Unless you live in an area of the country where you get lots of sunlight in the winter and the temperatures are mild, you might find your energy level and motivation slipping a bit. It’s harder to get out of bed in the morning and you don’t have your usual get up and go. Sounds like a case of the winter blues or doldrums.
Some people experience a more severe form of the winter blues called seasonal affective disorder, a form of seasonal depression that begins as the days grow shorter and darker and improves when spring arrives.
Even if you don’t have a seasonal affective disorder, you might find you’re not as peppy or motivated during the winter. Need to get your mojo back? Here are 5 science-backed practices to help chase away the winter doldrums.
Winter Blues Cure: Let the Light In
Exposing your eyes to bright light during the day and sleeping in complete darkness helps optimize your natural circadian rhythms. Studies show a link between feelings of depression and disruption of circadian rhythms, the 24-hour cycles that tell your body when to sleep, eat etc. Light exposure plays a key role in setting your biological clock. It’s optimal for your eyes to be exposed to light during the day, especially in the early morning, and NOT to be exposed to light after the sun goes down.
It’s not always practical to hit the sack right after dinner, but the earlier the better, preferably before 9:00 or 10:00 P.M. Disruption of circadian rhythms is also linked with health problems, including cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Take home message: Go to bed as soon as after the sun goes down as you can. Then open the blinds as soon as you wake up to let in more light. Avoid shift work if at all possible. Working during hours when you would normally be sleeping is another way to throw your circadian rhythm and biological clock off balance.
Light therapy is an effective therapy for people with seasonal affective disorder too. Some people use a desktop light box that mimics natural light during the winter to chase away the winter blues. Another helpful device called a dawn simulator gradually exposes your eyes to light in the morning. Devices like these may be helpful whether you have seasonal affective disorder or only a minor case of the winter blues.
Winter Blues Cure: Exercise Regularly
Motivation can be more of a problem in the winter when you’d rather sip a cappuccino by the fireplace than work up a sweat, but the sweat offers more benefits. Exercise gets your blood flowing and ramps up the production of “feel good” brain chemicals that deliver feelings of peace and contentment. Plus, exercise optimizes the level of another brain chemical called serotonin that impacts your mood. That’s why exercise is sometimes referred to as a natural anti-depressant. In fact, some research shows it’s as effective as prescription anti-depressants.
When you work out, open up the shades and let the light in. A study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry showed the combination of bright light and exercise is an effective treatment for the winter blues. If you exercise at home, choose a spot with lots of natural light or simply open the curtains or blinds when you exercise.
You may feel like hibernating in the winter, but you’ll feel better if you add more movement to your life. Exercise at home so you don’t have to make the trek to the gym. When you work out at home, you’re in control of when and how you do it. Keep your workouts varied to help you stay motivated.
Winter Blues Cure: Get More Vitamin D
During the winter when your skin isn’t exposed to sunlight is when you’re most at risk for vitamin D deficiency. When your vitamin D level falls, it can lead to fatigue, muscle weakness, and lack of motivation. If you can’t get enough sunlight naturally, you may be a candidate for a vitamin D supplement. The best way to find out is to have your doctor check a vitamin D level via a blood test.
Winter Blues Cure: Adjust Your Diet
How’s your diet? Eating a low-glycemic diet, one that’s low in sugar and refined carbs and high in fiber, can help you avoid blood sugar fluctuations that cause you to feel tired and lack motivation. Sugars and refined carbs trigger blood sugar and insulin spikes that give you a surge of quick energy but then lead to fatigue and sleepiness as your blood sugar rapidly drops. Keeping your blood sugar as stable as possible, by choosing whole foods, lean sources of protein, and fiber-rich foods help you avoid mood swings and shifts.
Winter Blues Cure: More Magnesium
Magnesium helps you ward off the winter blues in several ways. For one, a deficiency is linked with a reduction in melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland in your brain that helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle Plus, studies show a link between consuming less dietary magnesium and seasonal affective disorder.
In fact, magnesium may be good for all types of stress. Research shows magnesium helps modify your body’s response to stress in several ways and may help modify the activity of stress hormones like cortisol. A growing body of research suggests most people aren’t getting enough magnesium in their diet. How can you increase the amount of magnesium you take in? Foods rich in magnesium include wheat germ, walnuts, almonds, tofu, whole grains, leafy vegetables, dark chocolate, seeds, and legumes. Eat up!
The Bottom Line
Even in the depths of winter, spring is never far away. Until then, use these tips to help keep your energy level and avoid the winter blues.
J Clin Psychiatry. 2002 Apr;63(4):316-21.
Science Daily. “Melatonin Improves Mood in Winter Depression”
Sleep Education. “Types of Bright Light Therapy”
Ann Acad Med Singapore. 2008 Aug;37(8):669-76.
Am J Psychiatry. 2006 Dec;163(12):2126-33.
Psychology Today. “Magnesium and the Brain: The Original Chill Pill”
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