Even if your local climate affords a gloriously extended Indian summer, it is autumn now, and your body takes note even if you don’t. Afternoon temperatures may be peaking in the 70’s and 80’s, but changes in sunlight – both the amount of available light each day, and the increasingly slanted angle of the sun – have registered on your brain. Changes in light are what cause leaves to change color and drop off, birds to fly south for the winter, flowers and weeds to go to seed.

The pineal gland, in the center of the cranium at the base of the brain, receives sunlight at dawn through your closed lids, secreting melatonin in response to the light and waking you up. Your internal clock is set by this mechanism. So precise is this clock that it will wake you at the same time each morning with or without an alarm. It will wake you even at an odd hour, if you mentally program yourself to get up then.

Current research suggests that the pineal gland, master of life rhythms, is even responsible for programming the lifespan itself. Though this phenomenon is little understood so far, what does make sense is to maximize your time awake during sunlight hours and minimize the time spent staying up late under artificial light. In accordance with circadian (daily) rhythms, your body undergoes detoxification, repair of tissue, and rebuilding of new tissue during sleep. Each organ system has its own nighttime cycle for repair and rejuvenation. The key organ of detoxification, the liver, does its work between 10pm and 2am, and this timing is very exact. The detox phase will not occur unless the body is fully at rest.

Because your body has to shift gears into the darker, quieter phase of the year at this time, the organic effort required and the resulting stress can result in colds or flu. As winter approaches, your body begins to slow down and conserve energy. It might mean gaining a few pounds, pounds easier lost in spring than winter. The physiological slowing down of winter may also mean sleeping more, which for most people would be a good thing, as sleep deprivation is a common health (and safety) issue. You can facilitate the changes your body is going through by changing your diet accordingly: a fall and winter cuisine based on root vegetables, the cabbage family, nuts, seeds, soups, squashes, and stews. The berries and melons that so delighted us in spring and summer now give way to late-harvest grapes and persimmons and cold-weather fruits like apples and pears. The colors of your meals will reflect the world outside of dark greens, deep reds, purples, golds, yellows, and oranges.

The internal fires of digestion are harder to ignite in colder weather, so it is kind to your body as well as comforting to plan on warm foods more often, especially at breakfast. For this reason it is also best to avoid drinking ice-cold water and other drinks; the temperature difference is shocking to internal membranes, and significant effort is required to heat the liquid to body temperature.

The need for fats and oils is also higher in winter, and one of the best ways to accomplish this is by taking cod liver oil – of all the fish oils the one richest in Vitamin A and D. Cod liver oil protects against cancer, mental health problems, arthritis, and immune challenges. It is not possible to meet daily Vitamin D requirements from sunlight at any time in Temperate Zones except during the three months of summer, and dietary sources are limited. Cod liver oil that is free of contaminants is available at health food stores (see also Products web page) and identified by certification. High quality oils are very fresh, contain antioxidants, and are thus free of fishy odors; they come in lemon and mint flavors that taste good and blend well in smoothies or salad dressings.

Making these simple commonsense adjustments to seasonal changes can mean the difference between getting sick and staying well. Seasonal changes in the fall and spring are an especially good time to do your own detox, which will assist the efforts of your organs already underway. More on detoxing in the next update!