The shadows of the fig tree in my backyard are lengthening towards the north. I sense a shift in the sun in the evenings as I pick the last remaining tomatoes and spaghetti squash from the garden. The tease of a cooling breeze in the pre-dawn minutes nudges me to pull on a pair of sweat pants rather than the usual shorts as I wander through my morning routine of puppy greetings, coffee making and chicken chores. Autumn is on its way. I am thankful.
I am reminded of the cycles of nature as the Northern California summer slowly begins to give up its searing 100+ temperature days, windows open, air conditioners quiet down. The animals don’t need a reminder; they just know. Our chickens will soon be growing a few extra feathers to protect them in the colder months. The turkey family which often wanders up our neighborhood street, stopping along the way to taste-test random front lawns, are showing signs of growing up – the young turkey are now almost indistinguishable from the adults. The fuzzy baby squirrels and owls who once occupied the large maple in our backyard have left their birth homes and are now preparing their own homes for the next generation whose conception is still only an invisible energy.
We are Disconnected from Nature
As humans, often very disconnected with nature, we have forgotten the importance of the synergy of shifting with the seasons, and that each season provides our bodies – in fact, right down to our DNA – new messages which we are often completely unaware of on a daily basis yet which naturally signal changes to our cellular mechanisms. The existence of seasonal changes make sense knowing there are daily and monthly cycles to which we are unconsciously adherent. Scientists have long understood that the production of various hormones such as melatonin change with the time of the day as part of the circadian rhythm as do a man’s testosterone levels registering higher in the morning and slowly decreasing throughout the day. The most obvious lunar or monthly cadence is experienced as a healthy menstrual cycle during the child-bearing years of a woman. Yet, so easily we forget the annual rhythm or the circannual cycles. Possibly this is because the time is so much longer than a day or month; maybe we are so focused on getting through each day that we forget to stop and think of the bigger cycle, the much grander scheme of movement and shifting.
Cycles in Nature
As much of our world moves further and further away from the natural world, thankfully some researchers are remaining grounded and are studying this circannual nature and how the human body responds to these seasonal changes. A ground breaking paper was published in Nature Communications in May of 2015 revealing that our genes, without input from our conscious intentions, alter their production of proteins through a shift in which of the various genes are turned off or on (or turned up or down) in response to the season of the year. In this publication, the authors found that the activity of nearly a quarter of our genes (5,136 of the 22,822 genes tested) were expressed differently depending on the time of the year. As would be expected, there were variations across different geographical regions with certain genes being expressed oppositely in countries experiencing winter while others experienced summer and vice versa. What became obvious with this data is that there are certain genes turned on to be more protective during the summer while other genes not as crucial in these warmer months were quieted. With the arrival of winter time, a shift was seen with the “winter” genes turning on while the summer genes had a reduced expression. [i]
A Shift on the Genetic Level
Plants also react to the shift in the environment changing the expression of their genes in response to the weather, sunlight and temperature. This is why daffodils bloom in the spring and carrots develop their flowering tops in the cooler weather of fall and winter. Researchers at the Plant Developmental Genetics laboratory at Trinity College Dublin working alongside scientists throughout the world, discovered the APETALA1 gene dubbed the “master” gene. When APETALA1 is turned on in response to environmental cues, over 1000 other genes are sent signals which either turn them off (as is the case when leaf formation occurs) or turn them on (such as the genes involved in flowering). [ii]
The animal kingdom is similarly influenced by the environment which is why salmon migrate, groundhogs and bears hibernate, and geese fly south in response to seasonal changes. They don’t need a calendar, a clock or a newscast reminder – they know because they are in “tune” with their environment and the messages of nature are directly transferred to their genetic material changing expression of genes, changing their behaviors and preparing their bodies for the next seasonal cycle.
The environment is the ultimate “gene whisperer” giving unconscious cues to our cellular machinery, always influencing, suggesting, nudging, shifting who we are in different phases of our lives and at different times of the day, month and year.
We can best support the ultimate gene whisperer through the foods we eat, the rest we give ourselves, the exercise and movement we participate in and the daily interactions in which we engage.
As autumn arrives we should also be changing our conscious behaviors including the amount of sleep we get and the foods we eat.
Melatonin levels will naturally last longer as the days grow shorter and the nights longer. Go to bed earlier and, when possible, get up a few minutes later. Your body requires this extra sleep and rest to replenish and foster optimal health through these months.
Food choices in the fall months should reflect the abundance of cooler weather nutrition options such as hardy greens and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, kale and early and late autumn peas and green beans), late season maturing apples and pears followed by persimmons and pomegranates are wonderful fruit choices. Complex carbohydrate roots and squash family vegetables like beets, carrots, onions, pumpkin, and winter squash are in abundance. The variety and richness of texture, taste and nutritionally packed food choices in the cooler months are endless.
Farmer’s Markets (there are 8674 locations across the United States per the USDA!) and CSAs in your local area will be key to keeping your pantry and fridges stocked with wholesome, nutritious foods.
Miraculous foods that will gently whisper messages to your genes of the shift to autumn a time to begin contracting, quieting, slowing, and reflecting.
Wishing you a Happy and Healthy Autumn.
Find a local Farmer’s Market near you: https://www.ams.usda.gov/local-food-directories/farmersmarkets\
Find a local CSA near you: http://www.localharvest.org/csa/
Dr. Garilli is a former US Marine turned Naturopathic Doctor. She runs a private practice in Folsom, California where she specializes in treating and preventing chronic disease states through a personalized lifestyle approach including nutrition, exercise, botanical medicine and homeopathy.
In addition to private practice, she consults with nutritional supplement companies and integrative medical clinics on case studies, professional consultations and educational program development. Dr. Garilli is a member of the faculty at Hawthorn University and a founding board member for the CA Chapter of the Children’s Heart Foundation. Dr. Garilli lives in Northern California with her husband, children and four backyard chickens.
[i] Dopica, XD. et al. Widespread seasonal gene expression reveals annual differences in human immunity and physiology. Nature Communications. 2015 May. 6(7000).
[ii] Kaufmann K. et al. Orchestration of floral initiation by APETALA1. Science. Apr 2010: Vol.328, Issue 5974, pp. 85-89.