Many disorders of modern life—from insomnia to unhealthy weight gain to anxiety to chronic stress and burnout—are in some way the result of our disconnect from natural, seasonal rhythms. Throughout most of human history, people lived in synchrony with nature’s cycles and adjusted their behavior to the seasons—increasing their activity in spring and summer…and hunkering down in fall and winter to conserve and restore their energy. They shifted their sleep schedules based on the changing times of sunrise and sunset…ate foods available in season…and took part in physical and social activities adapted to the weather and available light.
But our increasingly technology-mediated way of life has separated us from those rhythms. We spend our days indoors in artificial light…and go to bed long past sunset and skimp on sleep. We import tropical fruits and eat them in the middle of winter…and we follow the same exercise routine year-round.
Instead of balancing summer’s long days and short nights with extended periods of calm and restoration during winter, we act as though we are living in perpetual summer and giving ourselves no opportunity to recharge. We override the body’s natural drives for alternating periods of intensity and rest. Our always-on way of life leaves us stretched thin, exhausted and unrecovered.
Bottom Line Personal spoke with functional medicine practitioner Dallas Hartwig, PT, author of The 4 Season Solution, about how synchronizing our lives with nature’s cycles can improve our health, energy and well-being year-round.
Spring and summer are times of expansion. In spring, the snow melts and new growth starts to appear. Fresh, fast-growing vegetables and leafy greens are abundant. As the weather gets warmer, we are attracted to physical activity, meeting new people, exploring new places and indulging our curiosity. As the days lengthen into summer, we spend more time outdoors, and the drive for activity becomes more pronounced. To fuel all this stimulation, our bodies crave foods that are light but energy-dense, such as cherries, berries, nectarines and other high-sugar fruit.
Fall and winter are seasons of contraction. Summer’s variety of fresh produce is gradually replaced by starchier fruits and vegetables, such as apples, carrots and potatoes. Our appetites shift toward stews, roasts and other higher-fat, protein-rich foods. Vigorous physical activity becomes less appealing. The more superficial, widespread and busy social connections of the warmer months give way to the motivation to deeply connect with people who matter most to us.
WHERE TO START
To reconnect with the body’s seasonal wisdom, start with the season you are in. Consider making small shifts in key areas of daily life—sleeping, eating, physical exercise and social connection. Each has an impact on the others, so it may not be difficult to make small shifts in all four areas at once.
Bring a spirit of experimentation to the venture. There is no one-size-fits-all prescription for seasonal living. Even if you focus on one of the four areas, you likely will see improvements in your energy, mood and mental focus in just a few months, and that will motivate you to make changes in other areas as well.
Experiment with seasonal shifts…
Sleeping: Sunrise and sunset have a profound influence on our body’s daily and seasonal rhythms, which are highly responsive to light. Gradually shift your waking time closer to sunrise and your bedtime closer to sunset as those times change throughout the year. This will help you fall asleep more easily, sleep more soundly and wake up more refreshed.
You don’t have to go to bed at sundown—a 5:00 pm bedtime in winter would not be practical for most people. But make adjustments after sunset to support the body’s natural inclination to wind down and prepare for rest. Examples: After dark, avoid stressful situations such as intense exercise, reading work-related e-mails or having difficult conversations with family members. Dim the lights. Let yourself enjoy the sensation of settling into a safe place.
Reminder: Avoid looking at your phone and other electronic devices in the evening. The blue light emitted by screens suppresses the body’s production of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin.
During summer, indulge your impulse to stay up late and pack more activities into the daylight hours. Don’t force yourself to go to bed early if you aren’t sleepy. Humans can have long days without negative health consequences for a few months—as long as they spend extended time in restorative mode during winter.
To help your body adjust to seasonal sleep rhythms: Spend a few minutes outdoors in morning light soon after you get up. Receptors in the eyes are especially sensitive to this bright morning light, and exposing yourself to it in the morning activates hormonal responses that help you feel more alert during the day and sleepy at night. Between 10 and 30 minutes of exposure to natural light calibrates your body’s internal state to the natural environment.
Eating: Become familiar with seasonal foods by shopping at local farmers’ markets. By eating mostly what is in season, you will eat far fewer highly processed foods, which tend to be high in calories but low in nutrients.
The Western diet is heavily weighted toward carbohydrates all year long. But our bodies are better suited to seasonal variations in the proportions of carbohydrate, fat and protein. In summer, with so many fresh fruits and vegetables available, it’s easy and healthy to eat more carbohydrates relative to fat and protein. During colder months, eat more root vegetables and indulge the natural desire for hearty foods higher in fat and protein, such as meat, poultry and nuts. Bonus: Eating more minimally processed food causes your digestive system to work harder, breaking food down slowly and increasing the sensation of satiety.
Movement: Many people alternate between exercise extremes. They spend most of the day sitting. Then, when they do move, they push themselves hard at one or two types of exercise, overworking some muscles and joints and neglecting others. The key to seasonal movement is to vary intensity and duration.
During summer, we are naturally drawn to low-intensity activities that go on for extended periods—leisurely walks and hikes, swimming, gardening, playing catch with the children or grandchildren. In winter, when it’s natural to spend more time indoors, shorter bouts of movement such as high-intensity interval training are appropriate.
Enjoy seasonal activities such as skating, skiing and snowshoeing in winter…and rowing and mountain biking in summer. This variety will ensure that you work different muscle groups. Throughout the year, build core strength with yoga, calisthenics and/or weight training.
Connection: The expansiveness of spring and summer encourages novelty and entertainment in our socializing. We travel and meet new people, go to barbecues and concerts, and spend time with groups with whom we have fairly superficial connections.
Fall and winter encourage us to slow down and deepen our connections to the circle of people who matter most to us. More physical proximity creates opportunities for unhurried conversation. In addition to building relationships with others, we can deepen our connection to ourselves and our spiritual yearnings through contemplative activities such as reading, meditating and journaling.