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Tricks, Tips and Healthy Advice for Warding off Winter Depression
Short days, long nights, less activity, and more alone time can leave many people feeling low during the colder months of the year. In fact, up to 30 percent of people struggle with the winter blues, with around 6 percent experiencing full-fledged seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
While you can’t make spring arrive any faster, you can soften winter’s emotional blow. Keep in mind that every aspect of your routine can either help you out or make things worse, so consider where and how you can make life more enjoyable. Nutrition, activity, interaction and light are the keys to a healthier and happier season.
How Changing Your Diet Can Help
There’s a reason why you feel so good after eating a wholesome diet for a week or two: minerals, nutrients, and all the other components of healthy food feed your cells and support the chemical processes that keep your body running in peak condition.
On the other hand, there’s an awful lot of junk that has become a regular part of the average American diet. Even if you pride yourself on eating all your veggies and staying away from fast food, you could be sabotaging your efforts with small but significant missteps.
With no nutrients, no fiber, and lots of quick carbs to send your blood sugar skyrocketing, refined sugar might be the biggest mood-destabilizer out there. The medical community has long known that sugar saps concentration, feeds depression, and launches horrendous mood swings, and recent evidence has unveiled links between sugar and many chronic diseases.
However, don’t shy away from fat in favor of sugar — your body uses fat (especially the healthy unsaturated sort) much more efficiently. In fact, a moderate amount of fat can actually help you reach and maintain a healthy weight, while sugar is a leading cause of weight gain.
Although a cup of coffee can provide a quick energy and mood boost, caffeine can hit your nervous system on a deeper level. If you have a bit too much you’ll get jittery, anxious, and even more depressed. One of the worst ways it interferes with mood is by disrupting sleep — even a moderate amount can keep you from reaching the deep, regenerative sleep your body needs to reset and repair.
Factory Farmed Meat
Healthy protein is billed as a top-notch health food, but how that protein is raised can make all the difference. Pre-seasoned roasts, Butterball turkeys, and honey-glazed hams might be tasty, but they’re loaded with hormones, antibiotics, salt, and in some cases, nitrates and additives to preserve the meat. All that salt, sugar, and added chemicals can leave you bloated, exhausted, and feeling really low.
While you work to get rid of problem ingredients, be sure to add in some mood-boosting compounds, like:
- Omega-3 fatty acids. Well-known for their anti-inflammatory properties, research has shown omega-3s can also bolster mood and promote emotional balance. Salmon, mackerel and eggs are some of the best vehicles for omega 3s.
- Vitamin D. The “sunshine vitamin” triggers receptors in your limbic system to elevate your mood. As little as 10 minutes of natural sunshine can give you the benefits you’re after, but through the long, dark days of winter, a vitamin D supplement may be your best bet.
- Lean protein. Lean meats like chicken breast, pork tenderloin, and wild game such as venison are low in saturated fat, but have lots of amino acids, which are thought to elevate mood. Turkey is particularly helpful, since it also contains tryptophan and melatonin, two calming chemicals that can combat stress.
- Berries. Many fruits are good for you, but some are particularly healthy for your brain and body. Blueberries, strawberries and raspberries can help to prevent the release of cortisol, a stress hormone that puts your body into an anxious “fight or flight” state.
- Folic acid. Research has shown folic acid can encourage your brain to produce serotonin, a neurotransmitter that keeps you feeling calm and happy. Spinach, oatmeal, soybeans and fortified cereals are excellent sources you can easily work into your daily diet.
- Vitamin B12. People with depression tend to have low levels of B12 in their blood, so make it a point to top up your level of this important vitamin. It’s typically found in animal proteins like beef, fish, shellfish, cheese and eggs. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, you should talk to your doctor about getting a B12 supplement.
- Dark chocolate. Yes, it is sweetened, but the polyphenols in dark chocolate might make up for the sugar content. Polyphenols are antioxidants found in certain plants; since it’s the cocoa in dark chocolate that brings the benefit, the higher the cocoa content, the better.
In general, a wholesome diet that touches on all the major food groups is the best way to get enough nutrients and energy. Base your menu on plants — mainly veggies — and supplement with lean protein, low-fat dairy, and healthy oils to round it out.
Get Active and Proactive
Food and exercise are at the core of so many health issues, and the same goes for winter depression. While it’s important to overhaul your diet, staying active is equally important. But it’s not just about working up a sweat — all sorts of activities can help you get over your winter blues.
Exercise is the quickest and easiest way to lift your mood and boost your energy. Even a 20-minute workout will release stress, muscle tension, and those stubborn thoughts that have been dragging you down. The elevated mood comes from a flush of endorphins, feel-good compounds that stick around in your body long after you’ve stopped your heart-pumping activity.
Friendly meet-ups can happen less frequently as the weather takes a turn for the worse, and social isolation is a major ingredient in winter depression. Commit some time and energy to staying in touch with the people who make you happy, especially when dark days and low emotions make you want burrow into your bed. Just a few minutes of quality face time every day or two can revitalize your mood and maintain supportive connections.
Giving back is one of the quickest ways to feel better. Not only will you be helping someone who truly needs a hand, but applying yourself to a new task is energizing and rewarding in its own right. Experts note that finding a sense of purpose in a noble, selfless mission is a powerful antidote to sadness and depression.
Take up a Project
Winter may not be the prime time to run a marathon or build a deck, but there are plenty of indoor projects you can do that will keep your mind off your sadness and on something meaningful and productive.
Think about trying something new, like signing up for an art or yoga class, or find a big task in your home to tackle. When the spring comes, you’ll feel more accomplished and confident as your energy level rises, and ready to take on even more.
Find Light, Make Light, and Live Light
Winter is dark, especially if you live far enough north to miss out on the morning sun. That darkness is largely responsible for SAD and the energy drain so many people experience. It follows that getting some more light into every corner of your life can counteract the grim circumstances.
Get out in the Afternoon
Morning light is thought to be most important for energy levels, but midday sunlight brings the highest amount of vitamin D. Even if the sky is overcast, the sun’s rays are tenacious — they can reach through clouds and even glass, which means simply sitting next to a window can be of some benefit. You can also change to “full spectrum” lightbulbs in your house, which have a similar effect on your brain as natural sunlight.
Try Light TherapyThis non-invasive therapy has gained a big following in recent years, given how affordable, easy and effective it is for those prone to seasonal depression. This is no ordinary light, but rather a specially-designed lightbox that uses white or blue light to stimulate your brain in helpful ways. If you’re curious about light therapy, talk to your doctor about which sort of light box to try, and guidelines to use it properly.
Simplify Your Routine
Stress compounds pain and depression, and busy routines breed stress. It’s important to find ways to clear some time from your schedule, and learn to say no when your plate is full. List your priorities, then focus on the items at the top and drop anything at the bottom. If you can take some downtime to yourself every day, your mind and body will thank you.
Last, but not least — lighten up! Kick-start the process with a goofy movie, a funny article, or a few silly animal videos online. You might be surprised at how quickly your dark mood begins to lift.