The Long Winter’s Nap
by Phil Cameron
If I had to choose a “spirit animal,” I’m pretty sure it would be a bear. Not only do they enjoy the spring, summer and fall outside; they get to enjoy fishing, hunting, and eating huckleberries, getting fat to sleep it off during hibernation. I admit I would miss skiing, but a nap all winter long has to be enjoyable! The world has rhythms that nature has followed since the beginning of time, and species have adapted to those rhythms and found the best ways to survive. That is until humans started to change that.
Human beings long ago stopped trying to live with nature and started trying to control it. The successes are mixed; on one hand, we have endless days with lights all around us with the flip of a switch. We control our environments by keeping the temperature comfortable, and we can even eat foods that were once seasonal all year round. The question is what has this done for us as a species and what has it done for our environment that we live in?
As much as we are creatures of comfort, this comfort has caused many shifts in our physiology, and many of them are not for the better. The body has a circadian rhythm that is influenced by our hormones and our acupuncture meridians working together. It controls our sleep-wake cycles, when we get hungry and eat, when we use the bathroom, when we reproduce, and it keeps our brain and immune system regulated as well. The master control gland of our hormones is our pineal gland. The pineal gland is where we release melatonin that we use to sleep. The pineal gland is sensitive to light and when we live in a constant light environment (and this includes light that comes from our computer, smartphone, and TV screens) it just isn’t getting the rest that is needed to keep it healthy.
We are programmed to sleep for a very good reason. Sleeping is when our brain recovers and our body heals. The longer we go without sleep (and not enough sleep), the more degeneration happens in our nervous system and the amount of brain function decreases as well. The pineal gland is a hormonal organ that is located in the center of our brain and affects the pituitary and hypothalamus glands, which are the other two hormonal glands in the brain. When the pineal gland and the brain don’t get enough rest, the entire hormonal network in our body becomes compromised. This is often a very early beginning of many different disease processes.
Making simple changes in our daily habits during the winter months can make big differences in our overall health. Winter days are very short, often very cold, and typically there would be very little fresh produce to eat. With new technology, however, we extend our short days to normal 16-hour days or more, keep the temperatures warm and comfortable, and eat produce that is shipped in or grown in artificial environments. This definitely helps keep us comfortable and productive, but at what cost?
Not that long ago, our body was programmed to slow our metabolism down during winter and put on extra weight (aka fat) which is an energy source that we could burn to keep our body temperature up. Our ingrained physiology is still programmed in our DNA, but the amount of calories we consume and our comfortable temperatures we live in keep us from having to use that stored fat. With the change of artificial light, our brains also don’t get a break, which leads to further neurological stress including sleeping disorders, attention disorders, depressions, and many other neurological diseases.
To combat these stresses, we can make some simple changes in our winter routines. Keeping the lights turned down in the evening is a simple place to start. Create a similar lighting in your environment that might have been present from candle light or the glow of a fire. Also the use of blue blockers helps the pineal gland from being over stimulated. Using full spectrum bulbs in your house and environment also helps the brain and body when used during normal daylight hours when you can’t be outside.
If we think about a winter diet and know that naturally we have a slower metabolism, this means we don’t want to consume the heavy calorie comfort foods that we would instinctively want to. Our body wants the warm stews and the increased fat thinking it needs to keep us warm. Instead, it’s better to eat lower calorie foods, more greens (even though they aren’t seasonal), vegetables and root vegetables like sweet potatoes, parsnips, and beets that have high resistant starches that don’t spike blood sugar and keep insulin levels lower.
To produce vitamin D, we must be exposed to direct sunlight on our skin. But, it’s not just the sun exposure, the rays of sunlight have to have a specific intensity that depends on where the sunlight penetrates the atmosphere before it reaches Earth. Anywhere above the 45th Parallel, which Bozeman is, between the fall equinox and the spring equinox the human body can not produce Vitamin D. Supplementing with between 5000IU-10,000IU is important during the winter months to maintain adequate levels.
Since we can’t hibernate and take that long winter nap like a bear, we can make seasonal changes that help us to maintain our natural body biorhythms. Harmony in these rhythms creates balance, and balance creates stability, and stability keeps us healthy. Health is always doing more for your body than against it. Aligning your winter activities with your body biorhythms will truly make you live a healthier, more natural, more optimal life!