Feeling a little blue? Lonely, listless and in your pajamas until noon? I can’t blame you. In some parts of North America, we’re in a record-breaking deep freeze. The days are short, dark and pretty darn cold and I feel as though I need to take up ice fishing to make the most of the season – if only I could get off the couch.
The truth is, we’re all susceptible to mild depression and it’s especially prevalent at this time of year. Why? There’s no hard and fast scientific evidence, but the feel-good chemical “serotonin” in our brain can take a nosedive because of the lack of sunlight. We need that hit of vitamin D! There are several factors, though, that contribute to these low feelings.
Sun is scarce and the post-holiday letdown peaks in late January. You have the added debt from excess gift-giving, the festivities are over, the decorations packed away, and the stress of visiting in-laws has left you exhausted. Your love handles have spread and by the third week in January, all seems lost as your commitment to those New Year’s resolutions has waned and your motivation is at an all-time low. In fact, some health officials called this past Monday, Jan. 20, “Blue Monday,” the most depressing day of the year.
A do-it-yourself divorce service in the UK, divorcedepot.co.uk, says the first Monday of the new year is the most popular day for filing for divorce. People want to spend Christmas with their families intact, so they hold off until after the holidays. By Blue Monday the cold, hard reality of going solo has really sunk in. On that note, I’m just seeing the retail displays for Valentine’s Day gifting in stores now, so there’s another blow for many who have no one to celebrate with.
Your biological clock – the circadian rhythm – can also be adversely affected by the reduced sunlight in fall and winter. This internal clock lets you know when you need to sleep, and the disruption can lead to feelings of depression. The change in season also can disrupt the body’s melatonin levels, the balance of natural hormones that help control mood and sleep patterns.
The question is, are your blues serious enough for a clinical diagnosis? Could be. Up to 10 percent of Canadians and between three to five percent of Americans have Seasonal Affective Disorder, commonly known as SAD. An appropriate moniker, SAD is an energy-sapping depression that can begin in September and carry through until spring, but the deepest gloom occurs in late January. Interesting, too, that women are twice as likely to seek treatment for SAD, but symptoms are more severe in men.
See your doctor if you feel your blues are getting the best of you and the lethargy has taken its toll. You may need prescription medication or light-box therapy, where special bulbs reproduce some wavelengths of sunlight and filter out harmful UV rays.
The Light Café in Stockholm takes proactive a step further; it shines artificial light on patrons to help uplift their spirits in the winter. You can bet I’d be a frequent customer if I lived in Stockholm.
But does light-box therapy work? There are numerous products on the market, so check in with your doctor before making a self-diagnosis and light-box purchase. One comprehensive study reported by the National Institutes of Health looked at its PubMed journals from January 1975 to July 2003 to identify randomized, controlled trials of light therapy for mood disorders to determine the efficacy of the therapy.
The researchers found that while many reports of the efficacy of light therapy are not based on rigorous study designs, their analysis suggests that bright light treatment and dawn simulation for SAD and bright light for non-seasonal depression do help to relieve symptoms.
As a medical doctor, I prescribe medication when it’s required, but I also encourage patients to try alternative natural-based remedies to find relief for what ails them. Same can be said for very mild depression that comes on in the darker months. When you can’t shake those winter doldrums, here are my Top 10 steps to take to boost your mood and embrace the season!
1. Eat Healthy: Salmon, Please!
In my books, healthy eating is a cornerstone of robust health – and where so many of us often fall short. Some days, a frozen pizza is the only thing that will make it to the dinner table. But a good diet is even more important in the dreary months. Potential reasons for SAD are low levels of certain nutrients, including vitamin D levels, zinc and selenium. So healthy nutrition can help to correct these nutritional deficiencies and alleviate your symptoms, so that you can actually enjoy winter and the nip in the air.
Salmon is one my go-to foods, thanks to its vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acid content. Higher rates of depression are linked to low intake of omega-3 fatty acids, which support brain function. Aim for at least two servings of salmon, or other fatty fish, weekly. Other foods to get onto your plate are leafy greens (rich in a B vitamin called folic acid), eggs (for protein and tryptophan, an amino acid that helps regulate serotonin levels), pumpkin seeds (high in hard-to-get zinc) and Brazil nuts (my nut of 2014! One Brazil nut contains an entire day’s worth of the antioxidant selenium).
2. Have Sex More Often
While it’s easy to slip to bottom of the priority roster – especially when your energy and life enthusiasm is low – sex is hugely important in a loving relationship. Studies show that making love improves your happiness levels because of the release of the calming hormone oxytocin, responsible for the cozy feelings of being in love and slowing the heart. The lingering feel-good is the release of the happiness hormone serotonin. Quite simply, you can’t feel down after a roll in the hay. Bonus points: A study published in the American Journal of Cardiology in 2010 reported that men who had sex twice a week had a much lesser risk of getting a heart attack than men who had sex less than once a month. So, yes, get busy!
3. Connect With Your Friends
When we get down, it’s easy to lose perspective on things. We feel more out of whack and generally dissatisfied with our lives and ourselves. Then we dwell on the things we’re unhappy with, shoving us into that downward emotional spiral. One of the best approaches to avoid the negative loop is to reach out to friends or social contacts. They can help validate our merits, give us a more realistic perspective and wipe out self-doubt. There’s nothing like the serotonin rush and stress relief that comes with laughter when we’re spending time with good company.
4. Exercise! No Surprise There
Our bodies weren’t designed for a sedentary lifestyle. We need to move to keep our various systems motoring along – for good digestion, circulation and heart health, good sleep and mental acuity. We’re stronger, smarter and happier when we exercise on a regular basis. And the negative impact of very limited activity seems to be more severe with each new study that brings the associated risks to light. Harvard researchers found that elderly women who are sedentary for about 10 hours a day have a higher body mass index (BMI) and generally declining health. I firmly believe our golden years can be vibrant and joyful; but we need to put in the good work with healthy lifestyle habits to achieve that vitality. Simple ways to build in more activity into the day can be taking the stairs (yes, forgo the elevator and escalator), more frequent housework, and walking the neighborhood or shopping mall. Remember, activity doesn’t have to mean a formal fitness class, if that’s not your thing, although giving one a try is the only way to know for certain.
5. Do Activities That You Enjoy
Those winter blues can leave you feeling out of sorts and stuck in the proverbial rut. Do I have to clear the snow from the driveway, again? And again? Psychologists say now is the time to take part in activities that give you that internal satisfaction that you really enjoy or have always wanted to tackle: a weekly bridge game, a painting class, reading a thriller on the bestseller list. Whatever ignites that passion, give it a go! Once you engage in an activity, your focus shifts; you can let go of stress and negativity that weigh you down. When you find yourself in that sweet spot, the “flow state” of total immersion in an activity, it’s a true happiness buzz. How to get there? Train your mind to be more present. Aimless thoughts occupy our minds 46.9 percent of the time, a Harvard researcher found. That’s a lot of brainpower that could be put to better use, especially when you’re suffering SAD symptoms. If you can teach yourself to be more present by reducing those wandering thoughts, you’ll be more likely to be able to listen to and connect with others, and bring out the best in yourself. Work in mind training and meditation is underway at many of the major universities and by a number of for-profit companies.
6. Watch A Tearjerker
Have you curled up on the couch with the movie The Notebook in a while? The reunion scene where Noah and Allie are in the boat on the lake surrounded by ducks, the rain comes, they kiss. Gets me every time. Watching a romantic movie might have you grabbing for the tissue box, but that’s a good thing. The words and images can evoke a powerful emotional response in the body, and romantic images release that love hormone oxytocin and endorphins to boost your mood for hours after.
7. Write Down Thoughts In A Journal
No, I’m not talking about the ongoing honey-do list. The act of writing, committing thoughts to paper, can be an effective way to cultivate a positive attitude and lose that inner critic. Try keeping a regular journal and start each entry by writing down three good things that have happened that day. Focusing on the positive helps people remember reasons to be glad. Research out of the University of California at Davis found that people who regularly keep a gratitude journal report fewer illness symptoms, feel better about their lives as a whole, and are more optimistic.
8. Music Is Feel-Good Therapy
Find yourself singing in the shower? It’s a happy habit. Participating in live music, whether you’re singing, playing, dancing or just listening can lift your spirits.
Singing gets your breathing going and your whole body vibrating.
9. Love Your Pet
Ready to feel calm and serene? Stroking a dog or cat does wonders for your health, helping to lower blood pressure and heart rate, and helping to reduce the risk of illnesses such as heart disease. In a study with patients at Lancaster General Hospital in Pennsylvania, one-hour weekly dog therapy sessions showed notable improvements on stress, mood and pain.
10. Get A Good Night’s Sleep
Certainly there are nights when you have to stay up for The Tonight Show – new host Jimmy Fallon takes over Feb. 17 with guests Will Smith and U2 – but when you disrupt your regular sleep schedules, the world is never as happy and bright. Without a good night’s sleep, you don’t function as well the following day. You can be grumpy, impatient and ready to cancel plans and appointments. Everyone has different sleep needs, but I recommend a baseline of seven hours. If I can get eight, I’ll take it! Much remains unknown about the connection between depression and sleep, but getting enough sleep and maintaining a consistent sleep-wake schedule helps keep you on an even keel. New research out of the Center for Translational Neuromedicine at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York shows that the space between brain cells may increase during sleep, which allows the brain to flush out toxins that build up during the waking hours. Toxic buildup can’t be good for brain function and mood enhancement. Further to the study, the cells regulating the brain’s nocturnal cleanse may be new targets for treating a range of neurological disorders.
Just think, Christmas was six weeks ago. Spring will be here in another six – the blink of an eye! Armed with these 10 tips, you can make it with a smile. It takes a couple months to train the brain to follow new habits, so consistent repetition is important. The payoff? Life-changing. The benefits of making small, doable changes will not only improve your mood, it will improve your overall health and boost your immunity. Who said this was cold and flu season?
Related Reading: How regular exercise affects your mood