The days are gray and cloudy. Spring seems too far off. And it feels as if there’s nothing to look forward to. It’s the perfect formula for the winter blues. If you’ve got a case of ’em, some simple, common sense advice — exercise, eat right and laugh a little — may be all it takes to battle back to sunny days again.
It’s that time of the year. The holidays are long past, and spring still seems a long way away.
Even when the temperature sneaks up to the 40s, it inevitably comes with a gust of rain, then follows a return to cold and snow.
And thus begins what we call the winter blues.
According to Gannett Health Services at Cornell University, the winter blues primarily are caused by unstable melatonin levels, a hormone produced during sleep, and serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter responsible for mood, hunger and sleep.
As sunlight decreases during these cold, dreary months, sufferers of the winter blues (and its more severe counterpart, seasonal affective disorder) experience changes in mood, energy and the ability to concentrate.
So what can you do?
“Move to Hawaii. I promise, in two days, you will be fine,” said Abbas Sadeghian, a psychologist at Aultman Hospital in Canton, Ohio, with a laugh.
Not feasible? No worries. Sadeghian says there are easy fixes for the winter blues.
“Of all the problems I see, I will take winter blues anytime,” he said.
For those with the more serious SAD, an antidepressant is an option. He said those with SAD most likely suffer from depression year round, but it is more severe in the winter.
Here is what experts recommend to help yourself feel better this time of year:
- Sit under a high voltage light. It may take a half hour a day if you’re really down, or two or three minutes if only slightly blue.
You may see expensive “light boxes” advertised for this treatment, but Sadeghian said it need not be fancy.
“You can get one at Office Max for $20,” he said. “Sit under a bright light a few minutes a day. Read a book so you won’t get bored.”
- Keep active. “You got to make life interesting. Come up with some activities,” Sadeghian said.
Personal trainer Kim Wagler of Impulse Personal Training in North Canton, Ohio, can help on that note. She said it doesn’t matter what you do, “just get moving.”
Wagler loves jumping jacks, squats and lunges, jumping rope, arm exercises with weights, and fun games with her son, such as tag and hide-and-seek.
She chooses these, she said, because “it gets the heart rate up quickly and gets the endorphins going.
“When there are endorphins and hormones involved — when they kick in — it’s amazing how well you feel,” Wagler explained. “And you don’t realize it until you do it.”
- Keeping a journal helps. Wagler advises folks who are feeling blue to keep a journal. She writes five things for which she is thankful every morning.
“If you start the day off happy,” she said, “it makes the whole day go better.”
Another way to beat the blues naturally is by the foods we eat.
Kathy Wise, health and wellness director at Mercy Medical Center in Canton and a registered dietitian, said some foods, especially carbs, can naturally raise those feel-good hormones in our brains.
Some people whose bodies don’t have enough serotonin, whether they absorb it or don’t make enough, might crave carbohydrates, she said.
The problem is this: When the carbs they crave are refined sugars, that can pack on the pounds. We’re better off, calorie-wise and mood-wise, reaching for fruit or whole grains such as oatmeal or beans and lentils.
Getting enough foods rich in B vitamins, as well as vitamin D, also is associated with mood and brain function. Wise recommends consulting a doctor before taking supplements.
A healthy diet with nutritious carbohydrates can be as effective for some, Wise said, as a prescribed antidepressant.
BATTLING THE WINTER BLUES
Here are five ways to help beat the blues:
1. Get outside. Spend some amount of time outdoors every day, even when it’s cloudy.
2. Use light therapy. Begin sitting under a high voltage light upon the onset of low sunlight, even before you feel the onset of winter SAD.
3. Get moving. Exercise at least 30 minutes, three times per week.
4. Eat right. A well-balanced diet high in vitamins and minerals will help you have more energy. Visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Web site for recommended amounts: fda.gov/forconsumers/default.htm
5. Talk it out. Seek professional counseling, if needed, during the winter months.
HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOU HAVE THE BLUES?
Feelings come and go. We’re up one day and down the next. So, how do you know if you have the winter blues? Here are the symptoms to look for.
- Anxiety and irritability
- Increased appetite
- Loss of concentration
WHAT TO EAT
Eating these foods can help increase the feel-good hormones in your brain.
- 1 cup low fat yogurt
- 1/2 cup raisins
- Blue-red plums
- Baked sweet potato
Source: Kathy Wise, registered dietitian, Mercy Medical Center