Feel like hibernating? The transition from autumn to winter and what it does to your body

We at Humanoo have deliberately dedicated this month to the #winterblues. It’s impossible to deny: everything appears a bit grey. This has a noticeable effect on us and the mood within the team.

In our last blog article we looked at what the transition period is all about and which myths and natural processes can help us to better understand this time.

Today’s theme will be entirely dedicated to our body and mind. How does our body react when it has less energy and what are the biochemical processes that take place — without us even noticing?

Our last article on #winterblues offered practical tips on how to get through this dark season and how to take sufficient care of yourself so that you can take on the spring full of energy again.

Light as our energy source: Why we can’t live without light

Every living creature needs light to grow and stay healthy, be it trees, plants, animals, or humans. Survival without sunlight is therefore not even possible — your house plants are a prime example of this.

Sunlight has a significant impact on biochemical processes in our organism. For example, it controls our sleep-wake cycle, which is why we quickly feel tired when it gets dark and why we automatically want to wake up when it’s light in the room. This is the reason why sleep scientists recommend ensuring that your room is dark when you go to bed, to enable you to enter the deep sleep phase.

Light irradiation can be physically measured in units of lux. As a comparison, the light on a grey, rainy winter day is around 3,500 lux while the light on a bright summer day can reach up to 100,000 (!) lux. Just think how that affects your body.

The sleep hormone melatonin helps keep hormone levels in balance.

When our bodies are exposed to less light in the autumn and winter, they start to produce more of the sleep hormone melatonin. At the same time, our bodies produce less of the happiness hormone serotonin — more on that later.

Now, try and feel your way into your body: it’s transitioning right now and getting much less of the fuel it so urgently needs to survive: light!

This is forcing it to change the processes within. It’s particularly during this transition period that you’re likely to feel more tired than usual. Doctors are quick to call it ‘winter depression’ despite the fact that the body is simply becoming accustomed to the new situation one step at a time.

According to experts, it takes about two to three cold spells for the body to get used to the change. However, you can also help yourself by making sure that you spend plenty of time outdoors and allow your body to get enough light.

It’s interesting to note that at 55 percent, women react more sensitively to the days being darker than men do, which makes them more susceptible to the ‘winter blues’. The figure for men is 46 percent. All in all, 51 percent of those responding to a YouGov poll said that they suffered from mood swings in the autumn.

We’re not just imagining it: Why we want to sleep more on grey days

When it gets dark earlier and our bodies produce more melatonin, our need for sleep can’t help but be affected. The shorter the days, the more we feel like staying snuggled up in our beds and not getting up at all.

After all, darkness tells the body that it’s time to go to bed. Just think about how people used to live before the advent of electric light. They went to bed promptly once the sun had set and woke up at dawn. This is precisely what your body is trying to tell you on such days: go to bed!

Sleep researchers have hypothesised that the darkness could ‘change’ the time on our inner clock. Our bodies are confused and find it hard to tell the difference between day and night. This can mean that you never feel really awake during the transition period and aren’t able to sleep at night. This is another area where exercise can help. After all — as we’ve now learnt — being exposed to more light can reduce the amount of melatonin our bodies produce which automatically makes us feel less tired.

On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with treating yourself to more sleep on grey autumn days than you would in the spring or summer.

Serotonin: our brain experiences the seasons too

The more tired we are, the less serotonin – the hormone that makes us jump for joy and feel happy – our bodies produce.

Canadian scientists have found a link between the ‘winter blues’ and serotonin production. After all, a lack of serotonin in the brain is frequently what causes patients to be diagnosed as having depression. In their findings, they name the following causes:

  • increased nutrient intake 
  • less available energy
  • increased tiredness
  • more time spent sleeping 

The scientists discovered a protein that behaves differently depending on the season and affects our mood. It’s controlled by light and is significantly more active on days when the levels of light are lower than it is in the spring or summer. This protein is capable of transporting the happiness hormone serotonin and ‘accompanying’ it from our brain throughout the autumn and winter. As a result, our moods are much worse than on bright days and we are more prone to feeling down.

This particularly affects sensitive, more fragile people and makes them more melancholic. Here too, the solution is to treat yourself to as much light as possible!

Vitamin D: a lack of sun affects your bones and your immune system

Sunlight is responsible for producing vitamin D in the body. This in turn strengthens our bones and muscles and ensures that our immune system works properly. And that, as we know, is particularly important at this time of year.

Some studies even confirm that vitamin D is essential for our cardiovascular health and that it minimises the risk of serious illnesses such as diabetes or cancer. A lack of vitamin D makes you feel weak and listless.

The trouble is, it becomes more and more difficult to get your daily dose of vitamin D when the days get darker faster.

Again, spending lots of time outside in the fresh air can help. To allow your body to absorb as much vitamin D as possible, it’s worth ensuring that not only your face is exposed to the sun, but also your lower arms and neck. Just make a point of rolling up your sleeves and taking off your scarf. The more skin you expose to the sun the better your vitamin D levels will be.

When your weight fluctuates in autumn: no need to panic

Many people get a shock when they see the scales suddenly go up in the autumn. Just like with other processes in the body, our weight adapts to seasonal conditions. As we’ve already learnt in this article, it’s essentially a result of a change in what we eat combined with reduced amounts of exercise due to a boost in melatonin production.

Have you, for example, noticed that you feel much less like eating on warm summer days than you do on grey autumn days?

Because we feel more like snuggling up under a warm duvet, we go out less than we would in the spring or summer — and we automatically sleep more. As a result, we burn fewer calories which leads to weight gain.

You’re sure to have also noticed that your body craves carbohydrates more in the autumn and winter than it does the rest of the year. Experts have found a connection to the production of serotonin that we described above — our so-called ‘happiness hormone’. Consuming carbohydrates boosts serotonin production which makes us feel better.

The body also demands more food because it wants to build up fat reserves to keep your body temperature at a healthy level even when the temperatures outside are lower. Quite clever, don’t you think?

So, if your scales show you to be 0.5 or 1 kilo above your ideal weight for no apparent reason, there’s no need to panic. Instead, thank your body for setting processes in motion to make sure you’re well taken care of. Your weight will generally balance out again by the spring at the latest.

So, how will you look after your body from now on?

We hope this article has shown you what a miracle your body is. Without you ever really noticing, your body is doing all sorts of work in the background during this transition period that will help make you stronger and get you through the dark days.

It’s only natural that the transition from winter to spring and spring to summer feels easier. Everything feels lighter and easier and we feel that something amazing is awaiting us. We break out of the darkness and literally jump out to see the light of day. Nature participates just as much, making everything green and colourful again.

The switch from summer to autumn and from autumn to winter, however, has another reputation. The bright days come to an end and darkness comes knocking at a door that we absolutely don’t want to open. Deep down, we know that it brings with it a time of introspection and retreat. All our surroundings become grey and dull. We start to have negative feelings and even our bodies don’t want to keep up the way we’re used to.

Many of us experience this transition completely unconsciously and are then, naturally, all the more struck by the ‘symptoms’ that go with it.

However, it can also be nice to take a conscious look inside yourself while at the same time watching what’s happening on the outside. You’ll quickly notice that the outside is often an image of what’s taking place on the inside.

This is what can help us change perspectives and become the observer, to observe our organism and spirit, and to appreciate it for what it goes through for us every year.

We wish you a happy winter,
Your Humanoo Team 

Written by HUMANOO Experts Team

Originally published on 6. November 2020

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