Dr. Islam Othman, a cardiologist with WakeMed Faculty Physicians – Raleigh Cardiology.

If you already suffer from some form of cardiovascular issue, the strain on your heart of going out in the cold is all the greater.

Several factors work against your cardiovascular system in winter.

  • Thicker Blood
    During cold weather your blood becomes thicker while your blood vessels are constricting. In short, the heart has to work that much harder to pump the cold-thickened blood through narrower passages.
  • Higher Cortisol
    Winter’s dearth of daylight also throws off our hormonal balance; one casualty is the hormone cortisol.  Cortisol and other stress hormone levels run higher during cold weather months. This long-term activation of our stress-response system – and the subsequent overexposure to cortisol – can disrupt almost all body processes and make you more susceptible to developing anxiety, digestive problems, weight gain, sleep issues and more, all which may increase the odds of cardiovascular problems.
  • Increased Plaque
    And a study released this summer suggests that cold weather also causes brown fat to accelerate the build-up of plaque in blood vessels.

Take all of these factors, and add exertion to the equation — shoveling snow, for instance, or going for a walk — and your heart is taxed all the more.

Which isn’t to say you should go Yogi Bear and hibernate for the winter. Far from it, advises Dr. Othman. “I’m not advocating inactivity,” he says. “We just need to do it the right way.” Here are some ways to protect your heart from the cold:

  • Exercise indoors — at the Y or your local gym.
  • If you are compelled to take a long hike or go for a run, make sure you’re warmed up before pushing yourself in the cold. If you like to stretch before an outdoor workout, do it indoors. Otherwise, start slowly to acclimate your body to the cold.
  • Give your heart a break as well by dressing properly. Instead of wearing one really big coat, dress in several layers and make sure to wear gloves and a hat or scarf. As air becomes trapped between the layers it acts as a natural insulation technique to keep the body warm.
  • Don’t eat a big meal immediately before going outside or immediately after coming inside: digesting food also gives your heart additional work.

Taking these precautions will help ward off cardiovascular problems, but there’s no guarantee they will prevent them. Dr. Othman urges people not to delay seeking help if they think they might be exhibiting signs of a heart attack.

“I avoid using the term ‘chest pain,” Dr. Othman explains, “because often it’s not a pain. More often a heart problem is signified by a discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or by shortness of breath, shallow breathing or a cold sweat.

“If you experience any of these,” he adds, “get help, call 911.”

 Even if you’re heart healthy, you should be extra attentive in the winter, says Dr. Othman. And there are two more things you can do.

“Keep an eye on your older neighbors, especially in extreme cold,” he says. “And learn CPR. Done properly, effective compressions can double, even triple, the survival rate of a heart attack.”