The Perfect Storm: 4 Reasons Winter Can Be Bad For Your Heart

Woman running in winter

Written by Dr. William H. Frishman

The winter season, with its cold inclement weather, can put a strain on your heart, especially if you’re one of the over 15 million Americans with coronary artery disease. Understanding why cold weather is so hard on your heart can help you avoid the dangers and stay healthy.

1. Plummeting Temperatures

The arrival of winter means warm fires, holiday cheer, and picturesque snow, but also freezing cold temperatures. Your brain tells you to stay inside, drink hot cocoa and wear silly sweaters, but if you choose not to listen, your body has a defense to keep you warm. When exposed to cold temperatures, your blood vessels tend to narrow to keep your body from losing heat. While this is meant to protect you, it can also increase your blood pressure and reduce the blood flow to your heart. To compensate, your heart will try to work even harder by beating faster, but if you have coronary artery disease, this exertion can put dangerous pressure on your heart and lead to chest pain. Add in a strong wind to your cold weather and matters can get even worse. Not only can the wind sting your face, but it can also cause an even stronger tightening of blood vessels, meaning even less blood for your heart. So, to protect yourself, always dress warmly in the winter, from head to toe, and make sure your face is protected from any cold wind.

2. Cold Weather and Physical Activity

If you live in the North you can’t imagine winter without its beautiful white blanket of snow, and if you live somewhere else, you’re probably envious of our powdery white stuff. While snow can mean a day off from school or work, after the flakes stop falling it usually means more work! But if you’ve got a history heart disease, beware the shovel. Whenever a great deal of stress is placed on the heart, your risk for a heart attack can increase. Most people are not conditioned to shovel heavy snow, or in “shoveling shape,’ so to speak, so this activity can cause a sudden spike in your heart rate and blood pressure. Combine that with cold wind narrowing the arteries, and conditions are ripe for a deadly heart attack. People who are older may experience chest pain while shoveling and write it off as a muscle strain. But don’t be fooled. That’s a sign of a major heart attack. If you have heart disease, do not shovel snow. Give twenty dollars to a high school student to do the job; young people aren’t at risk and this is a small price to pay to save your life.
Snow isn’t just hard on your heart; it’s hard on the road. By the middle of winter, the once smooth streets and highways can become scarred by the assault of ice and plows. This puts you and your car at risk for a flat tire. If this happens to you, before you search for that spare and jack, take a breath and a step back. If you have a history of heart disease, don’t change that tire. Call someone for help. The activity of changing a tire in cold weather will raise your blood pressure and heighten your pulse. Plus, if you’re changing a flat in the snow, you’re probably pretty aggravated, which also compromises blood flow to your heart.
So if you’ve got a heart issue, don’t give up on exercise – it’s an important part of heart health – but avoid strenuous physical activities in the cold winter air.

3. Shorter Days, More Darkness

Winter means we can find ourselves going to and coming home from work in the dark. These short days can make us long for the summer sun. But as it turns out, darkness can also bring on depression, which actually heightens your risk for a heart attack. So it’s important to get as much light as you can during the winter. Let the daylight shine in your house by opening blinds and curtains. You can also get a UV light for your home which can help. If you’re prone to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), talk to your doc about light therapy.

4. Holidays and Your Heart

The holiday season can bring on its own risks for heart attack. No, I’m not talking about having to see all your least favorite in-laws. People eat more food on average between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and these added calories can put a strain on the heart. Studies have even suggested a big meal could trigger a heart attack within 24 hours after eating. You also have to look out for your long-term heart health, which is compromised the more stressed you are. Don’t let the stress of the holidays get to you. Say no to that extra party and be sure to spend some time relaxing and reading in the midst of all that stressful shopping and party planning. Use the New Year to make a resolution to fold a de-stressing activity like yoga or meditation into your routine.
Don’t take matters of the heart lightly, especially during the winter. If you’re already at risk, consider seeking warmer climates when the temperatures drop. Stay on top of your health, and avoid heart attack risk factors this time of year.

About the author: 
William H. Frishman, M.D., M.A.C.P, author of Triumph Over Tragedy, the Director of Medicine at Westchester Medical Center and the Rosenthal Professor and Chairman of the Department of Medicine at New York Medical College of Touro College and University located in Valhalla, New York.