As the winter drags on long after Thanksgiving and the December Holidays many of us are affected by the gloom and doom of gray skies, cold days and reduced activity. How can we combat this to get through the next few months until spring greets us with blue skies, singing birds and sunshine!?
Our scenery is gray and barren. Many of us leave for work in early morning darkness and get off of work in the dark five days a week. Lack of a suitable environment to get out and be social in due to cold temperatures and shorter daylight hours cause us to be more sedentary and solitary. It is also more difficult to get motivated to exercise in inclement weather, which leads to decreased release of mood elevating endorphins. Exercising indoors on a stationary machine can also decrease motivation to work out. It is easier to hide a few extra pounds under larger clothing, which may lead to less health conscious eating. Vitamin D deficiency is also more common in the winter due to decreased sunlight exposure and decreased intensity of the sunlight, which may lead to depressed mood. All of this leads to natural declines in energy and mood with possible weight gain and food cravings.
Staying active can help us to keep those endorphins pumping. Endorphins released during exercise have positive effects on mood and act almost like natural anti depressants! If you can get out for some activity in the daylight that would be even better!
Eating healthfully and in appropriate amounts is important. Studies show that those who make healthful food decisions have better moods, less cravings and less disordered eating. Heavier foods are typical of colder months, but eating fresh almost tropically inspired cuisine may help to elevate your mood. So pack in the fresh fruits and veggies and keep the pounds from creeping on this winter.
Vitamin D is “the sunshine vitamin” often found to be deficient in the winter due to decreased sunlight exposure. Get outside and expose at least the skin of your face to the sun when possible during peak sunlight hours, 11am-1pm. You will not meet your Vitamin D needs this way in the winter like you would in just 10-15 minutes in the spring/summer months, but the benefits of sunlight are multifactoral.
Eat foods high in vitamin D to avoid deficiency:
cod liver oil (mmm!)
salmon: coho, atlantic, sockeye
fortified cereals, dairy and eggs
I always recommend getting vitamin D through food sources and sunlight rather than supplementation unless there is a deficiency or you are a super picky eater! New recommendations have increased recommended daily allowances (or amount of nutrients in the diet required to maintain good health in individuals) to:
1200mg/day 51-70 years
Signs and symptoms of deficiency may include bone pain and muscle weakness, but may also be asymptomatic. Get your vitamin D checked at your primary care provider in the winter months if you have any of these symptoms. If your vitamin D is low you will need oral supplementation under your doctor’s care. Studies are not conclusive as to whether vitamin D deficiency leads to depression and whether supplementation relieves symptoms, but there seems to be a link, which requires further research.
Keeping your environment bright can aid in keeping your mood elevated throughout the winter. Bright light therapy is a more intense treatment which can help to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Bright light is recommended with 10,000 lux (strength) of fluorescent light without ultraviolet wavelengths. You should sit about 20-30” from the box for about thirty minutes in the am soon after awaking. Your eyes should be open, but do not look straight into the light. This is not for everyone and may be damaging to the eye especially of those with diabetes or eye disease. It can also cause hypomania and mania in those with bipolar. It is highly recommended to see your medical provider for proper diagnosis of SAD and evaluation of appropriateness before purchasing a light box (http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/seasonal-affective-disorder-bring-on-the-light-201212215663).
SAD is a more serious condition that may play a role in the “winter blues.” It’s symptoms are more intense and most likely due to less exposure too sunlight which decreases levels of serotonin, melatonin and disrupts circadian rhythms. Serotonin is a brain chemical related to mood which drops with less sunlight and may lead to depression in some. Melatonin plays a part in regulating the sleep-wake cycle or circadian rhythm. Melatonin is released in response to darkness and causes sleepiness. This can lead to decreases in energy, disruption in sleep cycle and changes in mood when daylight hours are shorter in the winter (http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/basics/causes/con-20021047).
Symptoms of SAD:
loss of energy
appetite changes, weight gain–> especially cravings for foods high in carbohydrates
Be sure to see your doctor if you are experiencing these symptoms to discuss treatment options and prevent worsening of your condition. SAD can be a serious condition and must be addressed promptly. Light therapy is usually first line, but some may require antidepressants or psychotherapy.