For those of us who live in the temperate zone, winter is a real thing. Not only does it have its own characteristic weather profile – gray, chilly, intermittently snowy or slushy or rainy – it’s got its own emotional profile to match. Call it the winter blues or the winter blahs. About a fifth of the population in these climes has it severely enough to warrant a psychiatric label, “seasonal affective disorder” or SAD, an acronym that says it all. We’re sluggish, peevish, prone to oversleeping and overeating and everything just seems like a lot of trouble. It makes you wonder just how much DNA humans and bears share. But unlike bears, we’re not allowed to hibernate our way through the winter. And unlike bears, we have the brains to help us figure out a way, or a bunch of good ways, to get ourselves out of this seasonal mess.
Here are some proven tips to you banish those blues this winter.
Light up your life, naturally.
So much of our mood, and our sleep, turns out to be cued by the outdoors light/dark cycle. Granted, light tends to be in short supply in the winter, which is a big part of the seasonal blues, but we compound the problem when we stay cooped up at home or at the office. Indoors, the intensity of the light exposure from conventional light bulbs is typically 1/100 of what we’d get from outdoor sun exposure, not nearly enough to stimulate the production of the mood-lifting, feel-good brain chemical, serotonin. The trick is not to let yourself be intimidated by the colder winter temperatures. Build in regular sun breaks during the day, and dress appropriately of course. Since morning light gives you the biggest radiant bang for your buck, go for a regular a.m. tour of the neighborhood; or use a not-so-close parking spot or public transpo stop and hoof the last lap to work. Especially if the sun is out and it’s not windy, enjoy a coffee break or quick lunch en plein air. You get a mood lift and tune up your body’s circadian rhythms, making it easier to keep regular bedtime hours and avoid the winter over-sleeping trap.
In winter, some fake light is alright.
Switching out some of the standard light bulbs in your home or at work with full-spectrum bulbs is an easy mood and energy upgrade. Use them in the areas where you spend most of your winter hours to cash in on at least some of the health dividends of exposure to the real stuff: less eye strain, less brain fog, improved immunity. And, if you’re a SAD sufferer or just really having no patience with the winter doldrums, bring out the heavy artillery, a light-therapy box that can safely generate light exposures similar to sunbathing.
Movement is medicine, so take yours often.
Study after study has shown that exercise is at least as good as combatting the milder forms of depression as the commonly prescribed (and over-prescribed) SSRI pharma drugs. Getting moderate-intensity exercise in the range of what the government recommends, 150 minutes a week, has been shown to promote the brain’s production of serotonin (responsible for that feeling of calm well-being) and dopamine (driving edgier feelings of novelty and excitement). So, imagine how good it is at chasing away the standard-issue, garden-variety winter blues! If you’re taking your brisk walk or jog or spin on the bike outdoors, then you’re getting the extra benefit of the sun exposure on those sunny days that seem more common as winter wears on. And if you don’t overdress, you’ll burn extra calories keeping your body temperature stable and quite possibly increase your supply of brown fat which burn calories instead of storing them like the normal white stuff. If you’re a more serious recreational endurance athlete, you may be able to go long and hard enough to trigger your body’s production of endorphins, natural brain opiates that send your mood soaring. Legally.
Food is medicine too – except when it’s not.
Cold temps and gray skies have a way to steering us to sugary, carbed-up comfort foods. (There’s a reason why the chilly Midwest is the land of casseroles and pie.) The occasional indulgence is OK – those carbs do fuel the production of serotonin – but don’t overturn your whole eating philosophy just because you have to wear a scarf outside. Think lean, clean proteins, healthy fats and veggies. (If a bear really is your spirit animal, replace Winnie the Pooh and his honey jar with an Alaskan grizzly fishing for salmon.) An extra ten pounds in March that wasn’t there in October doesn’t lift anybody’s mood.
Put supplements in your winter survival kit.
Supplements to complement a healthy diet—they’re a good idea too, and in winter, a must for immunity and mood. Most of us in the Northern latitudes are deficient in vitamin D during the cold months; we simply don’t get enough sun exposure. The association between SAD and low D is strong enough that I recommend my patients take between 2,000 and 5,000 IU/day to keep neurotransmitter levels humming.
Fish oils and other omega 3 fatty acids are involved in the synthesis of serotonin and there is evidence they can protect against depression.
The supplement 5-HTP is a building block of, once again, serotonin, so it makes my wintertime go-to/worth-a-try list, 200-400 mg. before bedtime.
And finally, magnesium is an all-purpose mineral all-star that, among its many benefits, can protect serotonin and melatonin levels. Magnesium comes in many forms, but I often recommend magnesium glycinate, 400-600 mg, before bedtime.
Alcohol is not your friend.
I know, booze is the time-tested way of banishing the blues. Too bad it’s never worked, at least not for very long. But many of us still fall into the trap of heavier drinking to make holiday socializing seem more jolly and then just keep going, downhill, until April. The reality is, our mood and our immune system is challenged enough by winter. The disrupted sleep and next-day washed-out feeling that booze delivers is just unnecessary piling on. Winter should be the time when we’re living more attentively to our health and wellness. If you’re itching to tie one on, save it for later in the spring, and even then, go easy on the stuff.
Prescribe yourself regular doses of fun.
Living attentively doesn’t mean living boringly. Winter is the time to think about what it is that you really like doing. It’s the best season to direct some conscious attention to upping your fun quotient. You really enjoy getting together with two particular friends for lunch? Put it on the calendar, once every couple of weeks or whatever is do-able. Be diligent about going to yoga or Pilates or your reading club and hang out with your friends there afterwards. The winter blues feeds on the fake community of social media so make that extra effort to see real people in the real world. Laugh more! Nothing reduces stress and boosts those feel-good brain chemicals than the simple, soulful act of laughing.
Strike a pose and restore your well-being.
Sometimes just taking a moment to refocus or recharge can get you over the hump of a winter day. Here’s a favorite restorative yoga pose that helps stimulates the heart and improves circulation and helps ease symptoms of stress and mild depression:
RECLINING CROSS-LEGGED POSE
Sit cross-legged and place a bolster or three firmly folded blankets vertically behind you, a few inches away from your sacrum. (If you are using a yoga mat, this support will run vertically up the center.) Lie back onto it and place a large blanket folded in thirds under your head to support it; your head should be higher than your heart and tilted so that your chin is lower than your forehead. The body is in a gentle sloping position in this pose, with the head above the heart and the heart above the pelvis. If your hips are tight, place folded blankets under each thigh so you can fully sink into the pose, with no pulling on your inner thighs. Let your arms fall outward at the sides of your body, with the backs of your hands resting lightly on the floor.
When you have found the right combination of support, you will be able to easily relax your face and throat and feel as if you are safely held. Notice your breath as it moves in and out of your lungs. Remain in the pose for ten minutes, changing the cross of the legs halfway through.