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This Winter Health Advice is All Wet

Julie Garden-Robinson, Food and Nutrition Specialist

If your furniture is falling apart and your skin is dry and cracked because of winter's dry air, imagine what that dryness is doing to the rest of you.

"One of the major nutritional concerns in the winter is maintaining enough moisture in our bodies," explains Julie Garden-Robinson, a food and nutrition specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service. "You may not come unglued like your furniture, but water is essential to our health. Any time our bodies are exposed to extreme temperatures--hot or cold--our bodies use more water to maintain normal temperatures."

Most adults need at least eight cups of water daily from drinking water, other beverages and water in solid food. Unlike many other nutrients, the human body doesn't store extra water, Garden-Robinson says. In addition to its important role in regulating body temperature, water is important to the body for digestion, absorption of nutrients and in removing wastes. It also plays an important role in lubricating joints and in eating and swallowing.

Garden-Robinson notes that home heating systems cause water loss by evaporating moisture from our skin. Applying moisturizers can help, but even more important is replacing water from the inside out, she says. We may not feel thirsty, but we are losing water and need to replace it by drinking plenty of fluids.

"In addition, just because it's cold outside doesn't mean we won't perspire when we go out to skate, ski or, most significantly, shovel. Bundling up in layers of clothing also may lead to perspiration.

"Remember that it's important for all family members to drink enough fluids. Heavily dressed children involved in active play are likely to perspire and lose significant amounts of water too," Garden-Robinson says.

She offers some tips for increasing water intake:

  • Take water breaks instead of coffee breaks. Caffeinated beverages like coffee and many sodas can actually have a diuretic effect and result in water loss.

  • Keep a container of water beside you to sip on as you work or play.

  • When you pass a water fountain, pause for a drink.

  • Have a beverage with every meal or snack.

  • Start meals with soup.

One beverage to stay away from is alcohol, Garden-Robinson says. "Alcohol tends to increase heat loss from the body, making people more susceptible to cold," she says. "So if you're ice fishing or watching outdoor winter sports a nip of brandy will not really warm you up." In fact, research indicates that alcohol can reduce your body's ability to fight infections. It can also interfere with the effects of medications.

On the other hand, soup in general and chicken soup in particular are excellent sources of moisture, she says. And chicken soup may have some added health benefits.

"The idea that chicken soup helps treat the common cold has been around since the 12th century," Garden-Robinson notes. "Now some recent research indicates there might be some truth to the idea."

Some scientists suspect that chicken soup contains certain compounds that act on the nasal passages in the back of the throat. A University of Nebraska study showed that chicken soup extracts had a positive effect on clearing up colds even when diluted 200 times. That research group believed the soup modifies the action of white blood cells. The vegetables in chicken soup with all their biologically active compounds might also play a role. Others suspect that any hot liquid may help break up congestion and ease the flow of nasal secretions.

"Chicken soup certainly isn't going to hurt you, and if your mom or another significant person made it for you, it could make you feel better just because you think it should," she says.

Added intake of chicken soup and liquids should help you stay healthy during the winter months, but your health regimen should also include a diet that includes a wide variety of foods daily to provide all the nutrients your body needs to face the cold weather, Garden-Robinson says. Also, remember to work some physical activity into your day.

"Most people are at their heaviest weight at this point in the year," she says. "People don't necessarily have to be aerobicizing to get some benefits. Do something enjoyable like dancing, walking the mall or walking the dog."

She notes that 30 minutes of moderate activity each day done in 10 minute segments has been shown to improve physical health and improve people's mental state.

"Both of those are especially important at this time of the year," Garden-Robinson says.

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