Dear Winter, I Was Wrong About You

A frozen water droplet rests on a pine branch in the foreground.

For years, I've spent the days from Labor Day until the clock changed mourning the death of summer. Fall was nothing more than a slow slide into winter. And winter.... was dark, cold, and depressing. It was also the time my body would struggle with weight gain, sadness, and fatigue. Can you relate?

This year, I took a deep dive into seasonal health. In the process, I've learned a truth about winter – it is not the enemy, nor is it a time of torture to simply be endured. Winter can be the most healing, strengthening, and restful time of year. I know it may sound hard to believe, but it's true! 

 We can experience this powerful transformation by embracing winter in all it's beauty; including its darkness and its cold. Our mistaken tendency is trying our best to force the beauty and warmth of summer onto winter.

To explain, I want you to first think about how our earliest human ancestors lived. This exercise isn't an attempt to turn back time, but rather to consider how our bodies have evolved. When we stop living in relationship with nature and all four seasons (they way our ancestors did), we become disconnected and out of sync. Many of our widespread physical and mental health struggles are directly related to the attempt to avoid natural seasonal variations. 

Each season brings different benefits that we need for optimal health. Winter isn't any different. Winter brings colder temperatures, less daylight/more darkness, and at least until the advent of modern industrial agriculture, seasonal-dependent food scarcity. By acknowledging that cycle, we can reframe our perceptions of winter as a time of healing and repair. This is how is served our ancient ancestors.

When outside temperatures drop, our bodies are naturally wired to initiate processes that burn fat since abundant food stocks would have been unavailable (and perhaps even inconceivable) to our ancestors. If we avoid the cold, our bodies have difficulty initiating these biological processes. We gain weight during a season when our bodies are designed to make use of our fat reserves to keep us warm. 

More hours of darkness provide the opportunity to rest more. This rest triggers bodily renewal, as damaged cells are repaired and longevity promoted. We should embrace the chance to rest by sleeping more and letting our body communicate its specific needs. This should include an intentional reduction in the intensity of our exercise regimes when we receive these signals. 

If you are like me, you proclaim how much you hate winter, and then you get sick, feel sadness, and gain weight. I suggest you avoid this cycle and work on changing your mindset. Let's do it together! It starts by eliminating the "I hate winter" statements because our brains are trained to focus on what we think. Instead, tell yourself that you are excited to learn new ways to like winter and that this winter will be different.  Winter isn't going away, so wouldn't this be helpful even if you did nothing else? 

Beyond that first step, here's a list of ways you can embrace the healing processes that winter has waiting for you. It doesn't mean you have to freeze to death and starve. Small steps make big changes. 

Here are a few steps to consider:

  1. Don't try to live with summer lighting in your home. As darkness sets in, turn off/dim bright lights and switch to lamps, candles, yellow/orange lighting. Follow the natural cycles of light and see how calm it makes you feel.
  2. Get outside. Most importantly, see the morning light as soon as you get up. Step out during the day for "sips of sunlight" (see video below). Take a sunset walk. See the night sky. Allow your circadian rhythms to sync. This will bring incredible balance to the stressful season ahead.
  3. Allow your face and neck to be exposed to the cold air. Start gradually and you will tolerate more as time passes. This turns on the signals to burn fat to heat your body.
  4. Sleep more. As you dim lights in your house at night you will feel the urge to sleep earlier...listen to your body. Sleep more and nap if needed. Curl up under blankets. Enjoy the rest.
  5. Find the things you love which are only available in winter. Favorite foods, warm cozy drinks, fuzzy blankets, fires, winter walks, holidays, game nights with friends, soups, comfort foods etc.
  6. Balance your feasts with fasts. It's crazy that the time of year we need more rest and less food is when we do the exact opposite. I am not telling you to skip the parties. Instead, enjoy your indulgences without guilt but balance them with fasting, more walking, more sleep, and lots of water. Fasting can be simply restricting the time you eat to stop by 6 or 7pm. You can have days where you eat minimally, using soups, as a primary food. Cut sugar out in between the celebrations.
  7. Fully embrace both cold and heat. Get your bare feet on the ground even for 2 minutes, expose yourself to cold outside or turn on cold water at the end of your shower. Also keep warm, heat the core with blankets, hot water bottles, heating pads, sit by the fire, take hot showers or baths. Cover your head, hands, core, and feet well for walks. Use layers to adjust. Both cold and heat create wellness.
  8. Encourage a friend or loved one to make these changes with you. We are made to be in community. Don't isolate yourself in this season, try volunteering, finding a walking partner in your neighborhood app, or going to church. If not, schedule a walking phone call with a loved one who is not near taking your winter walks together. Walk your dog (or even someone else's dog)!
  9. Keep a written photo journal of all the things you find joy in this year. Add some written bullet points for a few things you are grateful for each day.
  10. Imagine yourself on New Year's Day feeling healthier and stronger than ever before. Reach out to me for some coaching if you want to make some serious and lasting changes.

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