Courtesy of Udo BernhartAmanda MacMillan, SELF magazine
It's coming. Next Friday, December 21 is the the dreaded winter solstice, a.k.a. the shortest day of the year. (It also happens to be the unofficial end of the world, but I digress.) Sure, winter means Christmas carols and cozy sweaters--but no matter how much of a snow bunny you are, you've gotta admit that the whole getting-dark-at-4:30-in-the-afternoon thing is kind of a bummer.
And not just a superficial bummer, either: Short days and long nights can affect us in real ways, from our mood to our safety to our physical health. I asked Scott Amit, MD, associate professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., on what we need to watch out for--and how to stay at our best--all winter long.
See more: Yoga Moves for Flat Abs
1. Our Vitamin D Levels Can Dip.
"Whenever we don't get enough sunlight for months in a row, we should think about vitamin D deficiency," says Amit. Only your doctor can tell you if you're deficient, and your risk depends on where exactly you live (people near the equator generally have more D than those near the poles), your skin type plus several additional factors.
What We Can Do About It: Eating lots of vitamin D-fortified foods, like oily fish, eggs, milk and mushrooms, can help keep your levels up, and so can getting sun exposure--with sunscreen, of course--a few times a week. (Tropical fit-cation, anyone?) If your levels are still low, your doctor may recommend a supplement during the winter, as well.
See more: 20 Superfoods for Weight Loss
2. We May Feel Sluggish or Depressed.
"Sunlight regulates serotonin and melatonin metabolism in the brain, which are involved in your mood and sleep-wake cycle, respectively," says Amit. Low levels of sunshine, therefore, can cause bad moods, excessive sleepiness and screwed-up sleep patterns.
What We Can Do About It: Regular exercise, frequent social activities, keeping your indoors bright during the day (and dark at night), and taking walks during the daytime--to soak up any sun that you can--can help regulate your hormones and keep you feeling normal. "This is also the time to engage in an educational course that appeals to your creative side," suggests Amit, and to participate in outdoor winter sports.
3. We Might Gain Weight.
"Emotional eating common during this time predisposes to weight gain and worsening of other medical conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, and joint problems," says Amit.
See more: Foods That Fight Belly Bloat
What We Can Do About It: Luckily, many of the same activities that can brighten our mood and keep our sleep patterns straight can also curb our cravings for junk. Of course, choosing healthy food options is a good strategy, as well.
4. We're at Risk on the Roads.
"If you live in areas that see snowfall, lack of adequate light along with icy conditions predisposes you to accidents," he says.
What you can do about it: If you exercise outdoors in the dark, wear reflective clothing, stick with a buddy, and try to avoid high-traffic areas.
With this advice, next Friday doesn't seem like so much of a threat after all. Just make sure you're armed with plenty of (Vitamin D-fortified) cocoa.