I love this picture of my daughter. It reminds me of how much I loved winter as a kid – the snow, hot chocolate with marshmallows, a crackling fire, and building endless forts indoors.
But as an adult, winter can lose some of its magic for me, and it seems like everyone else I talked to last week has been feeling a little less than magical too. It’s January, and that means the days are shorter and the weather is dark and cold, making getting out of bed or out of our comfies a task we may not be up for. I lived in Seattle for a total of 16 years of my life, so I have a little experience with Seasonal Affective Disorder – well, a LOT of experience with it! I can remember turning on the golf channel just to see the sun after weeks of not a ray poking through.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder? According to the Mayo Clinic, SAD (appropriately named) is a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year, starting in late fall and extending through the winter months. SAD zaps your energy and makes you feel moody and anxious. The exact cause of SAD is thought to be lack of sunlight – the dreary weather and fewer daylight hours – which affects our body’s production of the feel good neurotransmitter serotonin.
The symptoms of SAD are the same as typical depression, although they get better during the spring and summer months. WebMD lists the symptoms of SAD as:
Feeling sad, grumpy, or anxious
Losing interest in your usual activities
Eating and craving more carbohydrates
Wanting to sleep more and feeling drowsy during the day
When I feel the winter blues coming on, I have found a few natural things that help. If you’ve found it difficult to get up and going on dark winter days, try my 6 tips to brighten your mood and boost your energy.
1. See the light: Lack of sunlight is the biggest contributor to developing SAD, so make it a priority to see the light. Getting sunlight between the hours of 6am and 8am are the most effective hours, so upon rising, open your blinds and let as much light into your living and work spaces as possible. Take time during the day to go outside, especially if the sun breaks through the clouds. The fresh air will also do you good, as oxygen does wonders for your brain and energy level. Invest in warm gloves, a hat, a scarf, and a jacket, and go for a walk during lunch. Take your dog along for company, and listen to some upbeat, positive music. What if the weather doesn’t permit you to get outside? Invest in new light bulbs. The bright light of full spectrum light bulbs also helps your brain produce more serotonin.
2. Careful with the Carbs: When you are down, your body naturally wants to fix the situation. This can lead to a craving for carbs. Carbohydrates are a quick energy and mood booster, as they are easily broken down into glucose, absorbed into your blood stream, and through the work of insulin, quickly entered into the cells of your body in large amounts. For a short time, you feel great – you’re energized, you feel happy, and you can focus. But those euphoric feelings don’t last. Your blood sugar plummets and your energy is once again zapped, your mood fluctuates, and you feel spacey and drowsy. So what next? You start the whole cycle over again when you reach for the next cracker, muffin, or pretzel to pick you back up. This blood sugar roller coaster leads to over eating and weight gain, which doesn’t help the winter blues.
3. Eat Mood Boosters: The protein rich foods like turkey, chicken, fish, beans, and dairy (if you tolerate it) all contain good amounts of tryptophan, which is what your body uses to make serotonin – your feel good neurotransmitter. Your body not only needs tryptophan to produce serotonin, but you also need a moderate amount of complex carbohydrates like those in starchy vegetables, nuts, or beans. And don’t forget the fat! Hormonal processes like those of serotonin need healthy fats. Load up on fish, avocados, nuts, and seeds – a much better snack choice than chips, crackers, or pretzels. Healthy fats also provide good, sustaining energy.
4. Get Moving: Exercise increases serotonin production and also production of another feel good neurotransmitter, dopamine. This tip may be the hardest for some, as getting out from under a warm blanket is just about the farthest thing from your mind. And, I get it – it’s not easy for me either. But, when I visualize how good I will feel afterwards, I can usually muster up enough will power to get moving. The first few minutes are the hardest while your body is warming up, but once that blood is pumping, you will be glad you did it.
5. Stay Connected: Nothing brightens your mood more than spending time with your friends – the ones that are positive, that make you laugh, and that are refreshing to be around. But feelings of depression can often leave us uninterested in connecting. Make a point to plan at least one face-to-face social experience each day – meet a friend for a walk outside, attend a yoga class together, or grab lunch or a coffee somewhere with lots of natural light.
6. Supplements: I am not a doctor or registered dietician, but these are some supplements that have helped me ward off seasonal depression. Check with your doctor before trying any supplements or dietary changes.
Liquid Calcium/Magnesium/Vitamin D
St. John’s Wort
So there you have it – my arsenal to fight the winter blues. If your depression or lack of energy worsens despite trying these 6 tips, seek help from your doctor. Depression is nothing to mess around with, and your doctor can help.