Baby it’s cold outside, and most of us would rather be snuggled up on a sofa drinking hot chocolate watching Scandi dramas instead of working out in the gym. And quite rightly – regular bouts of indulgence are vital for relaxing and recharging: those hibernating hedgehogs are definitely onto something...
And yet winter is also when we really need to build up our strength – not just physically but emotionally too, one feeding and boosting the other.
We need physical strength to battle through the elements on our daily commutes and school runs, or for hailing cabs in little black dresses after Christmas parties, for standing around bonfires in the rain or leading kids dressed in Halloween costumes around the dark October streets.
We need emotional strength to cheer us through the long dark nights, never mind coping with all the family dramas at Christmas, or stress at work.
The cold can sap our energy levels making us feel tired and unable to cope, while being forced to share heated space with fellow humans carrying cold viruses means our immune system needs to be functioning to full capacity too.
So how can spas help us build some winter resilience? And what ideas can we take home with us?
Lymphatic drainage massage
This sounds more unattractive than it actually is. Rather than a plumbing procedure, it is a therapeutic massage that uses long, gentle, rhythmic strokes to increase the flow of lymph in your body. The lymph system is part of immune system and helps fight infection. Lymph itself is a fluid transporting nutrient and oxygen to cells, collecting toxins and flushing them through the lymph nodes. Lymphatic drainage massage is said to reduce the chance of suffering from a cold, increase your ability to fight infection and speed up healing and recovery from illness.
At home, use a body brush before you shower. This gets the circulation moving, improves lymphatic drainage, rejuvenates the nervous system and may reduce the appearance of cellulite.
Get plenty of sleep
Sleep seems like the only cure if you come down with colds or flu, your body goes into an automatic self-healing shut-down while you gather your defence armies. But sleep can also decrease your chances of coming down with a virus in the first place. According to one 2012 study called Sleep and Immune Function, there is strong evidence that sleep and the circadian system (that’s your sleep cycle) exerts a strong regulatory influence on immune function.
After a relaxing, stress-free spa day, we tend to sleep better, but there are things you can do at home to help you get the ideal 7.5 (which translates as five 90-minute sleep cycles). Lighting a spa candle before bed is richly atmospheric, triggering happy memories of relaxation. Inhaling its heady fumes slows your breathing, creating yogic calm.
Medical studies have found that soaking in a hot bath for half an hour helps you achieve a deep sleep. This happens because our body temperature drops rapidly when we get out of the bath, mimicking the drop of temperature that occurs when we begin to fall asleep. Some scientists say the hotter the bath, the deeper the sleep. Try this two-hours before bedtime for the best results.
Mine a salt cave
In 1843, Polish physician Dr F Bochkowsky discovered that salt miners rarely suffered from respiratory diseases. Salt therapy – aka halotherapy – has been popular in Eastern Europe ever since, being used to treat allergies, asthma, cystic fibrosis, bronchitis and eczema. The salt cave or steam room is now hugely popular in modern spas. Cooler than most steam rooms, you can stay in them for longer and really feel the benefits. If you cough apparently that’s a good sign, as it means your lungs are clearing.
At home, use salt crystals in your bath and inhale the salty steam. It’s also great for stressed winter skin.
Brave the bucket shower
Alternating hot and cold treatments has long been used in sport therapy to accelerate healing. One medical study found the effects of sauna bathing – alternating hot and cold treatments – increased the number of white blood cells and stimulated the immune system. Every self-respecting Scandinavian has a sauna and some snow or a lake to leap into after. We Brits have to make do with going to a spa every so often, either that or a childhood spent at a particularly sadistic boarding school.
Australian researchers found people who had a sauna twice a week caught half as many colds as those who didn’t in a sixth month study. Although steaming doesn’t cure your cold, it does clear your head. Not many of us are fortunate to have a steam room at home, but we can have steamy showers and baths and annoy everyone else in the household by lingering for longer than usual in order to get the steamy benefits. Adding aroma oils, such as eucalyptus, can help open the airways and encourage deeper breathing.
Improving your circulation gets your immune cells moving around the body, meaning they are more likely to be up and running and in the right place at the right time when infection hits. Also exercise reduces levels of stress hormones (see below), which attack the immune system and affect sleep – see how all these things link up to create one whole, healthy system, aka YOU.
You might want to avoid gyms and public pools, believing they are breeding grounds for viruses and will have the opposite effect. However, there is a strong argument that exposure is good for building immunity: what doesn’t kill us…
Wrap up warm and take a brisk walk instead, or start the day with four sun salutations – join a yoga class to learn how if you don’t already. We don’t want you doing your back in while attempting downward dog and spending the rest of the week in bed – not a good start!
Or, if you don’t feel like getting that intimate on your first date, just stare at them. A Japanese study found after people gazed at forest scenery for 20 minutes, their cortisol stress levels dropped 13.4 per cent below people looking at cityscapes. Cortisol inhibits immune function, compromises short term memory, and shuts down the body’s systems so that it can focus on getting your body ready to deal with threat or danger. Lowering cortisol allows everything to flow. You know how your stomach sometimes gurgles in a massage? When you relax, your digestive system works better.
Spas have embraced the concept of ‘Forest Bathing’ or ‘Forest Therapy’ either with floor-to-ceiling forest views, or with giant scenic pictures bringing the outside in.
Make the most of the daylight
Although Seasonal Affective Disorder is a recognised mental disorder, the theories behind it can affect all of us: the lack of sunlight means a drop in levels of serotonin, the happy hormone, while sleep-inducing melatonin increases feelings of lethargy. Try to get some daylight at least once a day – a lunchtime stroll if you can, or even just making sure you stand or sit near a window when you’re indoors. The NHS also recommends reducing stress and taking plenty of regular exercise.
We’ve noticed that spas that make the most of natural daylight are instantly uplifting. Even those that are deep in a basement feel positive if they are bright and airy. Although the tendency in winter is to cocoon in dark corners, light and colour plays an important part in our psychological health too.
The Danes think they’ve got winter happiness all sewn up in one little word – Hygge (pronounced “hoo-ga”). It basically means cocooning up indoors with friends and family, preferably with lovely spa candles, expensive hand-women blankets and cashmere throws, and (ideally) Netflix.
According to research published by the American Psychological Association, surrounding yourself with people has shown to help the body heal quicker. People are 50 per cent more likely to survive health problems with strong relationship ties than those that do not.
Helen Russell, author of The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country says, “Hygge seems to be about being kind to yourself – indulging, having a nice time, not punishing or denying yourself anything.” That sounds like the perfect excuse for a spa day!
Apparently, Danes, unlike Brits, do not overindulge at Christmas then attempt punishing detox regimes in the New Year – a form of yo-yo dieting if writ national. The conclusion is that they are happier for it.
“Research shows that people who are able to be kind to themselves rather than harshly self-critical tend to have better mental health and higher life satisfaction,” says Dr Mark Williamson, Director of think tank Action for Happiness.