Why do seasonal transitions feel so difficult sometimes? As we head from the glory of Summer to the more subdued season of Autumn, it all feels a little abrupt. Just yesterday I was plunging into cold rivers and now I don’t want to leave the warmth of the bathtub. While this change in season and temperature may be shocking on our emotional senses, our physical selves have to adjust as well. According to scientists, the change of seasons appear to actually have a profound effect on how human genes work and affect our immune systems.
A large 2015 study of 22,000 genes showed a widespread seasonal gene expression revealed in changes to human immunity and physiology. This was mostly seen as an increase in inflammation. While humans may have benefited in the past from an increase in cold-season inflammatory response to help us fight off virus and disease, “That increase in inflammation could now be a risk factor for diseases of modern life.”
During cold, winter months – December to February for people living north of the equator and June to August for those in the southern hemisphere – these genes were more active. When they studied people living close to the equator, where the temperatures are fairly high all year round, they noticed a different pattern. Immunity and inflammation was linked to the rainy season. Inflammatory diseases like arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes show an uptick in these cooler months.
You knew I was going to bring this around to sauna, right? While we may not be able to change our genetic response to seasons, sauna helps soften abrupt transitions in space and time (aka jet lag) and also helps us ease transitions by lowering stress hormones and increasing our natural immunity. In a 2013 Study in the Journal of Human Kinetics, a single Finnish Sauna session caused a statistically significant increase white blood cells, those hard-working immune system soldiers. At the same time, sauna creates an “artificial fever” that urges any lurking viruses to set up shop elsewhere.
We asked our favorite local naturopathic doctor, Dr. Joanna May from Woodstock Natural Health, for suggestions on how to better support our system during seasonal changes.
“Make sure that you’re getting enough vitamin D. As we move away from the summer months and transition towards the indoors people forget to recognize how quickly vitamin d can become depleted. Vitamin D supports our entire immune system, through white blood cell production, to appropriate calcium absorption. And don’t forget that it can also help with the winter time blues (Seasonal Affective Disorder).
Keep moving! Just like with sauna use – keeping your blood and lymph moving helps us adapt more readily to the changing of the seasons. So don’t quit your running or yoga routine just because the season changes – you’ll be better off!
And lastly – enrich your diet! Feeding your body nutrient-dense foods through every season is ideal, but taking into account this is the time we enter into more of a carb and sugar favored season; avoiding these things will keep you primed and ready to fight any of those bugs that come around! Focus on warm foods that have been cooked as this helps to prime the digestive process when the stomach is on its Winter vacation.”
Take some extra time to support your body and ease into the season.