For many of us, the annual daylight savings ‘fall back’ ritual is a visceral reminder that, like it or not, winter is coming. The prospect of long nights, little daylight, and cold, gray skies can easily drag mood to a darker than usual place and keep it there until at least March, when we ‘spring forward’ once again. While there’s no stopping winter’s arrival, with a bit of forethought, you can fend off much of the moodiness, lethargy, carb-cravings and depressive tendencies that can make the season anything but bright.
What’s the secret to beating back the metaphorical darkness? Accept the inevitable, tend to your physical and mental health, and stack the deck with feel-good activities. Call it seasonal self-care or simply your winter battle plan, focusing on all that makes you feel great will make the time fly by – and let you win at winter. Here’s where to start:
1) Shorten winter’s length – in your mind.
For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, Wednesday, December 21 is the shortest day of the year, with the fewest daylight hours. But you can mentally reframe it and think of the winter solstice as the day that the darkness starts to turn around – something to feel good about! From there, the extra moments of light keep coming, roughly 2 minutes more each day, which by January 20 or so, really adds up, about an extra hour of daylight. As the season progresses, we continue to gain another hour of daylight about every 28 days, as we push forward into spring.
2) Prep your brain and belly for winter.
Your next order of business should be: filling up on foods that help keep spirits high, and your immunity too. Not enough daylight triggers hormonal shifts, with sleep-inducing melatonin rising, and serotonin levels falling, tanking mood and increasing appetite. Small wonder you may find yourself craving sugar, comfort foods, cocktails and carbs. Trouble is, they’re all counterproductive, as they trigger imbalances in the gut that ultimately impact the brain and drag down mood. In other words, regardless of how hard winter’s gloom may get you down, a lousy diet and alcohol will make matters worse. This winter (an beyond) turn over a new leaf and show sugar, processed junk, alcohol and carbs the door! Instead, lean into good fats, plant foods and proteins from healthy sources to support the best mood possible, the healthiest gut and strongest immunity all winter long.
3) Use winter’s chill to upgrade mood – and downgrade fat.
Most of us have been raised to bundle up against the cold or avoid it completely. But controlled exposure to cold is like time spent in the sun – in sensible doses, it confers health-boosting benefits that are tough to access when you’re wrapped up like a fleece burrito. For example, studies indicate than an hour of outdoor exercise offers the same mood lift as 2.5 hours of light treatment indoors, so use outdoor exercise for a happier head. What’s more, in addition to those mood-boosting feelings of accomplishment you’ll get by braving the elements, exercising in cold weather helps your body burn more energy, by forcing it to work overtime to maintain your core temperature. What’s in it for you? Increased fat loss without a ton of extra effort.
Outdoor exercise is also good for your mind and body in other ways, helping boost attention and focus skills as well as executive function. In addition, studies show that outdoor exercise and all that fresh air helps boost oxygen levels in the brain, which in turn boosts the serotonin levels which help manage mood, and help regulate hunger (good news for those watching their waistlines). And, no, you won’t catch a cold from increased cold exposure – cold doesn’t cause colds, viruses do.
4) Make winter your anti-aging ally.
Getting out into the elements – to work out or just chill – not only helps activate your brown fat tissue, the ‘good’ kind that generates energy and helps burn calories, but, taken in small doses, can actually turn on your longevity genes. Turns out, short periods of adversity stimulate the body’s defenses against aging without doing harm, a resilience-building phenomenon known as ‘hormesis.’ In fact, getting cozy with cold is credited not only with anti-aging effects, it’s showing promise as a preventative treatment for dementia by taming inflammation and oxidative stress.
So, how to take advantage of the cold to help stoke your anti-aging furnace? Introduce some creativity into the process and make a game of cold exposure, and see how many cold-focused activities you can add to your mix as temps start to fall:
- Take your morning coffee outside, lightly dressed, without burying yourself in layers of fleece – remember, slight discomfort is the goal (not hypothermia!)
- Put on a few light layers and walk the dog, minus your overcoat
- Hit the slopes, be it on skis, snowboards, snowshoes, sleds or saucers, wearing removable layers
- Hit the ice, indoors or out, for some ice skating, ice hockey or curling, wearing just a layer or two – you’ll be surprised at how quickly your body adjusts to the cold once you start moving
- Play in the snow, build a snow fort or igloo, or start a (gentle) snowball fight to really get the blood flowing
- Try a ‘polar bear plunge,’ get into cold-water swimming, or sign up for ice bath or cryotherapy sessions – and start slow, building up your tolerance over time. For a deep dive into using cold therapeutically, check out extreme athlete Wim Hof’s “Becoming the Iceman”
- Dine or entertain outdoors, as many of us learned to do during the pandemic (fire pit optional!)
5) Start the day with an icy (indoor) blast.
For a daily equipment-free way to get your chill on: finish your morning shower with a cold rinse – start with a 30 – 60 second blast to help boost circulation, tame inflammation and pain, ease stress and reduce muscle soreness. Research shows that cold exposure boosts production of your mitochondria, the energy factories inside your cells which drive life and longevity. They transform food and oxygen into ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, the molecule that powers biochemical reactions throughout your body. ATP molecules are especially abundant in the cells of your heart, brain, and muscles. With a cold finish to your hot shower, you’re giving yourself an energizing, virtually effortless, anti-aging boost every morning.
6) Bathe yourself in winter light.
Granted, when the days are short, getting a daily dose of sunlight may require a little extra effort. But taking a brief winter sun bath will support serotonin production and better mood, and that light will help regulate your circadian rhythms, making it easier to fall asleep at night and rise at a reasonable hour. Just a couple 10-to-15-minute daily shots of sunlight in the great outdoors will do the trick, so step out (literally) into the light – every day, even when it’s overcast. On days when you’re short on time, park yourself in a sunlit area in front of an open window to help fill the gap.
When a stretch of bad weather makes sunlight especially elusive, you can simulate and supplement your daily dose of sunshine using a light therapy box or by adding full spectrum light bulbs. Though they’re not a replacement for the real thing, they can still help boost energy and mood when daylight is in short supply. Add full spectrum bulbs in areas within your home where you want to feel a bit more alert, for example, in your office or living room. But keep them out of the bedroom to ensure they don’t disrupt your sleep/wake cycle.
Find it tough to get out of bed on dark winter mornings? Then greet the day in a more natural way with a dawn simulator, a device which eases the transition from darkness to dawn by mimicking the slow rise of morning light.
7) You’re not a bear, so don’t hibernate!
These past few pandemic years forced us to keep our distance from just about everyone outside our immediate circle. Though we still need to be conscious of winter ills, at this point, it appears we don’t need to continue to live in full hibernation mode. Granted, when it’s pitch dark out and the snow is up to your knees, socializing may not be top of mind, but I urge you to get back out in the world this winter, if for no other reason than to support your mental health.
Making plans (and keeping them, ideally) not only helps the season move more quickly, but can also help take the edge off winter blues symptoms, particularly when laughter with friends or loved ones comes into play. When we laugh, blood pressure and stress levels recede, increasing feelings of well-being – whereas retreating or isolating behaviors have the opposite effect. So, no matter how cold it gets, at a minimum, try to book a date, any kind of date with others, once a week or every 10 days. It will give you something to look forward to (an instant mood-lifter!) and some much-needed, stress-busting bonding time with those who are important to you.
8) Focus on pleasure – all winter long.
As someone who was raised in a warm sunny climate, believe me, I get it, winter can be a challenge. But it’s also inevitable, which is why I encourage everyone to make an extra effort to embrace winter with an if-it-feels-good-do-it approach. Anything you can do that makes your mind and body feel happy, short of drugs or alcohol or over-indulging in unhealthy foods, is worth doing, because feel-good activities help release your body’s natural mood-boosters. To get your dose, indulge in a massage, hit the steam room or book an infrared sauna session at a local spa. Regular exercise, sex and laughter are pleasurable activities that get endorphins and other happy neuro-chemicals flowing – so tap into them all season long and winter may just become your new favorite season.