Thursday, January 24, 2008

Coping With the Cold

At this time of year, every kind-hearted Japanese person who I speak with (which is pretty much every one that I actually speak with), tells me to be careful now that it's colder outside so I don't catch cold. While I always appreciate the concern, I have to suppress the urge to say that cold weather isn't what makes you catch a cold. It's actually rapid changes in temperature, stress, lack of sleep, and poor nutrition that tend to cause people to get sick coupled with, of course, exposure to viruses. The onset of cold weather makes people believe cold weather makes them catch colds because so many problems develop at the changing point, but it's the extreme fluctuations between over-heated interiors and frigid exteriors which increase the frequency of adjustments our bodies have to make that are the main culprit.

When I was studying physiological psychology, I was taught the term "homeostasis". This term has several applications, both human and otherwise, but in my studies it was used to indicate that our bodies and minds like things to stay the same and the introduction of change, particularly a rapid and extreme one, stresses a person. When your body is stressed, your immune system has more difficulty coping with the bombardment of nasty things it encounters and is more likely to fail in its mission of keeping you healthy.

A very good way to avoid catching a cold is to minimize powerful fluctuations in temperature. Given that there is no central heating in most Japanese domiciles, this would seem to be pretty easy, but the truth is that the use of space heaters and kotatsu tend to increase the chances a person will overheat himself or herself by sitting close to the source of heat in a cold room rather than sit in a spot distant from the heating source in a lightly heated room which is being warmed by central heating.

Before anyone gets the wrong idea and believes that I'm suggesting that central heating is somehow superior in any way (because there are some people who love nothing more than inferring something so they can take me to task for what I didn't say), that's not what I'm saying. What I am saying is that most people who live in cold weather set the thermostat low (65-68 degrees F./19-20 degrees C) and wear a sweater so the rooms they are sitting in aren't really hot. When your room is really cold, there's nothing more satisfying than practically sitting on top of the only heat source (space heater/kotatsu) and getting nice and toasty. Unfortunately, this is usually followed by getting up and walking into a much cooler area of the apartment or going outside into the frigid air. This is forcing your body to adjust pretty frequently to rapid changes and increases the chances you'll get sick.

Keeping the aforementioned and other points in mind, I've got some tips for keeping well at this time of year for those of us in Tokyo (though these can apply to other folks as well):
  • Use your space heater (or kotatsu) at a lower temperature setting if you tend to sit close to the source and try not to warm up too quickly. Wear several layers of clothing to keep your body heat in rather than rely so heavily on being externally warmed. Maintaining your body temperature with clothes will minimize the frequency and intensity of temperature fluctuations.
  • Avail yourself of the cheap and plentiful Japanese oranges (mikan) at this time of year and eat one or two every day and try to incorporate more vegetables into your diet, especially tomatoes and leafy green vegetables.
  • Sleep with a knitted cap and socks on. Most of the heat leaves your body through your head and feet. Wearing a cap in particular is something people don't tend to do, but it will seriously help you stay warm in bed, especially if you tend not to use your space heater at all through the night for safety reasons.
  • Invest in a good comforter or blanket. A down comforter is light and warm (though some people are allergic) and can serve your very well. A lot of the blankets in Japan are pretty thin or not well insulated.
  • Make it a priority to exercise regularly. You will find that you're less likely to get sick if you are stronger overall and that your circulation will be better if you are getting some aerobic exercise.
  • Drink as much water as you can to help cope with the dry winter air (and dry air from heating). This is something you have to make a priority, not just wait until you feel thirsty or dry. If you suffer from sore throats in the morning, it may also be a good idea to invest in a humidifier for your bedroom though be careful if you buy the kind which puts out hot steam. I still have a scar on my wrist from getting it too close to a hot humidifier positioned on my nightstand.
  • Get yourself a pair of fleece-lined slippers for winter which are warmer than the average Japanese house slippers.
  • Wash your hands every time you come inside after being outdoors and be mindful of touching your eyes, nose, or mouth while you are out so you don't transfer any germs you get on your hands to your mucous membranes. If you can't wash your hands easily, carry the sort of hand wipes which are treated with alcohol to clean your hands.
  • While drinking hot beverages would seem to logically make you feel warmer, it actually causes your body to try and adjust to the internal heat by making your body colder. It's better not to drink very hot beverages and try for something that is warm or room temperature.
  • If you can get your hands on them, wear high quality long underwear as part of your layers of clothing. Land's End has mail order that ships to Japan and is reasonably priced, has western sizes, and is good quality. They carry silk weave long underwear which should keep you from being too hot in heated rooms and warmer in cold weather.
Of course, there are some things which are nearly impossible to avoid in Tokyo in winter which make staying well hard. Mainly, there is the tendency of Japanese folks to cough with mouths wide open and spray everyone and everything with germs. There are face masks (much like those you see surgeons wearing) which are commonly sold in Japan that some people wear to protect themselves (or others) during this time of year, but they are uncomfortable and are almost impossible to use with glasses because they tend to make them fog up. I'm also not sure how useful they are compared to just breathing through your nose and not touching your eyes, nose and mouth with hands that have touched surfaces in public spaces. Keep in mind that you are most vulnerable on trains and subways. They're like traveling in a germ capsule. Be most diligent about washing your hands after traveling on one of them.

Another problem is the fact that most offices are kept at inferno-level temperatures during the winter so there is the inevitable shock to the system when going from indoors to outside. The former president of my former company used to justify roasting us to death in summer by saying it was unhealthy to be too cold then go out into the summer heat, but didn't believe there was anything wrong with setting the heat such that it was 85 degrees F. (29 degrees C.) inside in the winter when it was 40 degrees F. (4 degrees C.) outside. If at all possible, do the best you can to spare your body these types of extreme transitions.

For many foreigners, not getting sick is more important than it is for a Japanese person. Part of the reason for this is that some of us work under conditions where we are not paid for sick leave (this is the case for both my husband and I). Also, the truth is that a lot of the time a foreign person is "blamed" for being sick or disbelieved. Every time my boss or I became ill (which wasn't all that often), the president would say that it was our responsibility to take care of ourselves and that we were failing in our jobs if we allowed ourselves to take ill. While the Japanese staff took days off for sniffles and low fevers, we soldiered on with raging colds and the flu (which is when we inevitably were lectured about how getting sick was our own fault). Of course, this was the same president who used to take a half day off whenever he got a headache. :-p

While I'm not offering myself up as an authority on maintaining health, I can say that I haven't caught a cold in about a year and a half, and, at the very least, I doubt my advice will make you less healthy.


Anonymous said...

I'd like to clear a stereotype if you don't mind. Is it true that Japanese people are afraid of the cold? I mean that they find temperatures of 0 C cold or not (in central Japan). It's a stereotype that I wanted clarified for a while but didn't know who to ask. Thank you in advance.

Shari said...

I don't think it's accurate to say they are afraid of the cold, and I honestly can't speak with any knowledge or experience about all Japanese people because I've mainly associated with folks in Tokyo (though a lot of them were transplanted fro other areas of Japan). I have to imagine folks in Hokkaido and other areas which experience harsher and snowy winters handle the cold pretty well.

In my experience, Japanese women in particular are very sensitive to cold. I think this is a combination of a greater tendency to have low blood pressure, being relatively thin and having less body fat to insulate themselves, and possibly having grown up in an area with more warm or hot weather than cold (in Tokyo).

Men tend to be much less sensitive to cold and you find that the same problems that occur in the west where women want things hotter and men want things cooler occur here (though possibly at different preferred settings compared to Western folks).

I've discussed this issue with students and their take is that western people are more sensitive to heat because of skin tone differences. They believe that the color (that'd be melanin content) of Japanese skin makes it easier to cope with heat. I have no idea if this is accurate and present it only as their take on this difference.

Students also tell me offices in the West are set at temperatures they (by and large) find too cold. So, I wouldn't say the stereotype that they are afraid of the cold is correct, but I think it wouldn't be wrong to say that most Japanese people are more comfortable in warmer environments and less comfortable in colder environments compared to many Western folks.

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

Melanie Gray Augustin said...

Hi, very interesting piece. I just had a bit of a rant about how often I catch colds here, but don't in Australia. Our classrooms are kept very warm, but the teachers' room, very cold so I'm jumping from one to the other.

Unfortunately, I have an added challenge, a rather nasty food allergy keeps my immune system lower than I'd like it to be, and the foods I'm allergic to are most of the vitamin C rich fruits.

Great blog by the way, I drop by often, but must confess, I often lurk, don't often comment. Sorry!

Shari said...

Hi, Melanie, and thanks for commenting! Rather coincidentally, I read your blog entry about the frequent colds you were catching just after composing this post! I was going to comment that you may want to carry alcohol wipes to wash your hands given that there is only cold water in the bathroom at your work.

You situation is really a tough one since you are in and out of the cold again and again throughout the day. It's too bad you can't prepare in the room you teach in to avoid the transition!

Roy said...

I think when people say "Be careful about catching a cold" you're not supposed to take them literally. It's just something to say to express that you care.

BTW, don't you think it's been unusually cold for Tokyo these last few days? I don't think I've felt this cold (inside my house) in a long time.

Shari said...

Roy: Yes, that's true. However, they only say it when it's cold outside so there's a clear connection between this expression and the change in the weather. They usually say it to me like this, 'it's been getting cold so be careful not to get sick.' They don't say it in the summer or at any other time, so clearly they believe the risk is higher at this time of year.

I have noticed it's colder this year and am rather chagrined about it as severe winters usually walk hand in hand with severe summers, and I am so not looking forward to a hotter summer.

I'm glad to see you're still around! I miss your blog.

Katrina said...

I came across your blog a few days ago. Thanks for all the helpful info. I am a mother of 4, spending our 2nd of 2 years here in Tokyo. (Setagaya).
I actually made one of your recipes tonight--yummy--the white castle 'cassarole'--but I added some spinach/diced carrots to get the veggies in. All loved it. Need to triple it next time.

Haven't yet had the time to really read much of your blog but looking forward to it.

p.s I am f-f-f-freeeeezing the past few days!
I am from Golden, Colorado and the humidity here makes it seem even colder. Cannot wait to get through this spell.

Emsk said...

This is all good advice here. I echo what you say about foreigners getting sick. I am going to post about my experience this week, not till the weekend when I have time, unfortunately, but it probably won't surprise you to hear what I was told yesterday whe I called in sick to work.

tornados28 said...

Colds are easily spread between children due to coughing on each other, not washing hands, etc. Then colds are often spread to adults from children. I think another reason for increased colds in winter is that children are more often confined to the indoors where they can spread the germs more easily.

mike said...

All I have to say is: Central Gas Heating.

In my parents house, it is like a furnace all the time...even in summer. No central air. The heating is from coils in the ceiling. There are coils in the basement ceiling, too, which means the upper level is an oven and the basement a broiler.

In winter I never turned on the heat in my bedroom or office. In the summer, the extra-noisy window air conditioner kept me somewhat cool but awake all night. There was no happy medium. Even on nice spring days when the windows should be open, there would be no air flow due to the small window size and placement.

I love my little house. Central heating and cooling is the cat's meow!

I used to enjoy having my work office in the server room. We keep it cool year around, but now that I am always isn't so much of a nice thing anymore...

Kanagawa G said...

I've said it before and I'll say it again, the only time I have ever suffered frostbite is INSIDE a house in Japan.

My wife makes fun of me because I wear a toque and thick socks at all times, but it beats the alternative!

Melanie Gray Augustin said...

Hi again Shari

Thanks for your reply. The alcohol wipes are a good idea, I think I'll grab some this weekend. When I was travelling in Veitnam, I bought an alcohol gel, I wonder if it's available here.

Unfortunately, I teach in different rooms all day and have to walk across campus (outside), and then of course there is the bike ride to and from work, so I'm always going from one extreme temperature to another. I'll be loading up on as many vegetables as possible I think.

Again, a very interesting post that looks like it's created a lot of discussion.

Anonymous said...


I am glad I am not the only one that wears a hat to bed if it's really.

I don't play games when it comes to bed time. If it's cold, I wrap up like an eskimo, and if it's hot and humid like Japan is during the summer, I sleep naked... haha... sorry, if that gave off any unwanted mental images. :D

gaijinalways said...

Hmm, I definately agree with the problems with temperature differences putting stress on the body, but some aspects of getting colds is more related to exposure to various types of people.

As teachers, we're likely to be exposed to more carriers of germs, and thus more likely to catch something. Living in metropolitan areas and using public transportation also increases the chances of something similar happening.

As to washing your hands and using wipes, I honestly don't think it's that helpful. Unless you plan to be like the boy in the bubble or never leave your house, I doubt you can avoid some colds.

I suppose you would have to compare living under similar conditions in your home country to really test your theory. I did teach in the US, but was hardly living in a metropolitan area, and my classes were much smaller in size. id o recall I got sick there also, but most of my respiratory problems seem to stem more from reactions to pollen here as well as more pollution in Tokyo than in the area where I grew up.