Good news! The dark days of winter are receding – in fact, we’ve added almost an hour of daylight since Dec. 31. With the lengthening daylight comes a degree of relief for those who suffer from a touch of the winter blues, also known as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Symptoms may include a tendency to oversleep, difficulty waking up in the morning, carbohydrate craving, getting easily exhausted, withdrawal from social activities, friends and family and obviously feeling blue. While some battle these symptoms chemically with prescription pills or alcohol, I encourage my patients to chase the blues away with healthier options. My prescription: try a combination of these side-effect-free ways to help beat the winter blues:
1) Let there be light.
For us light-deprived northern hemispherians, I recommend installing full-spectrum light bulbs at home, to help mimic the benefits of sunshine. Beaming high-quality full-spectrum light indoors is essential when adequate natural sunlight is in short supply. The full-spectrum bulb benefits? Better sleep, improved concentration, mental clarity and mood, plus a tougher immune system – so let the faux sun shine in! Full spectrum bulbs can be found at most hardware stores and www.gaiam.com.
2) Take a sun bath.
No matter where you live or how deep the snow, it’s important to get outside for a dose of natural morning light. A 10-minute walk in the morning light will help re-set your body-clock and boost mood. No time in the a.m.? Then try a quick lunchtime lap around the block or office park. Another option: bundle up, find a bench in the sun and take a few moments to catch some nourishing rays.
3) Get off the couch.
Exercise increases serotonin levels, which in turn helps banish the blues. Exercise outside and you’ll get an even greater boost — studies have shown that one-hour of outdoor exercise had the same benefits as 2.5 hours of light treatment indoors.
4) Restore yourself.
Spend 5-10 minutes twice a day in Reclining Open Chest Pose. This particular Restorative Yoga pose helps to elevate your mood and energize you when you are tired. When we support the back in this way and open the chest, we tend to feel more emotionally buoyant and physically energized.
5) Supplement your happiness.
Eating healthfully, avoiding sugar, sleep-inducing simple carbs and comfort foods will help keep the blues at bay, but in winter, the addition of a few supplements can also help keep spirits high. In addition to the essential supplements I think everybody should take year round, my favorite blues-chasers include:
- Most people in the northern hemisphere – even those without the blues – don’t get enough Vitamin D. As there’s growing evidence to suggest a link between SAD and low Vitamin D levels, I encourage patients to take at least 2,000 to 5,000 IU/day through the winter to keep brain chemistry and neurotransmitter action at optimal levels.
- Fish oils and omega 3’s have a role in the synthesis of serotonin, and are thought to elevate mood and decrease depression. My advice to patients? Increase the dose if the blues start to get the upper hand.
- For some, but not all SAD sufferers, especially people 40 years and older, 1-2mg of melatonin at bedtime can be helpful in relieving symptoms. Melatonin levels tend to drop as we age.
- As it is the precursor in the biosynthesis of mood-boosting serotonin, I often recommend 200-400mg at bedtime.
- Insufficient levels of magnesium can compound SAD symptoms by inhibiting the conversion of tryptophan to 5-HTP, which can decrease the production of mood-stabilizing serotonin and melatonin. To boost magnesium levels in winter, I recommend taking 400-600mg at bedtime. I tend to use Magnesium Glycinate as it does not loosen the stools like the other magnesiums.
6) Sunshine on your desktop.
Patients with tougher cases of winter blues, may benefit from light therapy sessions, which can be done easily at home, office or on the road, with specialized light boxes, lamps and even wearable visors. A range of high-power light therapy devices, starting at about $200 are available at www.sunbox.com/ and www.biobrite.com. Smaller, inexpensive versions are also available at Target, including the Philips GoLite Blu Energy Light, the Nature Bright Sun Touch Plus Light ($140 each) and the Zadro Sunlight 365 Personal Artificial Sunlight Therapy device for ($45).
7) You are not a bear…
…So fight the urge to hibernate. After work, step away from the computer, and make the effort to interact face-to-face with loved ones, weather be dammed. Get tickets to a show, take a class, book nights out with friends, whatever it takes, just keep giving yourself spirit-boosting, off-line group activities to keep you engaged with your world.