Hi All! Well, it’s COLD here in the Midwest, and by cold I mean CCCCCCOOOOLD! Right this minute it’s 1 degree here, and with the wind chill it feels like 11 degrees BELOW ZERO! Oh, and it’s gloomy too, we have moments of sunshine but really it’s been quite cloudy. You get the picture, right? If you don’t, here’s the picture. I mean, a picture of what it looks like here at this moment.
It looks like where Nasa faked the moon landing, doesn’t it? Very desolate and grey, and it’s been like this for a long while. So, the point of this post is that because of the lack of sunlight and inability to go outside, some of us (which definitely includes ME!) are susceptible to the “winter blues”.
Now here’s an important point that I want to be sure to make from the get go, there is a difference between being sad and a little blue during the winter and real clinical depression. I’m talking about the winter blues here, so if you feel you are clinically depressed (can’t get out of bed, feel suicidal, etc), please talk to a medical professional IMMEDIATELY.
What I’m talking about is something called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). It’s so aptly named because that’s the way I feel lately, a little sad. Here’s the 411 on SAD, it’s a feeling of fatigue, sadness and depression that grows as sunlight grows scarce. It’s differentiated from regular depression because unlike regular depression, it totally goes away in the spring and summer months. It’s been estimated that 20% of Americans are affected by SAD each winter.
The reason this happens is that as the days begin to darken and sunlight is at a minimum our health and mood is intricately tied to exposure to sunlight. SAD has long been associated with Vitamin D deficiency, in addition to more chronic depression. Vitamin D receptors appear in a wide variety of brain tissue, and activated Vitamin D receptors increase nerve growth in the brain, so it’s important for brain function and mental health in general. Take Serotonin levels, for example. The hormone typically associated with elevating your mood, Serotonin rises when exposed to bright light. Also, Melatonin rises and falls inversely with light and darkness. Like, when it’s dark your melatonin levels increase, which is why we feel tired when the sun starts to set. And when it sets so early in the winter, 4 pm?!!, we start to feel tired earlier than usual. Also, our circadian rhythms, or biological clock, is controlled by light and darkness and impacts hormones that regulate appetite and metabolism.
See? This is why we are more sad (lack of vitamin D), cranky (lack of Seratonin), tired (too much Melatonin) and hungry (circadian rhythms are off) in the winter. It’s not our fault, it’s darn winter’s fault! I always feel better if I can blame someone or something else!
Believe me, though, when I tell you that this is nothing to make light of. It can really throw you off and make you feel pretty darn bad. However, I want to assure my wonderful readers that this is something we can conquer or at least minimize as much as possible. I’ve got a list for you that I’ve compiled from a number of sources (including the one who resides in my home when I needed additional assistance with this issue!) about ways to help make you feel better during the dark, cold winter months. I KNOW it will help you as it’s helped me a lot!
1. Exercise- Get Moving! That’s the best advice for when I’m feeling gloomy and tired, I ride my bike, kickbox, or take a jog with my dogs. Anything to get the blood flowing makes me feel so warm and happy. As Elle Woods in Legally Blonde said, “Exercise gives you Endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people don’t shoot their husbands. They just don’t.” Wise words from one of my favorite movies! 🙂
2. Go Outside– It seems like the last thing I want to do when it’s cold and gloomy out but I’ll tell you, it is the most effective cure for my SAD, especially when the sun is out. Sunlight is the best way to boost Vitamin D and seratonin so this is super important in the winter. However, even if it isn’t, I find that just getting a bit of fresh air makes me feel better. I’ve taken my dogs for a walk every day of this winter, except when it’s below zero outside or an ice storm, and it helps not only me but my dogs too. I think Chewie has SAD as well because when we can’t take our walk he seems genuinely bummed.
3. Light therapy– If there is no way to get natural sunlight, sun substitutes must be employed to help vitamin D production. I have a full-spectrum light box, and I use it every morning to help stimulate vitamin D and serotonin levels naturally. A good quality light box is around $150, and for me totally worth it to help give me a natural boost. I also advocate the use of ELECTRONIC BALLAST tanning beds. Most commercial tanning salons utilize magnetic ballast systems which generate potentially harmful electromagnetic fields (EMF), and the electronic ballast systems do not. I know this is a controversial topic. I know this because in my own family the fact that I have an electronic ballast tanning bed has caused a lot of angst and fighting. All I can say is that it is my belief, no my certainty, that sunlight (and tanning beds) DO NOT CAUSE SKIN CANCER. conversely it is the LACK OF VITAMIN D (or avoidance of sunlight) that causes cancer. Now, I have certain caveats to my beliefs in this regard, first, NEVER EVER BURN YOURSELF IN THE SUN/TANNING BED/OR ANYTHING LIKE THAT.I have not ever burned to my knowledge and I never intend to. Second, while it is not my belief that sun/tanning beds cause skin cancer, I know they cause premature aging of the skin so I always cover my head with a hat and my eyes with sunglasses when I’m in the sun. Third, everything in moderation. I only utilize my tanning bed twice a week because I don’t want to be one of those leather skinned old ladies who walk on the beach in Florida, even though I have one in my home. I mean, just because I have bottles of wine in my home I’m not going to drink them all at once, am I?
4. Supplementation– I highly recommend everyone to go and get their vitamin D levels tested. Any doctor can write a prescription for the test. Then, you’ll see how low it probably is. I say that because the National health and Nutrition Examination Survey found that 50% of children aged 1-5 years, 70% of kids 6-11, 50% of people under 60 years old, and 95% of all senior citizens are deficient or have insufficient vitamin D. So basically, many of us have low vitamin D. I had mine tested in the summer when I was getting plenty of sun and IT WAS STILL LOW. So I take a daily vitamin D3 (there are different D’s but D3 is the best one for absorption) supplement of 5,000 IU (international units). The ideal amount of vitamin D you’re looking for is 50-70 ng/ml and you want to maintain this year round. Vitamin D is key for so many other of our bodily functions, and low vitamin D has been tied to all kinds of cancers so this is one of the major things you can do for your health in general. I also take a SAMe supplement which helps increase serotonin levels. Remember, always buy pharmaceutical grade supplements and don’t buy them at the grocery store or a big box store. That way you know you’re getting a quality supplement that will actually do what it’s supposed to do. And always check with your physician before taking any supplements.
5. Cuddling– Cuddling up with your husband/wife/significant other/children/pets is one of the good things about this cold, miserable weather, and it benefits your body as well. Hugs increase your endorphins which are your “feel good” hormones, and when you’re chilly it feels so good to snuggle up with a warm body, so by all means, increase those endorphins and get warm and cozy too. You’ll all benefit from that! 🙂
6. Keep it bright– have a roaring fire in your fireplace, turn on the lights, and keep the shades/curtains open to let in as much light as possible. It will help stimulate vitamin D and serotonin levels.
7. Get enough sleep and the right kind of it- It’s important to stick to a pattern of going to sleep fairly early and getting up that way too. If we stray too far from our biological patterns of going to sleep when it’s dark and awaking when the sun rises it can disrupt the hormonal cycles of our bodies which can affect both mood and health. Aim for 8 hours of sleep per night, and try to get them at a reasonable time. I usually go to bed around 10:30-11 and awaken around 7. Insomnia is one of the biggest links between depression and health, with half the people who are diagnosed with depression also struggling with insomnia. Try to keep it dim in the bedroom and DON’T FALL ASLEEP WITH THE TV ON. Besides the noise the tv creates which can disrupt sleep, it also emanates blue light which is a stimulant and can keep you from falling into a deep sleep. In fact, eliminate all electronic devices in the bedroom. There are no laptops, ipads or computers in our bedroom, although we do have our phones next to our beds which serve as our alarm clocks. We have a tv too, however we don’t usually watch tv in our bedroom preferring to watch in the family room.
8. Proper Nutrition– The link between food and overall health cannot be overstated (especially by me). Avoid processed foods which have a detrimental impact on brain function and mental health in general because of the SUGAR PROCESSED FOODS CONTAIN. Because your gut actually produces more serotonin than your brain does, optimizing gut health by eating fermented vegetables and taking probiotics every day really helps with SAD. Also, increasing animal based Omega 3 fats is essential for mood, especially because your brain consists of about 60% fat and you need a constant input of them for your brain to work properly. A 2009 study showed that people with low levels of Omega 3’s were more likely to have symptoms of depression than those with higher levels.
There you go! That’s what I’ve learned about SAD and the ways to prevent it. Now if spring could FINALLY get here I know I’ll feel better. I’m also looking forward to our upcoming (3 weeks!) trip to a warmer state than Indiana which will really help as well. Until then, I will try to stay warm and utilize the strategies I’ve outlined above to help me cope. Let me know if you try any of them, and if it helps you too! Overcoming SAD will help you live a life of vitality- with Valerie!