What does the winter holiday mean to you? It means, of course, family, religious celebration, feasting, gift giving and receiving. One way of thinking about it is as the season of light. This year, the winter solstice is on December 21st, 2017 although it can be from December 20th to December 23rd. Just for interest, the next December 20th solstice will be in 2080 and the next December 23rd solstice in 2303. In Memphis this year, December 21st will be 9 hours 47 minutes and 23 seconds long. In Alaska, it will be less than 5 hours!

This shortest day of the year has had great meaning in all cultures. With the advent of artificial light, our connection to the movement of the sun, our connection to the seasons of the earth has weakened considerably. But our bodies still respond to the fact that there is less daylight and it is possible that if we get to school early and leave late, we may never actually see the sun on many days. This is a potential problem for you as teachers as well as for your students, particularly if you live a little further north.

Harvard School of Public Health says that “If you live north of the line connecting San Francisco to Philadelphia and Athens to Beijing, odds are that you don’t get enough vitamin D. The same holds true if you don’t get outside for at least a 15-minute daily walk in the sun.” The effect of walking in the sun is that when UVB rays hit your skin, your body begins the process of converting a prohormone in the skin into vitamin D. Cholesterol that is naturally found in your skin absorbs the UVB radiation and gets converted into cholecalciferol. No, this is not a way to lower your cholesterol count!

The winter solstice is a reminder that we need the sun and that a 15 minute walk every day between 10.00 and 3.00 is a necessary part of our health regime. This is true for students as well. If you live in Canada or closer to Canada, that probably needs to be longer since UVB rays are weaker in northern latitudes.

We know that Vitamin D is important but probably unaware of its many benefits: building bones, protecting against heart disease and cancer and MS and Type 1 diabetes, boosting the immune system (helpful during flu season), even premature death.

Last thing – sunlight is also connected to Seasonal Affective Disorder. This is more prevalent in women than men and can include a drop in serotonin and melatonin. This impacts the quality of sleep and potentially can result in mood changes and symptoms of depression. That 15 minute walk can help with this too. Again, children can be impacted by both shortage of vitamin D and SAD. Treatment can take many forms but it always begins by getting outside and feeling the sun on your face.

Wellness in the fall and winter has many dimensions. There is one that is under our and under our school’s control. Ensure that everyone in the building gets outside for at least 15 minutes a day during school hours. Take your sandwich for a walk at lunch (and let the kids do the same). Maybe, this year, flu season won’t be as bad! And you’ll feel a whole lot more inspired in your work on a daily basis.