How To Adjust Your Life To Winter, According To Science

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Here in the northern hemisphere, the days are about to be at their shortest and coldest. But, that frozen darkness doesn't have to be a drag. To help make the chilly transition a little easier, we’ve gathered a few science-backed tricks so you can adjust your sleeping, eating, and dressing habits to fit the winter weather.

How to fall asleep:

Both temperature and timing can have serious impacts on your sleep cycle. Light plays such a huge role in telling us when to fall asleep that when we don't have all-day sunlight as a cue, we can feel a little off. Specifically, the brain’s “master clock” (called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN); it sits just above the optic nerves) gets a lot of information and direction from the light we see, which, in turn, causes the SCN to tell the pineal gland to produce more or less melatonin. When it’s darker out, we make more melatonin, which makes us feel drowsier.

And, compensating for the extended darkness with artificial lighting can mess with melatonin, too. Blue wavelengths can be particularly tricky since their effects — improved attention and mood — can be beneficial during the day, but not so much at night when you’re just trying to relax. Blue light is found in most artificial lighting and is emitted by laptops and phones. So, to prevent blue light from keeping you up all night, try using it during the day but switching to dim red lights as you wind down at night; they don’t have as much of an effect on melatonin. And, if you can’t keep yourself off the computer at night, try using a program like Flux to turn down the blue.
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
Your body temperature also naturally drops when you fall asleep and rises again before you wake up. So, if the temperature in your room is too hot or cold, it can be difficult for the body to find that perfect dozing-off point. Research suggests that between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit is just about ideal.
If your unruly radiator is the culprit, the Cozy from Radiator Labs could help: It lets you control the heat emitted from the radiator by using an app on your smartphone. Another tip: Don’t overdo it on the bedding. If you’re already wearing two sweatshirts, thermal leggings, and wool socks, you’ll just wake up sweating when the heating kicks in an hour after you doze off. Instead, try a heated blanket with a timer function, so there's no hazard (and less sweat).

What to eat:

The season also brings changes in which foods are available. And, in the winter, Grace McCalmon N.T.P. (and founder of The Real Food Nanny) says we should be on the lookout for root vegetables and squashes. These foods tell our kidneys to produce more vitamin D — extra-important since we're getting less of it from the sun during winter. Other great sources include fatty fish, like tuna and salmon. You can also get vitamin D in smaller amounts from milk, egg yolks, and cheese.

Since we’re often in need of a little boost in the winter months (thanks to that change in melatonin activity), opt for foods that can increase both energy and mood levels. But, resist the urge to resort to caffeine, cautions McCalmon. Instead, aim for the aforementioned protein-and-omega-3-rich fish. Some research shows that omega-3 fatty acids could even work as natural antidepressants.
Breakfast becomes exceedingly important in winter (we've got to get that metabolism going, darkness be damned) so start off with those root veggies, or granola. And, later in the day, indulge in a bit of dark chocolate here and there, which recent research suggests can improve functioning in brain areas associated with memory.
Since colder weather often means illness is right around the corner, McCalmon advises us to go after vitamin C. "But," she says, "be careful you’re not getting it from sugary, unseasonal fruit juices. Raw, organic bell peppers and kale are some of the most concentrated food sources of vitamin C — without the extra sugar." Zinc is another powerful immune-system booster, she mentions, and it's found in its highest concentrations in oysters and red meat.
Illustrated by Anna Sudit.

What to wear:

Whether you’re working out in the cold or just walking to the subway, taking a few tips from cold-weather hiking can keep you comfy without adding too much bulk. You should work with three layers: The base layer wicks moisture from your skin, the mid-layer adds insulation, and the shell protects you from rain and snow.

For a base layer, try those made from synthetic fabrics, such as Uniqlo’s Heattech tights and leggings or clothes made with Columbia’s Omni-Wick technology. Then, the insulating layer is what actually keeps heat in, and it can range from a thin fleece to a monstrously puffy down jacket — depending on how cold it is. Last but not least, you need a shell to lock it all in. Remember: "Water-resistant" usually just means that the fabric itself has been treated in some way; rain can still seep in through the seams. But, "waterproof" indicates that the seams have been sealed with tape or coatings.
Sometimes, these layers can be combined, and technology can make them more efficient. For instance, Columbia’s Omni-Heat technology adds more insulation to a shell, potentially cutting out your middle layer. And, synthetic down technologies (such as North Face’s Thermoball) are usually water-resistant, which means these fabrics can insulate even if they get wet — making a separate shell redundant. But, cutting down on layers also cuts out perhaps the greatest advantage of layering: being able to add or remove items to keep your temperature even.
With the right food and sleep to get you going, and the layering to keep you comfy, we hope you’ll be equipped for whatever adventures the polar vortex festive season brings you.

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