People pinpoint the start of winter in all sorts of ways. Australians like to keep things neat and go by the calendar: winter officially starts on June 1 and finishes at the end of August. Simple. For those inclined towards astronomy, the cold season is defined by earth's orbital position in relation to the sun, with its midpoint - winter solstice, the shortest day of the year - signalled by the midday sun appearing at its lowest point above the horizon (June 21 this year). My personal method is far more instinctive. I know winter has arrived when I find myself making roasts, craving nothing more than hot tea and a doona, and waking up so cold that I weep ice and question my will to live.
Winter can be one brutal bastard of a season. It humiliates us and renders our behaviour ridiculous. In the mornings, we stay absolutely still in bed, knowing that the slightest movement can dissipate the warmth afforded by the just-so equilibrium of body, blanket and bed. From bed, we rush to the bathroom with the grim determination of a Russian widow facing the snow, before spending the rest of the day dragging an oil heater from room to room, like a hospital patient attached to an IV drip.
And sometimes we end up on such a drip. Hospitals are inundated in winter, with staff having to adjust to drastically changed working conditions due to the cold ("winter illness impact") and an increased demand for beds. All around the country, we contract influenza, last year in record numbers, and suffer from something delightful called "winter vomiting", also known as viral gastroenteritis or stomach flu.
And even if we don't get ill, we get unhealthy. Our until-now-disciplined several-kilometres-a-week swimming regimen is swiftly replaced by other non-traditional, non-Olympic sports such as extreme soup making, marathon hot showering and competitive sleeping. At night, we cling more closely than ever to our partners (or pets, or children, or strangers off the street), not because we love each other more in winter, but because other people are a great source of body heat and we could, hypothetically, kill them and use them as a protein source in an extreme survival situation, should it ever come to that.
Australians just aren't made for this kind of weather. We live in complete denial that it ever gets cold at all. Central or in-built heating is rare, and come June, we're always caught off guard by the sudden necessity of wearing, say, trousers.
Many countries have far more brutal winters, of course, the kind that make you reassess humanity's collective wisdom in thinking any of these places were fit for human habitation. Take the remote Russian village of Oymyakon (population: fewer than 500), to which Stalin's regime exiled political prisoners. Now regarded as the coldest permanently inhabited area on earth, Oymyakon boasts average yearly highs of minus 8.5°C and average lows of minus 22.7°C. (Its record low is minus 71.2°C.)
It isn't just the environment that changes hideously in winter: our bodies transform in magical and revolting ways, too. For a start, we get fatter. Even the fittest people gain an extra kilogram or two during winter.
This fat rarely helps our cause: it's a myth that our bodies are designed to pack on the kilos to feel warmer (as Slate magazine has noted, women tend to have more fat, and therefore a higher core temperature, but colder extremities). Instead, the fat we gain is most likely due to an evolutionary tic whereby we associate the cold with famine. We essentially hold on more tightly to any energy reserves we don't use. Some research also suggests that melatonin - the sleep-inducing hormone activated by darkness - comes into full force in winter and makes us hungrier. Other studies hypothesise that if we are lacking exposure to sunshine, and therefore have lower vitamin D levels, we retain more fat.
I just hypothesise pudding.
If you think you're rushing off to the toilet more often, too, it's not your imagination. During winter, we pee a lot. Partly, this is because we tend to perspire less in winter, but in low temperatures we also undergo something called peripheral vasoconstriction. To minimise heat loss in cold conditions, blood vessels in our skin narrow to stop blood flowing to outer tissues. Blood pools towards the core of our bodies, which pushes up blood pressure in our arteries. Our kidneys - which regulate blood volume and pressure - reabsorb or shed water according to our hydration and blood-pressure levels, and, voilà, more pee.
And, contrary to the myth that we become bear-like in winter to insulate our bodies, our hair grows more slowly in winter. Lower body heat means slower cell division and blood circulation, which makes our hair growth sluggish; the rate usually drops by about 10 per cent.
We yawn more, too. Studies have been done (God bless those scientists, whoever they are) that suggest - counter-intuitively - that people yawn more in the cold to suck in outside air and ensure the brain is kept cool and functioning. We yawn less in summer, only because we would be sucking in hot air that would cause our brains to overheat. Apparently, our brains function better in winter.
Or maybe not. Because all the mental gains we enjoy as a result of yawning are probably cancelled out by the fact that winter makes us more depressed. Winter will always flatten out our moods, since the lack of sunshine wipes out our vitamin D production and affects our serotonin levels, which in turn alters our alertness and moods. Most people adjust to this as winter ploughs on, but some suffer from fully blown seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Originally labelled "seasonal depression" in the 1980s, seasonal affective disorder is notable for having symptoms - such as weight gain, increased sleep, carb cravings - that are seemingly opposite to some more common signs of depression.
In any case, we probably shouldn't complain. The lowest temperature ever recorded in Australia is Oymyakon's average low. Plus, most of this story was written in luxurious conditions: under a doona, wearing a beanie, with the heating jacked up to roughly simulate a Finnish sauna.
Still, I know I'm not alone when I say, "Bring on spring, already!" It's that brief interlude between mind-shattering winters and summers of natural disasters, where the heat destroys us and we're forced to lie in bed moaning and nude with ice packs over our foreheads. By then, we might be sweating out our weight in salt and water again, and our minds will have turned to mush.
It won't matter, though. We'll be fitter, happier and hairier than ever.
From: Good Weekend