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Thriving in Winter

Care and feeding of our winter bodies

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Yellowknife, NWT, was a shock to a southern Ontario twenty-something. Wild, isolated, and quirky; big mosquitos and bigger ravens; and the winters! The cold, dry air combined with a small window of daylight over the lunch hour led to cabin fever by March, especially for southern transplants like me.

Every winter I became somewhat unhappy, pessimistic, pudgy, and lazy. At the time I was too focused on my new career and some unfortunate dating woes to reflect on what was happening. My tonic was to escape “down south” whenever possible. Fortunately for me, I now have a bit more insight and self-awareness. Plus, I live in the more moderate climate of Victoria, BC.

The change of seasons, including the arrival of winter, is a given on planet Earth. All sentient creatures shift and change through the seasons. What’s going on, and how can we take advantage of it?

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Physiological impacts

Colder weather and shorter days can cause shifts in our behaviour. This can, in turn, have impacts on our

·         immune system (greater exposure to flu and colds)

·         heart (narrowing blood vessels for increased risk of heart attack)

·         balance (icy sidewalks)

·         skin (dryness)

·         body temperature (risk of hypothermia and frostbite)

The simplest approach here is awareness and precaution. Dressing appropriately, hydrating and moisturizing, moving with care, adjusting outdoor exercise routines, and practising good hygene can all help mitigate these risks and minimize the number of face-plants we inadvertently perform!

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What about my mood?

The changes in temperature and daylight, plus less social activity, can also affect our mental and emotional health, leading to loneliness, occasional unhappiness, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD). By contrast, more introverted folks may relish this season.

Although the cause of SAD is not entirely clear, it appears that reduction in sunlight exposure affects circadian rhythms, leading to increased production of the sleep hormone melatonin and decreased production of serotonin, sometimes called the “happy chemical.”

This chemical change can cause lower energy and sex drive, increased appetite (especially for carbs), and less desire to socialize. SAD may also affect cognitive function, including concentration and short-term memory.

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Self-care steps to reduce impacts

·         regular exercise

·         healthy sleep habits

·         healthy diet, including limiting sugary foods

Treatments for winter depression, or SAD, include full-spectrum light therapy and/or medication (such as antidepressants). Vitamin D may be helpful, though there is not enough research into its use with SAD patients to be conclusive.

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Five element theory

According to the five element theory in Chinese medicine, there are different ways to understand the seasons. Alana Boorman, a Five Element Acupressure practioner, explains that winter is associated with the element of water, which is associated with organs, emotions, and spiritual aspects.

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Physical aspects

In the five element theory, the organs associated with the water element are the kidney and bladder. “The organs, as well as chi (universal energy), reflect balances and imbalances related to our physical bodies,” says Boorman. “Physical imbalances can sometimes manifest during winter as kidney disease, back pain, urinary tract infections, low libido, or fatigue.”

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Emotional aspects

She goes on to explain the emotion for the element of water can include “fear, the interrupted flow of energy that can cause someone to become immobilized or frozen. Other imbalanced emotions during winter [can] include the absence of fear (foolhardiness) and apprehension.”

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Spiritual aspects

“Like the transformation of deep hibernation to re-emergence,” Boorman says, “we must slow down and deeply rest in our belief in the felt sense of the continuity of life, and trust that in spring we will return to a time of productivity and decision making.”

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Five element prescription

Boorman provides the following suggestions:

·         Drink plenty of warm fluids, including tea, and stay warm.

·         Consume root vegetables, soups such as miso, seaweed, kelp, flaxseeds, and beans.

·         Choose herbs such as gingerroot, nettles, and juniper berries.

·         Align with winter by sinking into restorative sleep, limit risk, reflect on your strengths, try qi gong, and trust in the perpetual cycle of regeneration.

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Align with the rhythm of nature

Some folks love winter; others are less thrilled. Of course, we have no choice in the matter unless we’re eternally globe-hopping to our preferred environments. As with most things in life, though, attitude is profoundly important.

Winter is part of the eternal rhythm of nature, and every season offers new challenges and benefits. Approach winter as an opportunity to attend to your physical being; create space to rest and regenerate; nourish your body and soul with foods, beverages, fireside chats, snow angels, music, movement, and introspection; and prepare for the season of renewed growth ahead.

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Winter wellness supplements

·         echinacea

·         elderberry

·         probiotics

·         vitamins C, D, and K2

·         zinc

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Body attunement

1.      Breathe consciously and reflect.

2.      Observe any shifts in mobility, ease, energy, or mood.

3.      Adjust behaviour and body care as needed.

4.      Embrace nature’s efforts to heal and regenerate, in the world and in you.

5.      Breathe consciously and proceed with awareness.

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What is qi gong?

A gentle Chinese exercise, qi means “breath” or “to breathe,” and gong means “work,” so together qi gong means “breath work,” or the art of coordinating the breath to maintain good health.

This article was originally published in the November 2023 issue of alive magazine.

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