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Canmore's Mountain Moods: The Science behind the Seasonal Slump or "Winter Blues"

Updated: Feb 14

Living in Canmore, we're no strangers to the rhythm of the seasons - one of the best parts of Bow Valley life is that we get to enjoy such beautifully distinct landscapes and seasonal activities across the year. But as fall moves into winter, and the days start to shorten, many of us notice a different kind of change. The sun starts to take its time to emerge from behind the mountains, casting longer shadows and shorter days. It's not just the landscape that feels this shift; our moods and energy levels often echo the dimming light.

It's a phenomenon many Canmore residents can relate to: waking up feels more challenging, and there's this inexplicable feeling of being "off." Some might brush it off as the "winter blues," but there's a deeper dance of biology and environment at play here. If you've ever felt this seasonal slump or found yourself hitting the snooze button more often as the mornings grow darker, you're not alone. And more importantly, there's a wealth of knowledge and strategies to help us navigate these shifts with grace and vitality.

The sun peeking through the clouds on a moody day at Bow Summit, Banff National Park

Why We Feel the Seasonal Shift: How Our Bodies Respond to Natural Light

Understanding the underlying causes is the first step in addressing and mitigating the effects of this seasonal slump, so let’s first discuss the science behind it!

Canmore's morning sunlight hitting a freshly made bed with plants on the bedside tableCanmore's morning sunlight hitting a freshly made bed with plants on the bedside table

Circadian Rhythm Disruption

Every morning, as the first rays of sunlight touch our eyes, a signal is sent to a tiny part of our brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. This is our body's internal clock, or circadian rhythm, and it relies on consistent light cues to regulate various functions, affecting everything from our energy levels, mood, and hormone production, to our digestion and sleep patterns. With less sunlight, especially in the morning, our circadian rhythm can become disrupted.

→ Melatonin - The “Sleep Hormone”

The longer nights and shorter days can prompt our bodies to produce more melatonin, the hormone responsible for sleep regulation. Excess melatonin can make us feel sleepier and potentially more lethargic or downcast during the day. Melatonin production might also start earlier in the evening, making us feel drowsy while it's still quite early. Additionally, modern habits of late-night screen time can further disrupt this delicate balance, making it even more essential to understand and respect our body's need for natural light.

Serotonin - the “Happy Hormone”

Rays of sunshine hitting a woman's face as she smiles in a cold Canmore winter

Natural light also directly influences the production of serotonin, often termed the 'feel-good hormone,' instrumental in regulating our mood. Adequate levels promote feelings of happiness, relaxation, and contentment. When our eyes capture daylight, especially the first rays of the morning sun, it stimulates the production of serotonin. This is why a sunny day can often feel uplifting and invigorating. Reduced light, on the other hand, can lead to a decrease in serotonin, contributing to feelings of lethargy, moodiness, and a general sense of being "off".

Serotonin also plays a crucial role in appetite, digestion, and sleep. It's responsible for feelings of hunger and satiety. The presence of natural light during meal times can even influence how much we eat and how satisfied we feel post-meal.

Serotonin is also a precursor to melatonin, the sleep hormone mentioned above - as daylight fades and darkness sets in, serotonin is converted into melatonin, the body starts converting serotonin into melatonin to prepare for sleep. This natural rhythm can be disrupted if we're not getting enough daylight, potentially affecting our sleep quality.

Vitamin D Deficiency

Often dubbed the "sunshine vitamin," Vitamin D is unique among vitamins because our bodies produce it when our skin is exposed to sunlight. It plays a crucial role in various bodily functions, including:

  • Bone Health: Vitamin D aids in the absorption of calcium, essential for maintaining healthy bones and teeth. A deficiency can lead to brittle bone conditions like osteoporosis.

  • Immune System Support: Vitamin D is known to enhance the pathogen-fighting effects of monocytes and macrophages — white blood cells important in immune defense — and decreases inflammation.

  • Mood and Brain Health: There's growing evidence suggesting a link between a lack of Vitamin D in the body and chronic diseases, including coronary artery disease, and conditions like depression, chronic fatigue, and even PMS.

With the chill of winter prompting us to bundle up, less of our skin is exposed to the sunlight, making natural Vitamin D synthesis more challenging. It's essential to be proactive and seek alternative sources or supplements to ensure we're getting our daily dose of this vital nutrient.

Canmore's Unique Seasonal Mood Challenge (and Advantage)

A view of Canmore's snow-covered Three Sisters from across the Bow ValleyA view of Canmore's snow-covered Three Sisters from across the Bow Valley

Living in the heart of the Rockies, we face unique challenges when it comes to light

exposure. Not only are we far from the equator (a key risk factor for seasonal affective disorder due to significantly reduced daylight hours in winter), but our towering mountains further limit the amount of direct sunlight we receive during the winter months. This compounds the impact on our serotonin, melatonin, and Vitamin D levels, and underscores the importance of implementing lifestyle strategies to counteract these effects. Moreover, our frigid winter temperatures drive many people indoors (and when we do venture out, we leave minimal skin exposed), further reducing our exposure to the natural light our bodies so desperately need.

However, it's not all bad news. Canmore's proximity to nature, fresh mountain air, active community mindset, and abundance of local wellness services offer a plethora of opportunities to combat the effects of the seasonal mood slump. Engaging in outdoor activities, even in colder weather, can help increase light exposure and boost mood. Plus, the very mountains that block out some of our sunlight also provide opportunities for winter sports, hiking, and other activities that can elevate our mood and counteract some of the effects of reduced light.

In next week's Bodhi blog, we'll delve into practical strategies tailored for our unique Canmore lifestyle. From optimizing indoor lighting to embracing winter activities and harnessing the power of focused nutrition, there are many ways to navigate the seasonal shifts and maintain a positive, energetic outlook all year long.

Until next week, remember to prioritize self-care, stay attuned to any shifts in mood, and extend compassion to yourself. This time of year can be challenging, but with awareness and intention, we can navigate it with grace and resilience.

Stay healthy & happy,

- Bodhi Canmore


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