Welcoming the fall months means inviting the shorter, colder days back into our lifestyle. These environmental factors can greatly influence our bodies, altering our energy levels, appetite, weight, and overall cognitive functioning.
As the weather gets colder and the days shorter, there are several physiological changes that occur in the human body that allow it to adapt to its colder, darker environment. As the temperature drops, the body increases insulin resistance and fat production in the liver, allowing fat to be more easily stored to maintain a normal body temperature, as do other mammals.1,2 This can, however, result in lower energy levels and weight gain.3,4 The darker days can also trigger an overproduction of melatonin in the body, which may cause you to feel sluggish and sleepier than usual (hypersomnia).1–6
Serotonin, a neurotransmitter, and melatonin, a hormone, affect the body’s circadian rhythm (the body’s internal clock).2 According to a study published in Nature Communications, circadian and seasonal rhythms regulate “several aspects of human physiology, including brain functions, such as mood and cognition, and influence many neurological and psychiatric illnesses.”6 The body’s internal clock shifts and adjusts bodily functions according to day/night– light/dark cycles. However, the decreased amount of sunlight can cause the body’s circadian rhythm to become misaligned, which can disrupt sleep, energy levels, and appetite.7 Additionally, alterations in immune system functioning and some gene expressions involved in inflammation can be affected by the colder weather. For some people, the shorter, colder days lead to the development of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a form of depression that can become active during a particular time of year; for most people affected by SAD, symptoms flare up during the fall and winter months, though for some, SAD can occur during the warmer seasons.9,10 SAD displays a different pattern of mood dysfunction compared to clinical depression, though they are not entirely separate; one cannot be diagnosed with SAD without fitting the full criteria for depression.9 Typical symptoms of SAD include feelings of loneliness, hopelessness, worthlessness, low energy, loss of interest in activities, sleep problems, changes in appetite and/or weight, sluggishness, agitation, and/ or difficulty concentrating; suicidal thoughts might also occur in some individuals. Around five percent of adults in the United States experience SAD for 40 percent of the year.9,10 Some individuals experience a mild form of SAD, referred to as “winter blues.”9 Others might be severely impacted by SAD and find it difficult to perform even basic activities of daily living until the spring months.9
Below are some tips on how to counteract sleep issues, diminished energy levels, weight gain, and altered immune system activity associated with the fall and winter months.
EAT FALL-HARVESTED FOODS
Consuming seasonal root and cruciferous vegetables, robust fruits, and potent herbs can help maintain healthy weight and immune response.11–15
Cuciferous vegetables have a high fiber content, which is optimal for digestive health and weight management.11 Due to its slow digestion, fiber can help us feel fuller longer after meals, as well as help regulate blood-glucose levels, factors that can help prevent overeating and weight gain. Aiming for 30 grams of fiber a day can assist with weight maintenance, and even weight loss, and improve insulin response.11 Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, and collard greens are all in-season cruciferous vegatables.
Root vegetables are also an excellent source of fiber. Unlike cruciferous vegetables, many root vegetables are considered starches; eating too many in one sitting can spike blood-glucose levels and cause lethargy and premature hunger.12 However, the benefits of root vegetables lies within their antioxidants, which improve immune system responses and protect cell and tissue integrity.13 This is especially beneficial for managing the increased inflammation that can occur in our bodies during the colder months.13 Examples of in- season root vegetables are potatoes, sweet potatoes, beets, parsnips radishes, carrots, turnips.
Fruits and herbs that are in season during the fall months are also loaded with antioxidants, which have have beneficial effects on the immune system,14 and fiber, which helps us maintain a healthy weight.15 Examples of in season fruits include cranberries, figs, key limes, guava, pears, passion fruit, and pomegranates. Examples in season herbs include cilantro, parsley, fennel, sage, rosemary, mint, and lavender.
START MOVING, KEEP MOVING
Find a way to continuously incorporate physical activity into your day, as it has been shown to boost endorphin production, improve mood, and provide a distraction from typical stressors.16,17 Additionally, engaging in moderate-intensity activity has been linked to improved energy levels and stamina, reduced stress and inflammation, and improved immune response to viral infections.18–20 Physical activity can range anywhere from high-intensity aerobic exercise to more calming yoga and stretching. If you are new to physical activity, remember to begin slowly and gradually build up your fitness level. To optimally reap the benefits regular exercise has to offer, aim for 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) to 300 minutes (5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity exercise (e.g., brisk walking (at least 2.5 miles per hour, water aerobics, dancing (ballroom or social, gardening, tennis (doubles), biking slower than 10 miles per hour), or 75 minutes (1 hour and 15 minutes) to 150 minutes (2 hours and 30 minutes) a week of vigorous-intensity physical activity (e.g., hiking uphill or with a heavy backpack, running, swimming laps, aerobic dancing, heavy yardwork like continuous digging or hoeing, tennis (singles), cycling 10 miles per hour or faster, jumping rope.16a Adhering to the frequency of your chosen activities and integrating them into your routine is key.16,17 For maintenance, engage in enjoyable activities; any form of movement can improve energy levels, mood, and your fitness level. If your schedule does not permit long bouts of physical activity, perform them in increments. Brief bouts of movement can still provide distraction and a better mood. Instead of going on one 30-minute walk, take three 10-minute walks, for example.16,17
SET A SCHEDULE, KEEP A SCHEDULE
The changes in energy levels, sleeping and eating patterns, and mood that can occur during the fall and winter months might interfere with your ability to adequately perform activities of daily living. While you may have found brief reprieve during the long, sunny days of summer in abandoning a schedule you set for yourself, this can inspire unhealthful impulses and, conversely, wasted energy.20 Setting and keeping a schedule may actually preserve energy and time , which can aid in adjusting to your body’s circadian rhythm during the darker, colder, shorter days of fall and winter. 21,22 Instead of fighting your body’s changes in the fall and winter, follow it. Creating a schedule that modifies your sleeping and eating patterns based on your body’s circadian rhythm encourages overall improvement; your body will be able to communicate its needs better, making for a fluid transition.22,23 Adjustments can be made in gradual increments, so long as consistency remains. Additionally, creating and sticking to a schedule can eliminate the need to make insignificant decisions or worry about minutia things, such as what to eat throughout the day, when to exercise, or when to begin homework or other projects. Creating and adhering to a schedule also instills discipline and refines positive habits, which can help you maximize your time during daylight hours and increase productivity of the mind.22,23
Set a designated time to create your schedule, such as the beginning of every week or month, or every couple of months. 21 This will vary depending on short- or long-term goals and quotidian changes you would like to include. This will help encourage a routine, too. Select a scheduling tool or a method of scheduling. Writing in a planner or on a calendar or using a smartphone app can help to consolidate your activities and set reminders. When creating your schedule, determine how much time you want to dedicate to each activity throughout your day and work around the ones considered high priority (i.e., school, work, appointments). Take into account times you feel more comfortable (or that seem more doable) performing certain daily pursuits, such as eating, sleeping, and engaging in physical activity.21 Remember that everything is subject to change; the schedule you decide to follow can be amended. Whether it’s due to unavoidable conflicts, difficulties in the initial goals you set, or unforeseen circumstances, you can always adjust your schedule to better accommodate your needs, wants, and responsibilities—It’s your life, so make it work for YOU.
WHEN IN NEED, SEEK HELP
If your mental health is being negatively impacted by seasonal changes, especially if you are experiencing symptoms of SAD, speaking to a therapist could be worthwhile. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), for example, assists patients in adjusting to the changing seasons and encouraging them to identify and replace negative thoughts with positive ones.10 CBT programs might incorporate modification of diet, meditation, sunlight, yoga, and exercise.
- Staples JF. Metabolic suppression in mammalian hibernation: the role of mitochondria. J Exp Biol. 2014;217:2032–2036.
- Farhud D, Aryan Z. Circadian rhythm, lifestyle and health: A narrative review. Iran J Public Health. 2018;47(8):1068–1076.
- Hatipoglu B. Hibernation Mode Slows Metabolism During Fall and Winter Seasons. 10 Dec 2015. https://health.usnews.com/health-news/patient-advice/articles/2015/12/10/hibernation-mode-slows-metabolism-during-fall-and-winter-seasons. United States News. Accessed 1 Oct 2020.
- Alzforum site. Does Cognition Change with the Seasons? 13 Sept 2018. https://www.alzforum.org/news/research-news/does-cognition-change-seasons. Accessed 1 Oct 2020.
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke site. Hypersomnia Information Page. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/All-Disorders/Hypersomnia-Information-Page. Accessed 1 Oct 2020.
- Lim AS, Klein HU, Yu L, et al. Diurnal and seasonal molecular rhythms in human neocortex and their relation to Alzheimer’s disease. Nat Commun. 2017;8:14931.
- American Academy of Sleep Medicine site. Winter, sleep and your circadian rhythms. 13 Nov 2012. http://sleepeducation.org/news/2012/11/13/winter-sleep-and-your-circadian-rhythms. 14 Oct 2020.
- Fares A. Factors influencing the seasonal patterns of infectious diseases. Int J Prev Med. 2013;4(2):128–132.
- National Health Services site. Study Finds Seasons May Affect Immune System Activity. 13 May 2015.https://www.nhs.uk/news/lifestyle-and-exercise/study-finds-seasons-may-affect-immune-system-activity/. Accessed 1 Oct 2020.
- Melrose S. Seasonal Affective Disorder: An overview of assessment and treatment approaches. Depress Res Treat. 2015;2015:178564.
- National Institute of Mental Health site. Seasonal Affective Disorder. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml.
Accessed 1 Oct 2020.
- Ferrari N. Making One Change — Getting More Fiber — Can Help with Weight Loss. 17 Feb 2015.(https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/making-one-change-getting-fiber-can-help-weight-loss-201502177721.
Accessed 1 Oct 2020.
- Harvard Health Publishing site. The Pros and Cons of Root Vegetables. Aug 2018. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/the-pros-and-cons-of-root-vegetables. Accessed 1 Oct 2018.
- Bendich A. Physiological role of antioxidants in the immune system. J Dairy Sci. 1993 Sep;76(9):2789–94.
- Burton-Freeman B. Dietary fiber and energy regulation. J Nutr. 2000;130(2):272S–275S.
- Hervik AK, Svihus B. The role of fiber in energy balance. J Nutr Metab. 2019;2019:4983657.
- United States Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2018.
- Mayo Clinic staff. Exercise and stress: Get moving to manage stress. 8 MAR 2018. Mayo Clinic site. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/exercise-and-stress/art-20044469. Accessed 1 Oct 2020.
- Harvard Health Publishing site. Exercising to relax. Updated 7 JUL 2020. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax. Accessed 1 Oct 2020.
- Mayo Clinic. Moderate Exercise Yields Big Benefits. 4 Jan 2008. ScienceDaily site. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080104123421.htm. Accessed 1 Oct 2020.
- Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health site. Examples of moderate and vigorous physical activity. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/moderate-and-vigorous-physical-activity/.
Accessed 1 Oct 2020.
- American Heart Association site. American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids. Updated 18 Apr 2018. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/fitness/fitness-basics/aha-recs-for-physical-activity-in-adults. Accessed 1 Oct 2020.
- Northwestern Medicine site. Health Benefits of Having a Routine. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/finding-your-voice/201209/the-ethics-scheduling. Accessed 1 Oct 2020.
- Gardner B, Lally P, Wardle J. Making health habitual: The psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. Br J Gen Pract. 2012;62(605):664–666.
- Adams RV, Blair E. Impact of Time Management Behaviors on Undergraduate Engineering Students’ Performance. SAGE Open. 2019.