Fall is officially here, and for most of us, that means shorter days, longer nights, and declining temperatures. Of course, we're all well aware that seasonal change has a noticeable impact on our day-to-day lifestyles, but the scientific reasons why the weather affects our mood the way it does aren't always so obvious. Thankfully, we have decades of social psychological research to help us shed some light on why we feel the way we do when we do, so we can better adapt our minds and bodies through the changing of the seasons.
But before we delve into the science, let's set the scene. It's become an unspoken rule that come Daylight Savings Time, just as we prepare to set our clocks back an hour and bask in the glory that is one extra hour of blissful sleep, we simultaneously and unconsciously kiss social outings goodbye, and instead opt for Friday nights filled with movies, takeout, and wine. Do you ever wonder why that is? Sure, we all know that coldness and darkness cause hibernation, but what exactly is the coldness and darkness doing to our internal chemistry? We know what happens to our brain on drugs, but what happens to our brain on sunlight? Or more specifically, a lack thereof?
And how about rain? Why do we seriously contemplate quitting our jobs and succumbing to a life of hermitude and Easy Mac as we repeatedly reach for the snooze button on any given rainy day? Furthermore, why the carbohydrate craving? Sticking to an exercise regimen would be that much easier if only I craved kale salads and coconut water year round. It's as if the exact moment that summer ends, my brain has no choice but to consume itself with thoughts of fettuccine alfredo and cheesy garlic bread.
Basically, there's a scientific reason behind each and every one of these feelings, and once we understand exactly why it is we react to our environment the way that we do, we can better prepare ourselves for any shift in climate.
1. A Lack Of Sunlight Can Make You Sad
A lack of sunlight can cause Seasonal Affective Disorder. Appropriately known as SAD, this mood disorder usually affects people from October through April when daylight becomes more scarce. When exposed to less sunlight, your body produces more melatonin, the hormone which makes you feel sleepy. And just as your body begins craving mid-day naps, your brain begins producing lower levels of serotonin — the neurotransmitter that affects mood, appetite, sleep, and sexual desire. Simply put, SAD can make you feel sad. To combat SAD, consider putting your bedroom lights on a timer so they come on before you wake, giving your brain the illusion of a sunrise. No timer on hand? Look into purchasing a light therapy box for year round sunshine.
2. Cold Temperatures Can Lead To Physical Lethargy
Cold temperatures reduce sensory feedback, dexterity, muscle strength, blood flow, and balance, which can impact your performance of complex physical tasks. Does that initial morning chill leave you feeling completely unmotivated to hit the gym? Make it a habit to pile on the layers, and do 15 minutes of stretching first thing in the morning — the added warmth and movement will stimulate blood flow.
3. Sunlight Makes You Spend More Money
Researchers found that exposure to sunlight is associated with higher levels of spending. Since sunshine makes us feel more positive, consequently, it also causes us to shop more. Consider this finding your silver lining to less sunlight — the shorter days can lead to increased savings. Cha-ching.
4. Rain Can Cause You To Eat More
The lack of sunlight associated with rainy days can cause serotonin levels to dip, and as serotonin levels decrease, carbohydrate cravings increase. According to Judith Wurtman, former scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet, eating carbohydrates helps depressed individuals feel better because the carbs spark an immediate serotonin increase. But that happiness spike is short-lived, as serotonin levels drop shortly thereafter. The solution? Instead of pasta, reach for starchy vegetables like parsnips, potatoes, or pumpkin — just as comforting as linguine, and great sources for added vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
5. Rain Can Cause Pain
As atmospheric pressure decreases, clouds and rain become much more likely. This reduction in atmospheric pressure allows bodily fluids to move from blood vessels to tissues, causing pressure on the nerves and joints, which leads to increased pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility. So if you see rain in your forecast, ditch the cardio and go straight to yoga — your knees and shoulders will thank you later.
6. Being Outside Can Improve Your Memory, And Boost Creativity
Researchers from a 2004 University of Michigan study found that people who spent at least 30 minutes outside during periods of pleasant weather reported improved mood, memory, and openness to new information and creative thoughts. Even if it's cold outside, if you see the sun shining make it a point to get up from your desk and take a brisk 30-minute walk during your lunch break — you'll find that your afternoons will become increasingly more productive.
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