The holidays are over and Chicago winter is in full swing, which means that most of us are starting to feel the effects of such cloudy, dreary winter days.
I’ve never been one of those folks that likes winter. In fact, I generally dislike it because I don’t like being cold, and I am prone to bouts of seasonal depression and fatigue. However, over the years I’ve started learning ways to help combat the darkness, and I wanted to share them with you today. [If you also suffer from chronically feeling cold, you might also want to check out this post about tips for staying warm in the winter.]
Seek out the Sun
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is the formal diagnosis for winter depression, and symptoms of lethargy, fatigue, and low mood can range in severity across individuals. Whether your symptoms are mild and annoying or severely debilitating, research has show that maximizing exposure to full-spectrum light (such as that from the sun) especially in the morning reduces symptoms of SAD. In order to be effective, we need full exposure to the full-spectrum of light for at least 15 minutes, but ideally 30, every morning upon waking.
I personally wake up before the sun each morning, so I use a full-spectrum light box. I position the light box towards me while I’m eating breakfast and reading in the morning, and I truly notice a difference in my mood and energy levels when I do this. The light box I use is the Verilux 10,000 LUX LED Happy Light, which I purchased on Amazon. If you buy one that has fewer LUX (the intensity of the light) you need to be in front of it for a longer time period each morning. For me and my schedule, a higher LUX and shorter time period works best.
Eat Regular, Balanced Meals
Irregular eating patterns lead to poor blood sugar control, elevated cortisol (the stress hormone) and consequently deplete mood and energy levels. Not eating regularly enough (or enough food in general) significantly affects our experience of life in real, measurable ways. Especially in the winter, eating a variety of fresh foods with a balance of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and fiber is essential for maintaining energy levels. If you need some guidance in this area, check out this post about how to structure balanced meals, and this post about how to understand your body’s hunger and fullness signals.
Go to Bed Earlier
Part of the reason we feel tired in the winter is because of our natural seasonal cycles. In the winter, the lower amounts of sunlight, cold weather, and increased distance from the sun create measurable chemical changes in our bodies. Some of these changes create the physical need for more sleep! We all have busy schedules and it can be challenging to set aside items on our to-do list so we can sleep more, but I find in my own life that when I prioritize sleep, I have significantly more energy and a clearer mind. This allows me to be far more productive throughout the day, and I actually end up getting more done and having more free time. It sounds backwards but it works out well!
Some of the ways I help myself get to sleep earlier is by winding down in the evening about an hour before I’d like to be in bed. I take a hot shower, drink some tea, and spend time reading books rather than using my phone or computer. (Blue light exposure from screens can act like the light lamps, keeping us awake.)
Some experts recommend waking up at the same time each morning to help regulate sleep and energy levels, but this doesn’t work for me. I need to wake up at about 5:30 during the week, and I really enjoy sleeping in on weekends when I have the opportunity. We each need to do what works best for us, individually.
Exercise in the Afternoon
Exercise is a really helpful way to keep us energized throughout the day, but the timing is also important. Exercising too close to bed time can lead to poor sleep or even insomnia, but research shows that exercising in the afternoon actually improves the quality of our sleep. High quality sleep leaves us feeling better rested and more energized during the day. If possible, try to do your workouts in the afternoon rather than the morning so that you can maximize their energizing effect in the winter.
Build a Nutritional Foundation
For the most part, our bodies rely on a set of foundational nutrients (think: essential vitamins and minerals) in order to function properly. Whenever the quality of our nutrition falters, the systems in our bodies that rely on those nutrients begin to break down. We first see these problems when we are lacking overall energy (calories) or macronutrients like protein, carbohydrates, and fats. But with time, micronutrient deficiencies begin to manifest as well, and with just as significant symptoms. (This is true even with small deviations from normal!)
Winter is a particularly stressful time for our bodies. Food is less fresh (things don’t grow well in the frozen ground or out of season) and our access to vital nutrients is limited. The cold weather promotes illness, infection, and inflammation, and the lack of sunlight drains our energy. Nutritional support during the winter months to combat some of these weather-related changes can help overcome symptoms like fatigue, poor mood, and low energy, among others. While a well-balanced, varied diet is important at all times of year, research shows that supplementing omega-3s, vitamin D, and magnesium especially in the winter months is necessary for many folks to maintain their sense of well-being.
In practice (for otherwise healthy patients without nutritional deficiencies), the following recommendations, based off the research above, tend to work well as a starting point for supporting mood and energy levels in the winter months:
- Cod Liver Oil (1g daily with food)
- Vitamin D3 (2,000 IU daily, with food)
- Magnesium Glycinate (250 mg, daily with food)
I personally take the linked supplements daily, year-round, and began doing so after reviewing my lab work. Not all supplements are created equal, and those manufacturers are verified by third parties to ensure quality and safety. [As always, before starting a new supplement regime, check with your healthcare provider.]