Fall brings with it a sense of change: summer festivities and activities come to an end and we start thinking about turkey dinners, the weather turns colder and we pull out our winter wardrobe, and at Resident Doctors of BC our committees reform with new members, and we welcome a new Board of Directors. But changes aren’t just happening around you, they are happening internally too.
In most of BC, we spend the majority of the year facing cold wet days and colder nights. So when summer rolls around, we are eager to take advantage of the nice weather and spend much of our time outside. Add to that the readily available fresh ingredients to make creative salads and sizzling BBQs, and summer easily becomes the healthiest time of year. While remnants of summer’s sunshine and warmth continue into the early days of October, cooler nights and falling leaves tell us that autumn is well and truly here. And with autumn comes all sorts of seasonal effects on our bodies.
For starters, longer nights means less sunlight, and weaker sunlight. Considering also our penchant for staying indoors to avoid the unfavorable weather, you are almost guaranteed to be vitamin D-deficient during the winter months. Almost all of our natural vitamin D comes from sun exposure (ultraviolet B rays) to the skin, but being so far north means insufficient UVB levels for vitamin D production for up to seven months of the year. Your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium and create strong bones. Additionally, studies have indicated that vitamin D aids in regulating the immune system and improving muscle function, as well as aiding in the prevention of other diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Though these additional benefits are still under debate, it is undeniable that vitamin D is essential for good health.
So how do you ensure you are getting enough vitamin D during the dark months of the year? If you can’t afford a vacation getaway to warmer (sunnier) climates, you can can go the dietary route; vitamin D can be found in fatty fish (such as salmon, mackerel, catfish, and canned tuna), cod liver oil, beef liver, egg yolks, and fortified milk or orange juice. Alternatively, you can take a vitamin D supplement, which is likely the surest way to ensure you are getting enough.
With the autumn equinox now past, nights are getting longer and, even with the end of Daylight Savings Time on November 6th, you will likely still find yourself rising before the sun on work days, which certainly doesn’t make for a fully alert wakening. Light has a strong effect on alertness and vitality, so with the onset of Fall this means you may find yourself sleeping longer and feeling sluggish during the day as your body produces more melatonin in response to the decreased light. Unfortunately, we don’t have the option to hibernate until Spring, so make a conscious effort to keep a good sleep schedule: Don’t eat dinner late, go to bed at a reasonable time, and help yourself fall asleep by establishing a “wind down” routine – do meditation or relaxing yoga (avoid invigorating exercise), take a warm bath, drink a non-caffeinated tea (such as chamomile), turn off your television and computer, read in bed, prepare for the next day (so you aren’t thinking about your “to do” list while trying to fall asleep), or listen to soft music. The sleep cycle is 90 minutes long, so try to time your bedtime so your alarm clock is going off at the end of the sleep cycle, rather than halfway through and pulling you out of a deep sleep and ensure you are getting quality sleep by maintaining your summer exercise regime. Wear layers to help you feel comfortable outside, and take advantage of clear days to go hiking or biking – the cool air combined with exercise can be revitalizing. And when it gets cold enough there will be snow sports to keep you entertained and active. If you prefer not to brave the outdoors, join a fitness class at your local community recreation centre, swim in a heated indoor pool, or try working out at home.
Starting with Thanksgiving this past weekend, Fall and Winter bring with them the “food” holidays; turkey, potatoes, chocolate, pie – all that is sweet, starchy, heavy and hot. Add to the fact that we tend to naturally crave comfort foods in the colder months, and weight gain seems to be unavoidable. Back in the days when there was no central heating, the weight gain may have been appreciated. But these days, the extra pounds just lead to guilty New Year’s resolutions for diet and exercise.
If you’d rather focus your New Year’s resolutions on a different topic this year, make sure you avoid gaining weight by starting early. Satisfy your comfort food cravings by heating up the light meals you were eating in the summer: steam raw vegetables, swap cereal for warm porridge, toast your sandwiches, and change up your salad ingredients for more seasonal ones. Get organized in the kitchen by planning your meals in advance and avoiding eating out. Make extra of meals that reheat or freeze well for days you don’t feel like cooking, and keep some healthy soup on hand as a warm snack, appetizer or even a quick meal. Establish a good exercise regime and sleep schedule that you can maintain through the winter months. Take advantage of sunny days to get some fresh air – you may not get much in the way of vitamin D from the weak Northern sunlight, but you will still find the crisp air and light makes you feel refreshed, especially if you are doing a physical activity at the same time.
When the holidays and inevitable parties finally do roll around, make sure you aren’t going to the parties hungry. Eat high fiber fruits and vegetables before hand so you aren’t filling up on the holiday baking when you arrive. Don’t torture yourself by avoiding all the holiday goodies, but make sure you aren’t overindulging. When it comes to big turkey dinner, load your plate with lean protein and vegetables instead, and limit the high-calorie dishes (mashed potatoes, gravy and stuffing) to very small servings. Alcohol also contains a lot of empty calories and slows your metabolism, so keep that in mind when pouring yourself a second or third glass of mulled wine. The key is to not give yourself permission to gain weight by using the excuse that it’s winter and therefore okay.
We’ve all heard of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), or in it’s milder form, the “winter blues.” Dark, cold, rainy days can leave you with the desire to hide under the covers until summer returns. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Our autumn might be short, but it can be beautiful with all the changing leaves, so take advantage of the clear days to get out and enjoy it! Bundle up in a warm scarf and go for walks or picnics with friends. Dust off the board games and sit down for an old fashioned game night over Scrabble, Monopoly or Risk. Throw a fondue party, a fun and easy communal dish (don’t forget the veggies!). Take advantage of your time indoors to do some organizing – eliminate summer clothing you didn’t wear or is worn out, redecorate the guest bath or dining area in preparation for holiday guests, make space for the presents you’ll be getting, or sort through your photos and put together a photo album.
As the weather changes, the leaves turn from green to red, and the air conditioners are replaced with heaters, not all changes are bad. You will soon have snowy slopes to look forward to, and though you might spend more time indoors, but you can fill those indoors with friends and family. Use this time to reconnect, and fulfill or make goals that will keep you motivated through the new year.