Some people celebrate the arrival of the shortest day of the year or the winter solstice. But you should not be fooled, the day will still last for 24 hours. What being the ‘shortest day of the year’ means is that the daytime is shortest while the nighttime is the longest on that particular day. We all know that sunlight affects the body, so this means that the lower amount of daylight available can have an effect on your brains and bodies.
When is the winter solstice?
This year, the winter solstice will happen on December 21, Friday in the Northern Hemisphere. It will occur on 22:23 UTC (Coordinated Universal Time or the standard time). UTC used to be called Greenwich Mean Time or GMT. On this day, the Earth is tilted at a certain angle, so the exposure of the different parts of the Earth to sunlight varies depending on our planet’s orbit.
At that exact time, the sun is directly over the Tropic of Capricorn, which runs through northern South Africa, southern Brazil, Chile and Australia. These are regions in the Southern Hemisphere that will be experiencing the summer solstice at the time the winter solstice occurs in the Northern Hemisphere.
What’s the significance of the winter solstice? Scientists and astronomers use this to indicate the start of the winter season in the Northern Hemisphere.
According to the Farmers’ Almanac, the term solstice is from the two Latin words, sol for the sun and sistere that means to stand still because the movement of the sun when it has reached its southernmost position seems to slow down so that its movement is hardly noticeable.
How does the shortest day of the year affect the brain?
From the point of view of weathermen and climatologists, it is a seasonal occurrence that heralds the arrival of winter in the Northern Hemisphere.
The shortest day of the year, however, does have an effect on humans, physically speaking. It has something to do with the decreased exposure to sunlight. While overexposure to sunlight is bad for your skin and general health, underexposure does the same thing. Moreover, the changes in the length of days and nights in winter can affect the human brain.
Seasonal affective disorder
Darkness and sunlight cause the brains to release hormones. Serotonin, known as a mood-boosting and calming hormone is produced by the individual’s exposure to the sun. In the evening, the darkness triggers the production of melatonin, a hormone that helps one to sleep better.
When you are less exposed to the sun, the production of serotonin drops, which can trigger a seasonal pattern of depression. Its condition used to be called SAD or seasonal affective disorder. The disorder alters the mood of a person and for some people affected by it, the disorder can impair their vitality and strength.
Exposure to sunlight brings many health benefits. The effects of serotonin are activated by sunlight passing through your eyes. The special areas in the retina cause the serotonin release. Because of the connection between exposure to the sun and the seasonal depression, light treatment called phototherapy is one of the main modes of treatment used. The excess melatonin produced by the body is reduced as the light from the treatment triggers the brain to produce serotonin.
Sleep patterns are disrupted by the amount of exposure to sunlight as well. With the daytime becoming shorter in winter and the evenings much longer, the production of melatonin is affected.
The brain’s pineal gland produces melatonin while the suprachiasmatic nucleus regulates melatonin’s release and controls a person’s circadian rhythms. The hormone likewise aids in controlling the wake-sleep cycle of humans. The pineal gland releases melatonin at night to prepare one for sleep.
And because the darkness is longer due to the shorter daytime hours, more melatonin is produced and released, making one tired or lethargic for no reason during the daytime. Moreover, a person spends more energy coping with the colder weather.
This is likewise the reason why a person gets jet lag after reaching a different country where the time zone is different. The body needs time to adjust to the different daytime and nighttime hours, which can be helped by several days of regular exposure to sunlight.
Physiological effect of shorter daylight
It’s not only the brain that is affected by the winter solstice. A person is affected physiologically as well. The skin produces vitamin D (sunshine vitamin) when one is exposed to the sun.
The vitamin, which is medically called a pro-hormone instead of a vitamin, helps the body to:
- Keep teeth and bones healthy
- Maintain the health of the brain, immune system and nervous system
- Manage diabetes by regulating the levels of insulin
- Keep cardiovascular system healthy and lung function better
In short, vitamin D helps keep off various illnesses. With the shorter days, the length of exposure to the sun decreases.
Coping with the effects of the winter solstice
Not everyone is affected by the winter solstice where the nights are longer. But sensitive persons usually feel some changes in them, particularly their mood. But then again, there are so many factors that can affect the way a person fees, including the distance of the Earth from the moon, the lighting, the wind direction and even the stars’ alignment. If the person is sensitive to these factors, it is almost definite the he or she will feel the changes brought about by the winter solstice.
Some people call it the winter blues because the weather in the Northern Hemisphere will start to be unfriendly. Add to that the stress from the holiday preparations. Some suffer from reduced vitamin D, while others are affected by SAD.
If it is the latter, it is important for the person to seek medical help. Some of the signs that a person is suffering from SAD include anxiety, agitation, loss of energy, difficulty concentrating, changes in appetite and oversleeping. Several treatment options are available so one can cope with SAD without taking medication. Options include exercise, aromatherapy, plant therapy and using light therapy boxes.
- Boost your serotonin levels. Because the sun sets earlier and the amount of sunshine is limited, there will be a drop in your serotonin levels. It can make you feel a bit melancholy and moody. Self-care is important every day of the year, and more so when winter arrives. You can give your serotonin levels a boost through yoga, leisurely walks, meditation and deep breathing. Doing any or all of these activities can improve your general well-being and your mood.
- Get enough vitamin D. You may feel lethargic and generally exhausted because your exposure to sunlight is limited during the winter solstice. It can also affect your sleep pattern. You can cope with this feeling through vitamin D supplement or using an electronic light box to augment your lack of exposure to sunlight. They come in different configurations, from light boxes to desk lamps and do not cost that much. The light box mimics sunlight, helping users to be exposed to sunlight longer.
- Fight your headaches. You may get bad headaches due to the changes in the weather during the winter solstice. Prevent tension headaches by taking warm baths. You can boost your mood and soothe your headache by adding essential oils that will keep you calm to your bath, such as chamomile, lavender, rose or jasmine.
Aside from the tips above, it is essential to keep your body moving, eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly to keep your body and mind healthy during the winter solstice. While the days might be shorter and the nights longer, you can adjust your regular activities to suit the season. Moreover, it’s been said that the winter solstice can make people with artistic inclinations to be more creative.
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