Part II: Winter

Bianca Garilli, ND

To Everything There is a Season. From some of the world’s first writings until now, we know there is a time for everything – the yin and the yang, a time to rejoice and a time to rest. The seasonal change of Nature gently nudges us towards winter through the dazzling change of colors on the maple trees and the last hurried gathering of acorns by squirrels and then more forcibly through the bitter cold winds, blowing walls of snow and brilliantly sunlit icicles frozen solid from buildings, branches and cliff-sides. Winter has arrived. The time has arrived for rest, for turning inwards, for gathering strength, and for nourishing the soul and personal growth.

Since the very beginning, humankind has understood the importance of following the cycles of the earth and sun; after all, it was these changes which indicated to the early agrarian societies when seeds should be sowed, when plants should be watered, when foliage should be allowed to die back, when crops should be harvested and when the ground should rest. In our high-tech world, the importance of these seasonal variations has been academically lost – we study the seasons as they relate to holidays or vacations but rarely are the impacts on the human body and culture discussed in school or home. Yet, intuitively, if we were to listen to our inner voice, we would know that the seasons shift our inner physical and emotional bodies and we often experience a fluctuation of our health and wellbeing with the normal rhythm of the year.

There are myriad of environmental factors which may influence this physiological shift in our bodies in relationship to the changing of the seasons, or in other words – how the environment speaks to our genes. We call this “epigenetics”. These epigenetic factors may include reduced sunlight duration, angle and intensity, the exposure to cold temperatures, and changes in the types of foods that we eat throughout the winter. The thyroid gland is not immune to the changing of the seasons, either. In fact, research shows that levels of TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) typically rise slightly as vitamin D levels dip and as the weather changes from fall to winter. With this slight elevation in TSH we might experience a lowering of energy, an increased need for sleep and rest and a shift from outwardly focused energy to a more internally directed reflection.

The dip in vitamin D production due to lower sunlight exposure may negatively impact production of other hormones in the body such as serotonin, our feel-good hormone, which can lead to symptoms of depression. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a common occurrence during winter due to various epigenetic factors, particularly this low-level sunlight exposure with latitude playing a major role. An estimated 10 to 20 percent of recurrent depression cases follow the seasonal pattern of SAD according to an overview on the topic published in 2000 with an estimated prevalence ranging from 9.7% in New Hampshire to 1.4 % in Florida.

Other health challenges during the winter include increased frequency of colds, flu and auto-immune flare ups. Some of these changes in health can be viewed as a normal response to the change of seasons including an increased risk for colds or a need for more sleep and less activity. On the other hand, there are other symptoms and conditions which can greatly affect our daily living negatively including auto-immune flare ups and SAD diagnoses.

In some cases, a pharmaceutical approach is most helpful and appropriate and should be discussed with your healthcare provider. However, in other cases, there are natural approaches which often reduce the intensity of some of these natural changes while still allowing the body to move with the cycle of the seasons.

Here are some time-tested natural approaches to staying balanced through the coldest and darkest months of the year.

Morning Light Therapy

Many people find that the use of early morning light therapy has a tremendous impact on supporting emotional and mental well-being during times of low light in the winter. Most commonly the light is used to simulate dawn helping to lower melatonin levels and encouraging an earlier and easier transition from sleeping to being awake.

Supplements

Have your vitamin D levels tested every year around this time and supplement as necessary to optimize your levels. Recent research has also pointed towards a benefit in maintaining optimal levels of omega-3 fatty acids for optimal serotonin production. This can be supplemented through store bought capsules and liquids or alternatively, increasing intake of foods high in omega-3s. To support your thyroid, consider thyroid supporting nutrients such as selenium and iodine; again, discuss this with your healthcare provider to determine appropriate dosing and formulations as well as routine lab testing.

Sunlight

Arnold Rikli (1823-1906) heralded as the “Sun Doctor” and discoverer of the Atmospheric Cure wrote, “Water is good; air is better, but light is best of all.” Make it a routine to “sunbathe” through a glass window if the weather is too cold or more preferably outside on a walk, run or simply sitting in direct sunlight for 15-20 minutes each day during the winter whenever sunlight is available.

Nourishment

Winter is the time when sugar, alcohol and processed foods are ubiquitous in both home, work and community environments. Be sure that you limit these foods as they provide little to no nutritional value and will quickly pack on the pounds and leave you feeling groggy and heavy. Instead, continue to shop locally and to eat seasonally utilizing warming and nourishing foods. These include squashes, pumpkins, oranges and clementine, grapefruit and pomelos; robust greens like endive and cruciferous veggies such as brussel sprouts, cabbages, cauliflower, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, rutabaga, and turnips.

Grass fed meats and cold water fish, especially salmon provide healthy omega-3 fatty acids and wonderful sources of protein during the cold months as well. Nuts are another highly nutritious food group to keep on hand for a quick and easy snack or to mix in with breakfast and main meals. Keep in mind that many of the seasonal foods of winter are high in calories so minding the quantities you eat if your exercise levels are not as high as in the summer will be helpful.

Selenium-rich foods, to help optimize thyroid function include many common seafood choices (tuna, salmon, shrimp), cruciferous vegetables, brown rice and mushrooms. For a complete list see World’s Healthiest Foods website.

Foods rich in iodine for additional thyroid function support include seawater vegetables like kelp and other forms of seaweed, navy beans, cranberries, high-quality yogurt and organic potatoes.

Interesting that many of these selenium and iodine rich foods are considered seasonal in the winter as well!

To Everything There is a Season

Viewing the minor shifts in your physical and emotional well-being as in alignment with the changing of the seasons allows for a less alarmist reaction and instead, reminds us that we really are a part of nature and are tightly connected with our environment. Our bodies, without conscious knowledge or effort, attempt to flow and stay in balance with the circannual rhythm of the seasons. What we CAN do on a conscious level is to recognize these shifts, normalize them and support our bodies and minds by slightly altering our daily lives, habits and thought patterns to better move with this normal and ever-fluctuating cycle. It becomes the delicate, yet joyful balance between the age-old wisdom of nature and our genes and today’s world of high-tech, fast-paced, action-oriented living.

Bringing the knowledge from yesterday into the world of today is key and with intentional effort, can be utilized for optimization of your health and happiness.

Wishing You and Yours a very Healthful, Joyous, Calming and Strengthening Winter Season.

Dr. Garilli is a former US Marine turned Naturopathic Doctor. She runs a private practice in Folsom, California where she specializes in treating and preventing chronic disease states through a personalized lifestyle approach including nutrition, exercise, botanical medicine and homeopathy.

In addition to private practice, she consults with nutritional supplement companies and integrative medical clinics on case studies, professional consultations and educational program development. Dr. Garilli is a member of the faculty at Hawthorn University and a founding board member for the CA Chapter of the Children’s Heart Foundation. Dr. Garilli lives in Northern California with her husband, children and four backyard chickens.

References

  1. Ecclesiastic 3:1, King James Version, Holy Bible.
  2. Barchetta, I. TSH levels are associated with vitamin D status and seasonality in an adult population of euthyroid adults. Clin Exp Med. 2015 Aug;15(3):389-96.
  3. Lambert GW, Reid C, Kaye DM, Jennings GL, Esler MD. Effect of sunlight and season on serotonin turnover in the brain. Lancet. 2002 Dec 7;360(9348):1840-2.
  4. Patrick RP, Ames BN. Vitamin D and the omega-3 fatty acids control serotonin synthesis and action, part 2: relevance for ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and impulsive behavior. The FASEB Journal.vol. 29 no. 6 2207-2222.
  5. Magnusson A. An overview of epidemiological studies on seasonal affective disorder. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 2000;101:176–84. 
  6. Rosen L, Targum S, Terman M, et al. Prevalence of seasonal affective disorder at four latitudes. Psychiatry Res. 1990;31:131–44. 
  7. Patrick RP, Ames BN. Vitamin D and the omega-3 fatty acids control serotonin synthesis and action, part 2: relevance for ADHD, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and impulsive behavior. The FASEB Journal.vol. 29 no. 6 2207-2222.
  8. Kirchfeld F, Boyle W. Nature Doctors Pioneers in Naturopathic Medicine. Portland, Oregon: Medicina Biologica; 2000: 55.
  9. World’s Healthiest Foods http://www.whfoods.com/genpage.php?dbid=95&tname=nutrient
  10. Global Healing Center http://www.globalhealingcenter.com/natural-health/iodine-foods/ 7 Foods Rich in Iodine by Dr. Edward Group DC, NP, DACBN, DCBCN, DABFM
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