The clock reads quarter to six, and the sun has already slid behind the mountains. Outside the window, the horizon is illuminated in a pale violet light with the trees silhouetted against it like dancers on a stage. The black outline of the mountains snakes behind them – and while this makes for a stunning scene, it is too soon to be engulfed in darkness. By tomorrow, when the clocks have been turned back, the sun will already be an hour gone by now.
While this does mean one glorious extra hour to stay curled up in bed, it also means that majority of us are going to and from work in complete darkness. No more leisurely afternoon walks in the sun, or dinners drawn out till twilight on the back porch. Our precious hours of sunlight are seen through a window as we work, and the rest of life is defined in darkness.
For many of us, this is not an easy prospect to deal with. And perhaps it shouldn’t be: if we lived lives more in tune with the rhythms of the earth, our workdays and lifestyles would be more reflective of the length of daylight hours. We would be more like the bears, I think, taking the winter’s cue to rest and rejuvenate in the cozy warmth of our caves, until the warmth of spring sunshine riled us up again. But what with electricity and light bulbs, humans have been able to conquer the limitations of darkness and cold, keeping our activity levels independent from the whims of nature. We buzz at a constant rate with no mind for what the earth and the rest of nature (not to mention our bodies) are up to.
All of us our affected in our own ways by the transition into darkness, and some people struggle deeply. About 1 in 20 of us develop a type of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (or SAD, ironically), that reflects a lack of adaptation to the shorter length of day and diminished exposure to sunlight. For these people, the days of winter become a personal hell of gloominess and despair, relieved only by the return of sunshine in the Spring. The rest of us might just find ourselves more irritable, tired and sensitive than normal.
Reframing our perceptions of darkness
So what are we to do during these dark times, besides despairing in our own uniquely creative ways? For starters, I think we need to re-frame the way we think about darkness. The word itself has so many negative connotations in our modern understanding – light is good, darkness is bad, evil even. With the high value placed on productivity and accomplishment in our culture (we spend more time working than any other industrialized nation), and the dim views taken of illness, rest or any other sort of such “laziness”, there’s really no surprise that we have trouble grasping the value held in the dark half of the year.
For more traditional cultures ,who lived according to the rhythms of the earth, the winter and the darkness were all about rest. There was an understanding of the necessary equality between two opposite forces – the yin and yang, dark and light, masculine and feminine – to create balance in the world, and continue the cycles of life. When the dark times of winter came, these cultures viewed the winter months as a time to rejuvenate from the outwards moving, masculine energy of the summer months by moving into the nurturing, feminine and introspective energy of the dark. Just as we are active in day, and dream and rest at night, the same is true for summer and winter. The feminine energy of darkness invites imagination and visioning, helping to prepare for the coming day as much as the coming year.
But no matter how poetic and lovely it is to view winter as resting time, I can honestly say that not many of us are going to start hibernating anytime soon – hitting the sac at 4 or 5pm when the sun sets. So, we must embrace some other methods to keep ourselves healthy in body and spirit as we struggle to adjust to the rhythms of nature that our lives no longer move to. Here are a few suggestions that might be useful to you:
Finding light in the dark
St. Johnswort: This yellow flowered herb that blooms right around the summer solstice is the perfect tonic to take during the dark months, when we suffer from lack of light in our gloomy winter days. Embodying the energy of the summer sun, St. Johnswort works by mimicking the effects of sunshine on our moods, increasing the levels of the hormone serotonin, whose production is stimulated by light exposure. (Serotonin plays an important role in mood regulation, and levels are often deficient in those who complain of SAD.) The components of the plant considered most active in this process, hypericin and hyperforin, are best extracted in alcohol – so a tincture is the best bet. Try 1/2 teaspoon twice a day, first thing in the morning and again at noon. Teas can also be used, but will be less potent in their effects.
Note: Because St. Johnswort does impact the metabolism of certain medications by the liver, it is imperative that you consult your doctor before using if you take any medications. Ask if your medication dosage can be adjusted (St. J typically increases the rate of metabolism and therefore the dosage you would need).
Light exposure: As soon as the sun comes up, get outside and expose yourself to the light for at least 15 minutes. The light will activate the pineal gland in the brain to up the secretion of serotonin, and will program your circadian rhythm (your body’s 24 hour clock) according to the sunrise, helping your body adjust to the winter light cycles. (Just to note, taking a dosage of St. Johnswort before you go out will help to enhance your sensitivity to the sunlight, increasing the effects that much more!) If getting outside just isn’t an option for you, you can try a light box instead, but be sure to look for one that offers 10,000 lux at a reasonable distance (at least 10-12 inches).
Movement: While getting your 10-15 minutes of sunlight exposure, you can simultaneously get some exercise, whether you walk, snow shoe or go for a cross-country ski. Movement is an important part of resting, believe it or not! It relaxes your nervous system, dispels the effects of stress on the body, and enhances the production of mood enhancing endorphins. Shoot for 20 minutes of heart raising activity – such as a walk with some hills, or interval running and walking – along with some form of stretching and strengthening exercise (yoga), at least 4 days per week.
Routine: Since we can’t easily go to bed when the sun sets and get up when the sun rises as our ancestors did, it is imperative that we provide our bodies with as much routine as possible around circadian rhythm. Try to go to bed at a similar time each evening, and get up at the same time each day. This allows your body to create its own rhythm. And even if you can’t go to bed at sunset, try to make your bedtime a little earlier to reflect the increased length of night. Getting 8-10 hours of sleep in winter is normal and probably healthy – reflecting the increased repair needed to offset the stress of the cold, wintry environment.
Celebration: I think it’s no coincidence that humans have always felt the need to gather together and celebrate in the middle of winter. We need the sense of community and the prospect of things to look forward to provide the warmth in our spirits that is absent from our world. But celebrations don’t end or begin with the holiday season: you can celebrate whenever you choose. Have group dinners with friends, go on day trips to places you’ve always wanted to explore, buy yourself some flowers! Find ways to celebrate every day of the winter, even if they are small – finding joy in the simplest things means you will always be joyful.
Nourishment: One symptom of serotonin deficiency is the craving for carbohydrates: a dangerous thing when we enter the holiday season of cookies and cakes. While increases in blood sugar temporarily enhance the production of serotonin, the simple or refined carbohydrates (flour, sugar, etc) will cause blood sugar imbalances and nutrient deficiencies that will further destabilize your mood and weaken your nervous system. Choose complex carbohydrates instead (and I’m talking whole grains, fruits and vegetables here) that will slowly elevate your blood sugar over time, and provide lots of nutrients and antioxidants to boot! (For more info on dealing with sugar cravings, check out my posts on overcoming the blood sugar blues, part 1 and part 2).
Other important nutrients include:
- Tryptophan rich foods (such as dairy, most meats, nuts and seeds, whole grains and beans). Tryptophan is the building block for serotonin, which can help boost your levels. Try to consume these foods daily.
- Omega 3’s – EPA and DHA, two important omega 3 fatty acids, are important in nervous system function and the manufacture of the myelin sheath, which surrounds neurons and improves their functioning. Consume several tablespoons of freshly ground flax each day, a serving of cold water fish several times a week, and daily servings of walnuts. A supplement may also be helpful – look for a reputed brand such as Nordic Naturals.
- Vitamin D – Called the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D has numerous functions in the body, ranging from building bone to enhancing immune function and regulating mood. Start with 2000 IU per day, or have your blood levels tested at your next physical exam to determine the right dosage.
Hopefully, as the days continue to grow darker and colder, you will find some ways for yourself to cultivate the light that seems so absent, letting the warmth of your own spirit and the sacredness of the dark sustain you until the sun returns it’s cheerful gaze upon us.