Ancient advice for health during Winter says “Desires and mental activity should be kept quiet and subdued, as if keeping a happy secret. Stay warm, avoid the cold, and keep the skin covered.” With the cold weather, hibernation of animals, decrease in plant life, and few daylight hours, winter was the toughest season to maintain health in the ancient world.
Even though the #1 New Year Resolution is weight loss, the winter months really aren’t ideal to try and lose weight. Why? Because human health has long been considered to be closely tied to nature. As organic creatures, it stands to reason that we humans are affected, directly and indirectly, by the natural environment including weather, climate, or duration of daylight.
These factors, particularly less daylight and our natural instinct to hibernate, make losing weight more difficult and frustrating which leads us to give up on that goal altogether. Less sunlight means we aren’t getting as much vitamin D. It appears that lack of vitamin D reduces fat breakdown and triggers fat storage—so calories you consume are stored in fat cells rather than being used for energy. A second factor is an increase in melatonin, the hormone that signals your body that it is time to sleep, and is triggered by darkness. Since winter means less hours of daylight, melatonin levels tend to increase and increased melatonin is associated with increased appetite. It can feel like a losing battle.
Spring is really the best time to focus on weight loss because we are getting more daylight and we naturally want to be outside and move more. So for the next month or two, you’ll be better off conserving your energy so that you can really put your focus on more movement and weight loss (if that’s one of your resolutions) when Spring arrives.
But that said, there are some things you can do to improve your health during the winter months.
- Focus on improving sleep. Take advantage of fewer daylight hours and your natural circadian rhythm. Rise with the sunrise and go to bed when the sun goes down (or soon after). As we sleep, our body replenishes and heals our organs helping to keep us healthy and stores energy to be used during the day. See my last newsletter here for more ideas on improving your sleep. And then check out this video I just posted.
- Work on building inner strength. Meditation, yoga, breathing exercises and qi gong are all great tools that help us to do this. We are advised to avoid sweating during the coldest months, as this is thought to cause injury to the kidney energy, an internal energy considered to be the “fire of life” that we should strive to preserve because when it burns out, we are dead. This fire of life is also what fuels our digestive fire or metabolism. Interestingly each of these gentle exercise activities can also improve symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a disorder that arises during winter for many people and can cause seasonal depression. Here are some local and online class suggestions for yoga and qi gong.
- Eat Seasonally. Chinese medicine strongly believes that it’s always best to eat seasonally. Produce that is currently in season is often the food that best addresses seasonal complaints and fuels our internal fire of life. In winter, root vegetables such as turnips, rutabaga, and carrots are ideal (and also taste great in hot stews during cold weather). A visit to the local farmers market will clue you in on what’s in season. Warming meats include lamb, venison, beef, duck and chicken. Other foods to try this winter include cinnamon, fennel seeds, walnuts, raspberries, and adzuki beans. Foods should be organic where possible and mostly eaten cooked and warm – think soups and stews.
So hold off on worrying about weight loss. Come Spring you’ll be ready to tackle your weight loss goals and you’ll find it much easier to accomplish. By focusing on building health now, you may find this will be your healthiest year ever.