Winter is Coming! If you’re like me, and nearly 50% of the population who still carries the hibernation gene, the customary dip in serotonin triggered by the brain’s rise in melatonin, makes you dread this time of year. Waking up in the dark, repeatedly pressing the snooze button, driving to and from work in monochromatic gray (my state has an average of 4 cloudy days per week), piercing cold winds, bulky winter coats, and mounting cabin fever–are just some of the many factors contributing to the cold sting of winter’s harsh reality. For many years, fleeing the state every February, like a sun-starved junky in need of a solar fix, was my only option for coping. Like most people who live in the northern states, I learned to accept this as my winter reality for my whole life knowing that happier days always arrived with the spring. But suffer no more! Fortunately, many advances in brain-based wellness have given us a better understanding of Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) and scientifically proven ways to better manage this unique mind/body challenge.
Are you S.A.D. susceptible? Does the decrease in daylight cause predictable changes in your energy, moods, and social behaviors? Think back over the years and ask yourself if you recognize the following personal changes that show up only in the winter:
- Increased length of sleep (45 minutes to 2.5 hours longer, depending on severity)
- Decreased interest in social activities (especially after the holidays)
- Drop in mood and overall feeling of wellbeing (“winter blues” in milder cases)
- Irritability (fueled by that cooped up, lethargic “cabin fever” feeling)
- Uncontrollable Appetite (resulting in binge eating on bad carbs only in the winter)
- Weight gain (due to eating too many “pleasure-making” sweet or starchy carbs)
- Energy dips (that paradoxically steal your motivation to do wellness practices)
- Rise in compulsions and addictions (remember alcohol is ultimately a depressant)
If you struggle with the majority of these symptoms, hope has arrived and early intervention is key. According to Dr. Norman Rosenthal, author of the book Winter Blues, “Over 80% of people with low energy or fatigue may expect to benefit from light therapy within 2-4 days.” So try adopting the following steps to help winterize your brain and body:
- Start using light boxes early in the season as a kind of natural energizing antidepressant.(the standard is at least 5,000 Lux daily–every morning)
- Cardiovascular exercise, minimally 30 minutes 3x’s/week boosts 3 out of 4 brain chemicals, making it the activity a day that could keep the psychiatrist away.
- Eat more neuro-nourishing foods and spices that can help bolster serotonin without the guilt of binging on sweet or salty junk food. Consuming more yogurt, avocados, chicken, whole grains, dark chocolate, basil, nutmeg, peppermint, turmeric, etc. can help. (view more options in my app– Blue STAR Bright available on iTunes and Google Play)
- Practice self-kindness without judgments. Its not your fault your brain responds to winter this way. Instead of feeling ashamed, do your best to understand what your whole self–body, mind, and spirit–needs to rise above your genetics and environment.
And if you suffer with the more debilitating version of S.A.D., which often severely interferes with functionality at work and home, consider seeing a mental health professional. Supportive therapy with the possibility of short term supplementation or in severe cases, medication, can lessen your suffering and help you feel happier.
I’ve also found that by attitudinally reframing what used to be a dreadful time of year as an opportunity to master responsible self-care can make a big difference too. What a great time winter provides us to explore what makes our spirits soar. I’m dedicating this winter to deepening my study of Ashtanga yoga, one of my new and favorite happy-making wellness practices. You too can rise above the cold sting of the darkest time of year by winterizing your brain and body, and doing it for your whole life.