Circadian Rhythms and Your Internal Clock: 4 Ways to Sync with the Winter Season

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The winter blahs are not all in your head! The time of year between the winter holidays and the rebirth of spring can bring them on. Shifting seasons, less daylight, and colder weather lead to more time spent indoors, and a tendency to be less active can push your mood, hormones, and mindset out of balance.

There are biological and physiological explanations for why seasonal shifts and the cooler temperatures and darker days of winter can leave you feeling less energetic, cause an irregular appetite, impact your sleep, and make you feel down during the winter months. 

Many people experience these changes with the shifting seasons; some are extra susceptible to the mood-influencing effects of seasonal shifts. In fact, up to 4 percent to 6 percent of Americans experience symptoms severe enough to warrant a clinical diagnosis of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that is affected by seasonal change. And up to 20 percent suffer from milder cases of the winter blues.

How Your Body Keeps Time: Circadian Rhythms and Your Internal Master Clock

Circadian rhythms, your internal clock, operate on a roughly 24-hour cycle and influence when you begin to feel sleepy, when you wake up, and when you carry out various bodily processes. You have an internal clock that coordinates your circadian rhythms. This cycle is so noteworthy that the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young for “discoveries that explain how plants, animals, and humans adapt their biological rhythms so that they are synchronized with the Earth’s revolutions,” according to the Nobel Committee’s citation.

These circadian rhythms are regulated by a group of nerves in the hypothalamus of the brain known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or your master clock. This signaling center responds primarily to environmental cues, such as light and dark exposure and air temperature, to trigger the release of hormones, regulate temperature, and influence metabolism, sleep, and mood.

When everything is in balance and you keep regular sleeping and eating schedules, your body can run like clockwork. For example, your body temperature rises just before dawn to help you feel alert and ready to wake up, and drops at night to help promote sleep.

But when your body clock is disrupted or thrown out of balance by occasional or continuous interruptions of sleeping patterns, changes in light exposure, working the night shift, or other disruptions in your schedule, your natural circadian rhythms can become accelerated or slowed, leading to a cascade of physiologic impacts.

Disruptions in Circadian Rhythms Can Lead to Imbalances in Health

Since these oscillating patterns have such wide-reaching impacts throughout the body, a variety of health impacts can result when circadian rhythms become disrupted. These include:

For example, reduced exposure to natural sunlight during the shorter days of winter is one big factor contributing to seasonal mood swings. The circadian clock monitors changes in day length, so when there is less daylight, your clock is thrown off.

Less light during the day has been shown to lead to a lower production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood and contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness. Further, changing light-dark cycles also affect melatonin production in the brain. This hormone triggers sleep and affects the production of stress hormones. These disruptions in your circadian rhythm during the winter months:

Synchronize Your Body with the Seasons

Just as plants follow cyclical patterns, you can become more in tune with the innate patterns of nature to help keep your body balanced. Many medical traditions, such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine, incorporate a knowledge of circadian rhythms into their approaches to seeking balanced health.

If you are feeling a bit blah and ready to hibernate until spring, consider some of these strategies to rebalance and enjoy the season! Be sure to discuss your symptoms with your healthcare provider and seek support for severe changes in mood, appetite, or sleep.

1. Allow Yourself to Rest

With less sunlight and colder temperatures, it is natural to seek more rest and spend more time in reflection in the colder months. Rest is crucial for your health all year round and is especially important to help your body adjust to the shifting seasons. Before electricity was widespread, people lived by the cycles of the sun and moon—awakening with sunrise, staying active during daylight, and slowing down for rest as darkness fell. But in modern life, many live in urban environments and are out of touch with nature’s patterns.

As your body is exposed to fewer hours of sunlight during shorter winter days, the pineal gland in the brain produces more melatonin, which makes you feel sleepy. Instead of fighting your circadian clock and forcing yourself to stick to the same schedule year-round, use this as an opportunity to get in touch with, and listen to, your body.

Ayurveda suggests going to bed by 10 p.m. To prepare your body to slow down and allow it to shift into rest-and-repair mode, opt for some quality downtime at least one hour before going to sleep. Avoid exercising late in the day and switch off your electronics. Avoiding exposure to artificial blue light from screens allows your body’s internal clock to help you prepare for and get into a deeper, restful sleep. Try dimming the lights, taking a warm bath, or engaging in some light stretching or restorative yoga to prepare your body for sleep.

2. Let the Sunshine In

Since sunlight has such a powerful influence over your circadian rhythms, it is important to spend time in natural sunlight even during the colder weather. To stay in sync with a roughly 24-hour cycle, the brain needs the input of sunlight through the photoreceptors in your eyes to send signals directly to the hypothalamus and impact your circadian clock.

Spending time outdoors and exposing yourself to sunlight can help to synchronize your internal clock. The morning is an especially significant time for keeping your internal clock synchronized. When you awaken gradually with the sun, it stimulates hormones like serotonin and cortisol to progressively increase your heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature; this allows the body to calmly shift from sleep to activity and prepares you for the day. Even simply opening the blinds first thing in the morning or taking a 15-minute walk outside in the sunshine can lift your spirits and help you stay more balanced.

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3. Focus on Your Breath

Like nature, the body and mind are inclined to slow during late autumn and early winter. Excessive exercise and activity can contribute to imbalances and burnout at a time when the body craves rest and renewal. If you are feeling tired, slow down. If your body is telling you to do a gentle restorative yoga session instead of going for a long run, listen. If you feel run down, take some quiet time for meditation or a guided relaxation exercise. Notice how your body naturally works to keep you in balance.

According to Ayurveda, as the weather cools down, the lungs are particularly susceptible to imbalance and disease. Take time each day to pay attention to your breath and practice some focused slow, deep breathing. You can also incorporate lots of wide arm stretches and heart-opening poses into your yoga practice to open the lungs and stretch the connective tissue that supports them.

4. Don’t Dry Out

Staying well hydrated and avoiding becoming too dry can also help you stay balanced. Abhyanga or oil-massage is an Ayurvedic practice that nourishes the body and soothes the mind. It is especially balancing in the cold, dry winter months and can be incorporated into your routine for restorative self-care.

Massage your skin with warm, organic sesame oil to soothe the nervous system, keep your lymph system flowing, and hydrate your skin. You may also desire to rub a drop of sesame or coconut oil inside your nasal passages to keep them moist and lubricated during the dry, cool weather.

This winter, try shifting your mindset and using this as a time of renewal and re-energizing. Choose one or two new habits and pay attention to how your mind and body feel.

By paying attention to your daily rhythms and staying grounded and in touch with nature, you can emerge refreshed and renewed with a positive perspective come spring!

*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.


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About the Author

Jennifer Weinberg

Preventive and Lifestyle Medicine Physician and Author
Dr. Jennifer Weinberg, MD, MPH, MBE is a preventive and lifestyle medicine physician, author, corporate wellness specialist, blogger, and the founder of the Simple | Pure | Whole Wellness Method. Weinberg offers innovative online wellness and education programs for individuals looking for sustainable optimal health as well as health care providers seeking health communications support and corporations wanting to integrate a comprehensive approach to corporate wellness. Get a free preview of her best-selling stress management guide ...Read more