Winter is upon us. With long nights and short days, nature is giving us signals to rest and conserve our energy. This natural response to the seasonal changes in the environment is perfectly normal, and, just like eating, we should consider adjusting our movement routines in ways that support our autonomic systems.
For most of us, getting a workout in is about staying “fit”, burning calories, losing weight, and/or building muscle. But (I hope you’re sitting down for this) we really only use about 10-30% of our caloric intake for physical activity, meaning, exercise is only a minor player in the battle of the bulge.
Our bodies are designed for energy efficiency. The path of least resistance is evident in teenagers just as much as it is in neuromuscular engrams (think muscle memory). When winter comes, the cooling climate signals to our bodies that it’s time to conserve energy, so if we continue to move in ways that demand more energy be directed to the minor player, we may end up overloading the system and opening ourselves up to illness.
So who are the major players?
In light of recent global events, now may be a good time to understand that our immune systems demand a large amount of caloric energy to keep us safe and healthy. The demands of our immune system also require us to support it with adequate micro-nutrients too; think a wholefood, balanced, seasonal diet (based on your personal biochemical needs, of course). Hearty organic offal meals and bone broths are a staple in cultures that see the land freeze over during the cooler months. Offal meats and bone broths not only provide much needed calories from fats and proteins, they are also loaded with bio-available micro-nutrients that are easily absorbed and assimilated. Hearty meals also give a warm, psychological hug for our hearts and minds during the colder months.
Thermoregulation is one of, if not the most, energy expending process of our autonomic nervous system. Our body’s ability to shiver or sweat based on the physical stress of the environment requires constant monitoring and attention. It is generally recognised that our core temperature’s homeostatic range is 36.5-37.5 C, either side of that and our bodies will start to shut down unnecessary systems to ensure the protection of our vital organs.
Another important thing to note here is that reduced sunlight in winter means our bodies ability to produce Vitamin D is severely reduced. Vitamin D is a steroid hormone that plays an important role in boosting our immune system, especially when it comes to respiratory infections.
With this in mind, adapting your movement routine to suit the season could be the key to surviving winter unaffected by seasonal illness, as it may give your body the opportunity to focus all of its attention on biosecurity.
A few things you can try;
1) Exercise in the morning, rather than night
Exercise can elevate cortisol, the stress hormone that helps us wake up. In healthy bodies, cortisol levels start to rise from around 6am, usually in time with the sun, and peaks between 9am-midday. With a later, slower sunrise, cortisol production can be affected, so, just as exercising at night can disrupt our sleep, by exercising in the morning, you can help your body maintain its natural circadian rhythm.
2) Reduce your caffeine
Caffeine is a drug that stimulates our adrenal system. Cortisol is part of that system. When we constantly tap into the stimulatory hormones, our bodies ability to produce these hormones decreases, leading to a need for more of the drug to get the effect. – Do you hear what I’m saying? That innocent little cup of sweet bean nectar may be affecting your hormones to the point where your body is so depleted of stimulatory hormones that it can’t function without it!
Take a look at your caffeine intake. If you’re having more than one cup per day, and it’s not giving you that hit you are chasing, consider taking a couple of days off it, then see what happens…
3) Try yoga
When applied appropriately, yoga can be a great way to realign the body. Yoga is not just about stretching and contorting your body. The practice of yoga is about strengthening and aligning the body in preparation for meditation.
As with all exercise, every move you make is a program for your nervous system (remember that path of least resistance?), so, don’t be a hero. Start basic. Start slow. Learn to feel into it. The future you will really appreciate you for it!
Studies in Finland are looking into the health benefits of saunas. One study involving men aged 42-60 found that those who used a sauna 4-7 times per week had a 40% reduction in all cause mortality, compared to men who used it only once a week, over a 20 year period.
There are also studies showing that sauna use can have similar cardiovascular benefits to cardiovascular exercise. So, you could potentially get the benefits of the exercise, without the overall physical stress, as well as enjoying a nice, warm environment. I also find that the sauna is a great place to meditate. Sit tall, close your eyes and breathe slow and deep – Just remember to keep your hydration up 😉
5) Avoid screens at night time
OK, this is probably the 50th time you’ve heard this, so there must be a reason the universe keeps bringing it up for you… Screens = blue light. Blue light = cortisol (see above). Sure, your computer has apps for it and you have some stylish blue-blocker glasses, but that’s not the point!
Our brains don’t know the difference between a lived experience and an imagined one. So, regardless of the screen, chances are you’re watching something that’s triggering an emotional response and elevating those cortisol levels anyway.
Change your direction. Use the time to connect with your family and friends. Read a book. Or get some pens and paper out and use the time to let your creativity express itself!
I know, this one’s a little left field…
Sleep is nature’s doctor. All of our metabolic and psychological healing happens during sleep. It’s when our muscles rebuild, it’s when our bones heal, it resets our neurological pathways and hormone clock.
When we get sick, our bodies force us to bed, not because they are working against us, but because, as I mentioned, our immune systems require a lot of caloric energy to seek out and remove foreign invaders. Fevers (an action of thermoregulation) support our immune system by elevating our core temperature, helping to fight off said invaders and ensure our survival.
Yet we fight these things, don’t we? It’s as if sleep is the enemy.
Even with all the research showing that regular sleep of 7-9 hours is ideal for optimal health, many (especially in certain industries) are adamant that they can “function” on 5-6 hours a night.
Sure, we’re adaptable. We CAN survive on any amount of sleep. But is “surviving” what we want to be doing? Think about what signal that’s sending to your hormones, especially your stress hormones (cortisol) when we don’t give them the time to reload. Think about what we’re doing to ourselves when we don’t give our bodies the repair time it needs. Think about how many medical products are out there to mask the symptoms of illness or tiredness just to keep us “going”, rather than allowing our bodies the time they need to heal themselves.
Consider how much we fight getting up in the morning, yet we also fight to stay up late at night… Most of us in the west have been doing that since childhood, right?
Go to bed early.
Not because your mother told you to.
Do it because you love your body and you want it to have all it’s resources and functions firing optimally tomorrow.
Do it because you love a good dream.
Do it because snoozing is just as detrimental to your daily mindset and health as a life lived on inadequate sleep.
Do it because regular sleep of 7-9 hours, in tandem with a regular wake time (even on weekends), will allow your body to get into a good circadian rhythm, support your immune system, repair damaged muscles, reconnect neurological pathways and set you up to THRIVE BABY!!!
The ideas that I’m suggesting here are all designed to reduce the overall stress load on your body during winter so it can focus its attention on keeping you healthy.
At the end of the day, the more stress we put on our bodies, the more susceptible they are to illness and disease.
In short, reduce unnecessary physical stress, support your immune system with good quality wholefoods that provide a range of seasonal nutrients, spend more time with the people you love, find your own creative outlet and check in early to the Sleep Doctor every night! 😊