Are you putting off those health and habit changes until January? Have you talked yourself into waiting until Spring when it’s light again when you think it might be easier? There may be good reasons as to why you feel like this.
In nature, many animals survive the winter period by altering their behaviour – huddling together to conserve heat, travelling to warmer climes, stocking up on food to see them through. Physiological changes are often involved for many species too – from increased fat stores to reducing their body temperatures to consume less energy.
“All organisms have to respond to, and anticipate change, and the way they do this is by using their bodies' circadian clock, which, in effect, allows everything from a bacterium to a bat to 'know' what time of day it is.” (theguardian.com/lifeandstyles/2009/nov)
In us humans, our Circadian clocks manage the rise and fall of our core body temperature, our sleep-wake cycle and many other functions in our physiology, emotions, cognition and behaviours.
The shorter days cause us to produce more of the sleepy hormone melatonin, which is why you might, like a grizzly bear, feel more like jumping in your PJs and snuggling up after work than heading out for a run!
Our bodies crave the energy and mood-boosting power of the sun so the shorter days can affect us in a number of ways:
1) Changes in metabolism – the decreased light levels mean your brain signals your body to conserve energy, slowing down metabolism and increasing hunger.
2) Change in mood – the darkness decreases your levels of the hormones serotonin and dopamine, which can lead to emotional shifts and even depression.
3) Shorter attention span – Lower exposure to light can affect the part of your brain responsible for sleep and circadian rhythm, which can reduce alertness and overall cognitive function.
4) Fatigue – darkness and dim light conditions cause more of the sleepy hormone, melatonin, to be produced which can make you feel more lethargic.
5) Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – people with SAD may have lower energy levels, disruption to their sleep, issues with focus and feel more inclined towards social withdrawal.
So, now you can see why we might find winter tougher and could find ourselves reaching for a bit more food and comfort. Understanding this can hopefully enable us to be gentler on ourselves when our habits shift. Greater awareness of these physiological changes can also be useful in considering how we might modify our routines:
If it’s too dark to walk or run at your usual time, could you take a longer lunch break to fit it in?
Do you need to adjust your lighting at home or in your office?
What foods provide you with comfort but remain healthy and nutritious?
Where do you find that you struggle? Could you brainstorm some solutions that will help you find better alternatives?
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