The Winter Solstice is Nature's way of telling us to tuck in. It marks the beginning of winter. The sun is at its weakest. Insects burrow underground. Animals hibernate in their dens. And, buried under an earthen blanket, seeds store their energy in anticipation of the return of sunlight and water.
Our bodies, too, are moved by light. Just as seeds use the winter to rest and prepare for spring, we light beings can—and should—use winter nights to do the same. For as long as humans have been upright, we have rested in the long nights of December and January.
With the Industrial Revolution, our ancestors extended the workday into the dark. Though electricity has changed our relationship to the cold days and long nights, our bodies have not changed. It’s not your imagination, if you find yourself more tired in the winter. Our bodies are triggered by light and dark. As the days get shorter our desire for sleep grows. The lack of natural light increases melatonin (the hormone that tells your body to settle and get sleepy), messing with our internal sleep clock. When it gets dark at 5 o’clock, the melatonin kicks in, and the body starts preparing for sleep.
From a health perspective, sleep functions to restore organs and cells, clearing out the toxic gunk accumulated during the day, healing damage from stress and oxidation, and releasing growth hormones. Both the brain’s house-cleaning system and the body’s lymph system are active at night. In fact, research suggests that skipping sleep effectively short-changes the brain’s nightly clearing causing irreparable damage and setting us up for pre-mature aging.
So take this time to hunker down. Turn out your light a bit earlier tonight. Spend less time with your screens. Climb into bed with the intention of restoring your vitality and clearing the debris your brain collected today. Nature in its infinite wisdom provides us with the perfect conditions for restoring, dreaming, and long-range planning. If you want to be ready for the rollicking exuberant party that the longer days of sun promise, honor these dark nights. On this, the longest night of the year, the Winter Solstice reminds us to nurture our energy, to dream, to seek out the light of a fire or candle, and, like a seed, to store our energy in preparation for the return of the sun.
Meg B. Holden writes and lives in Portland, Oregon.