Seasonal Cycles and Our Health

By Valentina Wright

The neuroscience of sleeping for the season, and how embracing impermanence can benefit our health.

As the seasons change we are reminded of the cyclical nature of existence. Energies shift course and what was once put into growth and blooming is preserved for less abundant times. Trees shed leaves they can no longer afford to maintain and lie dormant in rest, readying themselves for the next opportunity to flourish. Life in all its varieties works in tandem to harmonise and maintain balance, so that no one part is ever exhausted or ignored.


What about us? How well do we harmonise with seasonal cycles? Many of us live in societies which value and expect consistency; we are expected to be consistently productive, consistently sociable, and consistently available. While this might be good for financial economies, it isn’t always good for our health.


What does it cost us to fight the system, when the system is nature?

The cooler air and longer nights are nature’s prompt to step back, slow down, and reflect. When light enters our eyes, our brains signal organs and internal processes to act in accordance with what’s happening in our environment. As the sun rises, so do our levels of cortisol, and this is what helps us feel awake. This happens because cortisol suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin, which is produced by the pineal gland in response to darkness, and makes us feel drowsy.



“There has been some research done about how we have evolved to sleep. In the summer, when days are longer, we are supposed to sleep less, even 6 hours is enough. However, when it’s hot and there is more pressure on our cardiovascular system, we should be having a nap.


“So in the summer, we should be sleeping less but having a nap in the middle of the day, and in the winter we should be sleeping longer, maybe 9 hours a night.


“Research found that people who follow this, who are more in sync with nature and environment, had a much reduced risk of dying from a number of health conditions”.

– Evelina, CEO & Founder



As well as affecting our physical health, our relationship with natural cycles affects our mental health. Many will experience, or have at least heard of, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), colloquially known as ‘winter depression’. Sufferers of SAD periodically experience symptoms of low mood, decreased sex drive, and lethargy, in line with the seasons.


However, how much of this is a pathologised understanding of seasonal cycles? If our value as a human wasn’t dependent on being consistently productive, sociable and energetic, would we feel these ebbs as depression, or lean into them as opportunities for rest and reflection?


To help us find a more harmonic relationship with the seasons, and natural cycles generally, we can turn to Buddhist notions of impermanence. We often feel impermanence as loss, but it is a fundamental rule of existence; impermanence is as much birth as it is death. It is the constant evolution of everything, and resisting it denies us its gifts. Without ugliness we would not know beauty; without rest there is no play.


“Impermanence is a principle of harmony. When we don’t struggle against it we are in harmony with reality. Many cultures celebrate this connectedness. There are ceremonies marking all the transitions of life from birth to death, as well as meetings and partings, going into battle, losing the battle, and winning the battle. We too could acknowledge, respect, and celebrate impermanence” – Pema Chödrön


Next time you find yourself lamenting loss, recognise it as impermanence. Be curious about what you can gain from the change; give yourself to it so that it can give back to you. With winter easing in, we might look forward to slowing down, nurturing the home, and feeling the cold so we are all the more ready to appreciate the treats of summer.


Here are some principles and tips to help you sync up with natural cycles:

  1. Wake and sleep at roughly the same time each day. In the winter you’ll want to shift your wake / sleep times to get an extra 90 minutes at night, and in summer (where possible) take a regular afternoon nap. Be mindful that we sleep in 90 minute cycles, so time your alarm to get 6 hrs, 7.5 hrs, or 9 hrs a night.
  2. Utilise light exposure early in the morning. If you can, get outside first thing, or use brighter indoor lights as you wake, and dim lights at least 2 hrs before sleep. This helps balance cortisol and melatonin levels so you can feel energised in the morning, and sleepy at night.
  3. Eat at regular times. Our digestive systems rest between 7 and 11pm. Help your body settle into a rhythm by eating at the same times each day, with earlier, lighter dinners. Eating sugars or carbohydrates on their own will disrupt your circadian cycle, so combine with fibre, fat and protein for smoother energy levels, and avoid caffeine after noon.
  4. Work in 90 minute cycles. Take a break every 90 minutes when working, even if it’s just to go to the toilet or make tea. This protects memory, prevents degenerative brain ageing, and clears toxins.
  5. Exercise with your cycles in mind. For example, HIIT work-outs raise cortisol, so avoid these in the evening when it might inhibit melatonin production. If you menstruate, you’ll have greater capacity for strength and endurance in the follicular phase (roughly two to two and a half weeks from the start of your period), and less in the luteal phase (the time between ovulation and your next period).
  6. Develop a morning routine. Due to the rise in cortisol, and the imperative to be somewhere, the morning can be stressful. Go on auto-pilot with carefully considered routines that adjust to changing cycles.
  7. Incorporate reflective practice. Take time to listen to and reflect on how you’ve felt each day – both in your body and your mind. Over time, you’ll get better in touch with your own cycles, and learn how to harmonise them more instinctively.
  8. Adapt and adjust. Notice when your routines and rhythms want to change, and make adjustments to allow for that. Our minds, bodies, and environments are constantly changing; stay flexible in the way you do things so you can keep rhythm with these changes while maintaining healthy habits.

Learn more about cycles and rhythms by watching the live discussion that inspired this article here.


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Meet the expert


Valentina is a mental health and wellbeing expert with a diverse range of training and experience. She draws upon anthropology, social science, psychology, neuroscience, and philosophy to inform her practice in impact evaluation and therapeutic coaching.


Valentina takes a person-centered approach, giving primary attention to individual experience, while maintaining awareness of overarching factors. She has worked supporting and researching wellbeing across varying intersecting identities and circumstances.


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