How to manipulate lighting to help heal your hormones and your body naturally
It's always this time of year that people feel down and sluggish and just, well, fed up. When you look at the reasons why, it's not so hard to understand. The run up to Christmas and New Year brings so much excitement, busyness, anticipation, celebration and, on the day, (hopefully) fun and enjoyment. Then it's suddenly all over and you have to once again face the daily grind. Ho hum...
The new year also brings a time to reflect on where you are and what you want to accomplish (if you didn't do much of this towards the end of last year), and if you feel anything less than motivated and inspired about the direction your life is heading, you may even start to feel like you're failing in some way. Add to all this that Valentine's is around the corner, I wanted to give people who aren't feeling so excited (read: pi**ed off with life) something else to think about. So show yourself a little love, and follow some of the suggestions in this post!
There's a big factor concerning light at this time of year that few people recognise or pay attention to. Most people will have accumulated a little bit of a tan during the summer (if they didn't spend the whole of it slathered in nasty sunscreen) and the purpose of this is to store vitamin D for the winter. But by the time early February rolls round, that bit of a tan is well and truly gone (unless you're a sunbedder) and vitamin D levels will be very low if you aren't eating a significant amount of fish or liver, or taking a supplement.
It's important to realise that lighting in the winter can and does affect your vitamin D levels, which of course affects your mood due to its role in serotonin production. The low levels of vitamin D can lead to SAD (seasonal affective disorder - a type of depression that occurs mainly during the winter months in the Northern parts of the globe, when sunlight weakens significantly and days are short). But it also affects many other aspects of hormonal health, which is what I want to talk about today.
Growing Awareness Of The Influence Of Light On The Body
I'm pretty certain most people are aware, at some level, about how lighting can affect us. Perhaps you've been told to turn off electronics an hour before bed, or to get as much natural light during the day possible, or perhaps even that you need to use a light box in the winter to combat SAD.
These tips; while useful; are a far cry from the whole story, which I couldn't even get into here in its entirety. Even I thought I knew a lot about lighting for health until I started to really delve into it and experiment on myself. The effects I experienced within just a few days of serious light therapy (which was NOT hard, by the way) were amazing. But I'll get to that in a minute, first I want to give you the low down on how lighting affects your hormones and how you can control it to heal imbalances, especially if you are a woman.
The Circadian Rhythm
Generally speaking for most of us, our bodies are designed to awaken at dawn and start winding down for sleep soon after sundown. Cortisol (commonly known as the stress hormone, but which also has many other roles in the body) is highest in the morning and lowest at night - this is part of what makes up the circadian rhythm and essentially what makes us diurnal creatures.
Receptors in our eyes and skin utilise the natural lighting of the world around us to balance our circadian rhythm and keep our entire hormonal system in balance. But the world we live in now is an alien planet to our DNA. We do not live primarily outdoors any more, we have lights on right up until we switch off for bed, we do not even notice the moon and we certainly don't sleep with the curtains open.
Another big factor of the role of light/dark in our lives is its impact on melatonin production. Anyone reading this taking melatonin as a sleep aid? Did you know that supplementing with pharmacological melatonin does little more than make you sleepy in the day?
Melatonin is primarily produced in the gut - yes the gut! - with an extra spurt from the pineal gland up in the brain in the evenings in response to a darkening environment. Melatonin has other important functions in the body than simply making you feel sleepy at night, such as its role in the regulation of the digestive tract and its healing qualities there, but supplementing with melatonin may increase your levels too much and leave you feeling sleepy and sluggish the next day. Not exactly a recipe for happiness, especially at a time of year when we find it hard to get up as it is.
One of the ways to get good sleep at night (as well as help to wake you up in the morning without caffeine, balance your hormones and improve your overall health) is to use a UV lamp for about half an hour every morning as soon as you get up.
This; along with a good half hour's outdoor daylight exposure in the early afternoon; using orange tinted glasses or strictly candle light after dark every evening; and avoiding electronics for at least an hour before sleep; will really help to reset your body clock and get you feeling better and sleeping better. If you were to couple that half hour outside with a brisk walk or even a game of ball with the kids, you'd sleep even better. Ask me how I know this ;-)
On the topic of exercise, do avoid sitting for more than 45mins at a time without getting up for a stretch, a quick nip to the loo and/or a cuppa (decaff) tea, as it's now known that sitting for long periods drastically reduces your life span. Yes you read that right. We were designed to be moving all day, one by product of which is that you would need your sleep and would sleep deeply while your body heals itself.
An hour of intense cardio a day, as is commonly touted as a cure-all for the obesity epidemic, does not make up for a day of sitting on your butt and is actually very bad for you. It raises cortisol (especially bad if you do your workout after work in the evening) because it is very stressful on the body which raises blood sugar levels and makes you store more fat. Conventional "wisdom" for you.
Lunaception for Female Hormonal Health
There's another element that really made a difference to my hormonal health and I'm not the best person to explain it. This is a fantastic post on the topic of Lunaception and I highly recommend reading it and following her guidelines. It basically explains that aligning your menstrual cycle with the moon phases is very effective for balancing hormones naturally and simply.
Most women are designed to ovulate with the full moon and bleed with the new moon (though there are some ladies who experience the complete opposite). By lighting your bedroom at night for the three nights of the full moon (or leaving your curtains open if the moon shines into your window and there isn't significant cloud cover) and then sleeping in the pitch black for the rest of the month, your body slowly shifts your hormonal production until you are aligned with the moon. You will need to invest in some really good black out curtains to be sure that this works. Ikea do some great affordable blackout curtains and blinds (but the blinds have gaps around the sides and the top, so I prefer the curtains).
It does sound completely hippy-dippy but I like to experiment.
I tried it a couple of years ago, and within three months I was ovulating with the full moon, and I experienced almost no PMS symptoms at all. On the second month my period was delayed by a full 6 days, which brought me to within 2 days of the new moon. I also noticed a slightly shorter bleed time. The paleo diet and high dose starflower oil supplementation did me a lot of favours in that department, but this simple technique eradicated the faint lingering urge to bicker and cry and beat people up the week before my period.
Even if it was a placebo effect (not likely, but lets be cynical for a moment) it worked for me and many more women and what's the harm in trying it out? Only your other half need know about your experiment ;-)
I didn't continue to practice Lunaception because I simply didn't feel the need to. My hormones are stable and I feel great most of the time; but if someone were really struggling with these things I would certainly encourage them to try it out. It's no real effort at all and it can't do any harm.
So what does all this have to do with feeling blue? Well, melatonin factors into many biological processes that work to keep you healthy. You can't be happy if you're tired and wired, and certainly not if you're hormonal, so if you get your sleep sorted out, guess what? You're going to feel a helluva lot happier and healthier as a result, not least of all because of the melatonin. If you want to be happy you need to be healthy, and it's the same the other way around.
So, look after your melatonin production - get to bed by 10-11pm, wear your funky orange glasses at night, use your UV light while you're doing your hair and make up (or reading the paper, men), spend time in nature whether that's taking the dog for a walk, doing gardening or going camping - and otherwise generally try to follow a paleo lifestyle. Good movement, eating, sleeping, and playing habits as well as spending time with friends and family, are what make for a healthy, happy and fulfilling life!