If you know me, you know that in the winter time, I usually have on at least three layers. I get really chilly when other people around me are just fine. Outdoor sports this time of year are tricky for me and I require a lot of specialized extra warm gear, like heated ski boots, Swamy mittens and cozy long underwear (even when it’s not that cold out).
But, I know myself pretty well, and after having Hashimoto’s for more than 20 years, I also know how to cope with the changes to winter weather.
While some people like the chill in the air that indicates a change in the seasons, if you suffer from Hashimoto’s-caused hypothyroidism, you may dread winter and the colder weather.
Unfortunately, winter leads to the stars aligning perfectly to aggravate many of the common symptoms of Hashimoto’s and you may be one of the many who find it a time to tweak their thyroid medication.
But there are other changes you can make that may help as well.
It’s not that winter in and of itself is the problem. But if you consider many of the health issues that Hashimoto’s can exacerbate, winter becomes an obvious time of struggle for those with thyroid health problems.
Hashimoto’s and Heat Regulation
Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system attacks the thyroid gland located in the neck. This can ravage the thyroid and not allow it to function as well.
The reason this is problematic is that this gland is crucial to some very basic body functions.
One of the best understood jobs of the thyroid is to regulate the body’s temperature.
It may not sound like a big job but consider that the internal temperature of the body stays amazingly consistent despite external changes.
We tend to think of the body’s normal temperature as 98.6 degrees. But it’s more accurate to say that everyone’s bodies run at a slightly different temperature.
And in fact a recent study found that the modern average has shifted slightly cooler to 97.5 degrees.
The point though is that there is surprisingly little variance in your body’s temperature. And that is in huge thanks to the thyroid.
How the Thyroid Regulates Temperature and Energy
When you look at our body’s temperature, you are actually considering what’s called your basal body temperature (BBT), that is, the temperature when your body is at rest. This can increase but should never get much lower.
While it may seem that keeping your body at its normal BBT is just a matter of not changing anything, it is actually a symphony of constant little adjustments.
These adjustments are made by regulating metabolism, or the use of energy within the body.
Hormones made and released by the thyroid trigger use of a molecule called ATP (adenosine triphosate) that is fuel found within cells.
Food is the source for the building blocks of ATP. You can have plenty of ATP but if the thyroid hormones don’t accurately trigger the use of ATP to create heat, we can get cold, especially in the hands and feet.
In fact, cold hands and feet are some of the first symptoms for hypothyroidism that people notice. This can happen year round but can certainly become a bigger issue in colder months.
The Thyroid-Cardiovascular Connection
There is some indication that thyroid hormones can also regulate how much dilation there is of the blood vessels, another place heat can be lost.
This essentially equates to a secondary way for those with dysfunctioning thyroid to worsen heat regulation.
Winter Intensifies Your Hashimoto’s Symptoms
Depression and Stress
Another common symptom of Hashimoto’s is depression, which can be exacerbated by winter in many ways and for a number of reasons. You may have plenty to look forward to during the holidays but it doesn’t mean that it’s an easy time for everyone.
The holidays can be a time of high stress stemming from financial problems, family issues, expectations, travel and so much more.
Making matters worse, stress leads to inflammation in the body. And inflammation can cause flare-ups in Hashimoto’s symptoms.
When the adrenal glands are triggered by stress, the body focuses more of its energy on dealing with that stress. Body functions such as thyroid function can be put on the back burner during that time.
In fact, adrenal dysfunction can lead to system-wide inflammation, aggravating thyroid conditions.
Stress also depletes our stored nutrients, leading to nutrient deficiencies.
Depression is also made worse when you don’t have a chance to get your dose of Vitamin Sunshine. Being outside relieves stress just on its own but also factor in that sunshine is also a wonderful source of vitamin D.
Depression is a known symptom of vitamin D deficiency and this deficiency is very common in Hashimoto’s sufferers.
Being stuck inside during cold and snow can also mean you don’t have the same opportunities for exercise you might be used to in warmer months. Lack of exercise can be another factor in depression.
Exercise also helps with metabolism that may have already been slowed by a sluggish thyroid gland.
Dry Skin and Thyroid Hormones
It seems like you can’t transition into winter without hearing a number of people complain about dry, itchy skin.
With lower humidity, it’s no wonder it’s so common. But when you have hypothyroidism, it may be even more common.
In fact, one study found that 100% of those with hypothyroidism had some form of dry skin.
The thyroid hormone triiodothyronine (T3) stimulates the growth of cells along the very outer layer of the skin called keratinocytes.
Lower T3 levels, as is the case with hypothyroidism, can mean new skin cells don’t replace old ones as often. Hence, dry, rough skin.
Adding dry outdoor conditions only makes dry skin worse.
Risk of Getting Colds and Flus with Hashimoto’s
There has been some confusion about whether Hashimoto’s puts you more at risk for viruses like colds and flus.
Some of the symptoms of viruses can be similar to common symptoms of Hashimoto's, like fatigue and chills, making it difficult to diagnose when you have a virus.
One take on this idea is that when your immune system is already on high alert from an autoimmune disease, it is more prepared for fighting viruses you’ve been exposed to.
Another opinion is that an immune system that is always “on” is not capable of that fight as well, making you more vulnerable.
In my experience, and those of my clients, I have found the latter to be true.
Yes, your immune system may be ready for a fight but that doesn’t mean it’s as equipped as that of others not already battling Hashimoto’s or other autoimmune disorders.
For one, Hashimoto’s can be very depleting of nutrients crucial to the immune system, such as zinc, vitamin D (as I mentioned before), and magnesium.
Also, if you have Hashimoto’s, you may already understand that it can impact how well you sleep. While we sleep, our bodies reenergize and let go of stress, giving us more ammunition against viruses.
Solving the Problems of Hashimoto’s in Winter
So now that you have a better understanding of how the cold winter months can affect your thyroid health. But what do you do about it?
Thyroid Medication Tweaking
If you have a pattern of exacerbated Hashimoto’s symptoms in the winter, you can always talk to your endocrinologist or other primary care practitioner about adjusting your thyroid medication.
Symptoms like cold hands and feet should be better on medication, even in the winter.
Obviously, if you’re just underdressed for the weather, you can’t expect to be immune to the cold. But chilly fingers and toes even while in a toasty house is another matter and it may be time for some tweaking.
Answers in Nutrition and Lifestyle
Surviving and thriving through the winter doesn’t have to mean big changes. There are a number of nutritional and lifestyle changes that can have a big impact on your winter health, even with Hashimoto’s.
Because you may not get outside as much in winter, and because the sun might not be out much anyway, and because with Hashimoto’s you may already be at higher risk of nutrient deficiencies, you want to think about the benefits of vitamin D.
Yes, this can mean taking a daily D supplement but don’t forget about the power of the vitamins in your foods.
Some vitamin D-rich foods include:
- Mushrooms, especially shiitake
- Fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna)
- Cod liver oil (liquid or capsule)
The trick with vitamin D is that it is a fat-soluble vitamin. This means it needs to be taken with fat if you supplement. (This isn’t a concern with food, as you’ll notice all the above foods already include fat, except mushrooms, which you can cook in butter or oil.)
But fat-soluble vitamins also store well in our bodies until needed, so supplements don’t need to be spaced out or time-released. Usually, our vitamin D stores are highest in October (after soaking in all that summer sunshine) and lowest in March (after being stuck inside all winter).
If you are ready to start cooking easy, healthy meals that support your health with Hashimoto's and delight your taste buds during the fall and winter months, you may wish to check out my Hashimoto’s Fall Meal Plan or the 2 Week Hashimoto's Winter Meal Plan.
Each comes with specific recipes and a meal plan guide with lots of warming, grounding, energy-sustaining foods to help you get through the change of season and keep your body healthy, and spirits up!
Water is Your Friend
Staying hydrated can do wonders for a number of problems during the colder months. Drinking plenty of water will help keep dry skin at bay, allow nutrients to travel into cells, aid digestion and reduce inflammation.
It can be hard to remember or be motivated to drink water when it’s cold out.
When we’re hot, it seems like a no-brainer to gulp down water. But a cold glass of water may seem less appealing when it’s chilly.
Hot herbal tea is just as hydrating. Or adding a squeeze of lemon, lime, orange or grapefruit may offer a boost of flavor you’re craving.
Sleep and Stress
Sleep and stress (or really, reducing stress) go hand in hand and give you a one-two punch against winter Hashimoto’s symptoms.
This may mean you have to cut your Netflix-binging session short to aim for 8 hours of sleep (or whatever your sleep goal is). But it will be worth it when you give your immune system that extra reenergizing time.
Stress is a tough one because you can’t always eliminate or even reduce the stress triggers in your life. But you may have some control over how you manage that stress.
Only you know what works for managing your stress, but for some people this means meditation, yoga, exercise or walks, therapy, journaling, hobbies (like art, puzzles, cooking) or even coloring books.
Wherever you find your stress relief, this can help promote solid sleep. And solid sleep helps promote stress reduction. It’s a good system when it works. (Not so much when it doesn’t.)
Thriving with Hashimoto’s in Winter
There is so much to look forward to in the winter, whether it’s being with family and friends, traveling, holiday celebrations, playing in the snow or getting cozy with a steaming cup of tea.
You don’t have to let exacerbated Hashimoto’s symptoms get in the way of those wonderful life moments. But it may take some adjustments to be able to enjoy yourself.
Sunshine, exercise, stress reduction, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, vitamin D and maybe talking to your doctor about making medication changes can all help make the jolliest season just a little more jolly, even with Hashimoto’s.
But a good slather of lotion never hurt anyone either.
Looking for Additional Thyroid Support?
If you would like more support with your thyroid health and overall wellbeing, check out my 30-day Nourished & Renewed With Hashimoto’s program.
This is a self-paced online lifestyle program that offers tangible, realistic solutions for improving your Hashimoto’s and your overall health in a way that lasts.
If you are looking for personalized attention to your thyroid, seek out a program and thyroid advocate who can give you the tools and resources to feel your best again.
I would recommend my Happy & Healthy Adult Program for those with possible thyroid health issues.
There is so much that you can do to boost thyroid health and live your best life. I hope that no matter your diagnosis and your medication plan, you will consider making nutrition and lifestyle changes part of your plan too.