Winter outbreaks of colds and flu will affect as many as 40 percent of all kids in the United States. In addition, winter blues brought on by shorter days and cloudy weather will affect up to 10 percent of those living in northern states.
Kids affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (sad) may feel depressed and lethargic, have difficulty concentrating, have trouble sleeping, crave more sugar and fight more with their siblings and friends. Diminished sunlight causes the brain to produce less seratonin and melatonin, two attitude-boosting chemicals that also affect performance, digestion, the immune system, blood clotting and blood pressure. It's no wonder parents get stuck in a dreary cycle of refereeing arguments and taking the kids to the pediatrician. Fortunately, those gray winter clouds have silver linings—there is much you can do to chase the blues away and keep your family reasonably healthy.
Leave the house. With kids spending a greater amount of time indoors, they are more susceptible to communicable diseases. It's a myth that outdoor chills or drafts can bring on colds, so dress your children warmly and usher them out the door. When they have a chance to burn off excess energy, kids are less likely to expend it by complaining, slugging a sibling or begging for something. The exercise will lift their mood and contribute to better health.
Lighten things up. For those with sad, a concentrated exposure in front of a light box can help, but everyone benefits from a bright environment. Open the curtains and sit by sunny windows to read stories.
Screen your visitors. If your biggest cause of winter stress is perpetually sick children, make sure playmates are healthy before allowing your kids to share air with them.
Alter your diet. Studies have shown that vitamins C and A and zinc can reduce a cold's intensity and duration. And since beta-carotene bolsters the immune system, find ways to get your kids to eat more carrots, broccoli, sweet potatoes and tomatoes. Plus, drink lots of water to help thin mucus, prevent secondary infections and flush out immune system invaders.
Outsmart a virus. Use paper cups to reduce the likelihood of your kids drinking out of the same glass. Also, clean kitchen counters and sponges with bleach or disinfectant, and run the dishwasher so dishes and utensils will get good and hot. And don't forget to frequently wash your hands, since hand-to-hand contact is the easiest way to spread colds.
Feed your soul. Proverbs wisely reminds us that "A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones" (17:22). Prolonged anxiety and stress weaken the immune system's ability to fight infection. To fight back, read good spiritual literature, connect with friends who cheer you, and check a funny movie or joke book out of the library. Then, when faced with a winter meltdown, you'll be ready with the strong medicine of a cheerful heart.
Writer and mother of five children
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