Hang in There, Winter is Almost Behind Us!

By Allen Phillips | March 1, 2019

How to Beat the Blues

It’s not uncommon to feel sad, irritated or less energetic during the winter months. For some people, these are manageable ups and downs that come with the changing seasons. Others may be dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which is a type of depression that may require lifestyle changes or professional support to overcome. I grew up in Northern California and spent the first 17 years of my life there. I was in the Air Force for 6 years and discovered good old North Dakota in 1981. I learned an important lesson the first year I lived in Minot during the blizzard of 1981 when snow hit the ground in October and didn’t leave until the end of May: These people adapt! They love it. They make a trip to the local sporting goods store in the fall, get all the necessary gear, and go ice-fishing, ice-skating, snowmobiling, and do everything in their power to appreciate the very elements that I cursed. By February, I couldn’t take being inside anymore, so I followed suit. I started having fun with the icicles that would form inside my car and throwing up a pail of water and watching it come down as snow from our barracks window. Once I tried to act like a Northern resident and stopped resisting the cold temperature, the better I tolerated it. When my parents ask me how we deal with the long winter, I simply say. We put on some warm clothes and go for it.

How do you know if you are suffering from the “winter blues”? Here are some of the main symptoms:

1. Excessive sleeping - You may find yourself sleeping more than 10 hours a day, and struggling to get out of bed.
2. Extreme fatigue - Whether you are getting enough sleep, you may be feeling extremely tired and lethargic.
3. Difficulty concentrating - At work you may struggle to stay engaged with your work.
4. Weight gain- It’s common to crave warm, hearty foods during the winter. Gaining more than 5-10 lbs during the winter months
5. Low motivation - You may find yourself unmotivated to leave your house, spend time with your friends, or make progress on your activities.

If you struggling with any of the above symptoms or are feeling especially down, you may be suffering from elements of Seasonal Affective Disorder. The good news is that there are proven ways to address this and to regain hope and happiness despite the dreary weather! Here are some of the most common techniques used to overcome winter depression:

On cold, dark days, it can be hard to pull yourself out of bed. But it’s important to keep moving and active. Keeping up with work, school or social obligations gives you momentum and focus that can make it easier to weather the tough days. Exercise has also been proven to reduce symptoms of depression and make you feel better. So, hit the gym or set aside some time for exercise or yoga at home. A daily walk in the middle of the day can be helpful. Go outdoors in natural daylight as much as possible, especially at midday and on brighter days. Inside your home, sit near windows whenever you can. Being cold may make you feel more depressed, so staying warm may reduce the winter blues. Keep warm with hot drinks and hot food. Wear warm clothes and shoes and to keep your home between 64F and 70F degrees.

Winter has its share of dark, gloomy mornings, but turning on your lamps and overhead lights can help lift your mood. Some people even invest in Lightbox or special lamps that mimic natural outdoor light. It’s so easy to focus on the negative but taking stock of the positive can greatly improve our perspective and mood. Take time each morning or night to write down a list of positives or things you are grateful for. If you’re comfortable, you can post your gratitude list on Facebook or tweet out one of your “positives” to inspire your friends and family. One of the best ways to feel better is to talk about how you’re doing. If you’re feeling blue or having a hard time getting motivated, talk to a friend about it. Most likely, they have felt or are feeling similar and you can help each other along by trading stories and tips. If your sadness or lethargy is continuing over days or weeks or making it hard for you to function, consider reaching out to a counselor or other professional who can help. I have no research supporting this theory, but I’m quite convinced there is a link between feeling optimistic and sporting bright colors. It’s in line tricking your brain into thinking that it’s sunny and beautiful outside — time to celebrate spring! — even though there's a blizzard with sleet causing some major traffic jams. Make a conscious effort to wear bright green, purple, blue and other spring-like colors. Since we get most of our vitamin D from the sun, it’s a good idea to take additional vitamin D supplements during the winter months.

Change up your diet

Certain Foods are fortified with vitamin D. Try changing up your diet.

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Salmon. Besides being high in omega-3s, salmon is a great source of lean proteins. Lean proteins carry plenty of amino acids, which may positively affect your mood. Lean proteins are also a great source of energy, which is something you’ll need to help beat fatigue.

2. Omega-3 fatty acids have been praised for their health benefits, including possibly influencing your mood. Sources that contain the highest levels of omega-3 fatty acids include flax seeds, walnuts, and salmon.

3. Raspberries, Blueberries, and strawberries may help prevent the release of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland. During stressful situations, cortisol heads toward your hippocampus, a major portion of the brain that stores memories, provides emotional responses, and helps with navigation. Keep berries in your bag to combat stress when it hits.

4. Sugar. If you start looking at the ingredients of food labels, you’ll notice various forms of sugar. They’ll appear as syrups or words that end in “-ose.” Sugar may give you a little happy boost at first, but I have found plenty of articles that suggest that too much sugar and too few omega-3 fatty acids can functionally change your brain and slow it down. It is a safe bet to stay away from sugar — especially if you’re feeling depressed. The crash after a sugar high can easily make you feel worse than before.

5. Folic acid’s effect on the brain has given insight into how it can boost your mood. There’s some evidence that the body uses it to create serotonin — a neurotransmitter that affects mood — but there’s no conclusive evidence as to how it works. Including it in your diet is a good idea regardless. You can get high amounts of folic acid in leafy greens, oatmeal, sunflower seeds, oranges, fortified cereals, lentils, black-eyed peas, and soybeans. Like folic acid, low levels of vitamin B-12 in the blood are associated with depression, but researchers can’t find definitive evidence as to why. There are lots of tasty ways to fit it into your diet. Food sources of vitamin B-12 include lean beef, clams, oysters, crab, wild salmon, eggs, cottage cheese, yogurt, milk, and fortified cereals.

6. Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine vitamin” because your body can make it by using cholesterol and absorbing natural sunshine. Research has shown that with as little as 10 minutes of sun exposure. Therefore, light therapy is an important treatment for SAD. Your body can also absorb vitamin D through food. Food sources of vitamin D include milk, egg yolks, mushrooms, and fish that have bones. You can also get vitamin D in supplement form.

7. Chocolate. And yes, Chocolate has always been a tasty and good way to self-medicate through down times. But a Hershey’s bar or pint of chocolate ice cream isn’t the best way to do it. Try a dark chocolate mixed drink every day for a month. Results showed significantly improved mood, which researchers linked with a high polyphenol content. Polyphenols are a type of antioxidant. When you’re feeling down, pick up a bar with the highest cocoa content you can find.

8. Turkey. For those of you that wonder why you always feel the need to nap after Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey contains the amino acid tryptophan and melatonin, which are the calming and relaxing chemicals that make you tired. Tapping into turkey’s calming powers is a great, natural way to help your body cut through stressful situations.

9. Bananas. Like turkey, bananas contain tryptophan. Besides that, the carbohydrates from natural sugars and potassium in bananas help fuel your brain. Magnesium, also found in bananas, may improve sleep and reduce anxiety — two symptoms of seasonal depression.

Find an activity you enjoy

In some locations, the weather keeps you homebound for a good part of the season. Just because you aren’t going out as much, doesn’t mean you can’t plan activities and have fun. Instead of feeling “trapped” inside, make a list of things you enjoy and find ways to engage in those activities. Here, are a few ideas:

1. Plan a movie night for yourself or a group of friends. Winter is a great time to get to those books and movies you’ve been meaning to read and watch

2. Indulge in a hobby or start a project. There’s no time like winter to start a home project, like de-cluttering the house or purging all the old clothes in your kids’ closets. Projects like organizing bookshelves, shredding old tax returns, and cleaning out the garage are perfect activities for the dreary months of the year.

3. Meet with friends, Individuals who associated themselves with happy people were more likely to be happy themselves.

4. Trying something new essentially rewires our brain. Take advantage of your days indoors to learn a new musical instrument (or maybe just a new piece of music), try your hand at a new card game, or maybe cook up something different for dinner.

5. Bright-light therapy has proven to be effective because less sunlight affects our circadian rhythms. Lightboxes used at the same time each day, typically for 30 to 60 minutes. Most people get the best results when they use a lightbox before 10 a.m.

6. And If you can’t afford a lightbox, why not think about the feeling you get when you stick your face into a hot glowing body of flames. There's something so consoling about staring into the embers and warming your hands by their heat. But you need not go to the trouble of building a fire in your house: You can borrow someone else’s fire — even a coffee shop’s — or you can simply light a few candles and enjoy a moment to remind you that you belong to this world of human beings that have sat around fires for thousands of years to get warm and enjoy a moment of stillness. Some people find that using a dawn simulator, a bedside light, connected to an alarm clock, that mimics a sunrise and wakes you up gradually, can also have a beneficial effect.

I know this may be a little late in the year, But these tips may help you combat the Blues in the future.

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