This time of year is always a bit strange; with cooler temperatures, lack of sunlight and generally gray days, most of us slowly morph into a total grumpy pants. For longest time I thought that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) was just a title given to a bunch of whiners, but now it’s becoming fairly prevalent that this is not just a thing, it’s actually a condition that does impact many people (from the winter blues to full on depression). There are a few simple lifestyle choices that you can make to either avoid it altogether or help alleviate potential symptoms.
To get started let’s look at what this disorder actually is and what causes it. SAD basically involves changes to one’s mood and energy due to a seasonal change; this disorder doesn’t only happen during winter months, some people feel it during the summer months as well (although the symptoms are slightly different). When we transition to cooler months we all tend to spend the majority of the day indoors and the sun rises later and sets earlier, making the daytime much shorter. This all leads to less exposure to natural sunlight, a potential vitamin D deficiency, and a decrease in the hormone serotonin all of which can affect your mood and make you feel a little down in the dumps. Another hormone that can be altered is melatonin which helps regulate your sleep cycle; I usually feel this the most these days as I’m constantly yawning midday and having a hard time getting up out of bed in the morning no matter how many hours of restful sleep I got the night before. This also disrupts our internal clocks (circadian rhythm) making it a challenge to keep your energy levels up and stay awake by the late afternoon. All of these can contribute to irritability, oversleeping, sluggishness and an increase in cravings for carbohydrates. Think of it: do you really want to eat a salad during a snow storm on a day where it’s pitch black by 4pm? I know I don’t, I’d rather a hearty stew with a mountain of roasted potatoes and a giant loaf of crusty bread. Needless to say, most of us will feel at least one of the effects of the seasonal change and it’s usually not for the better.
There are (thankfully) some simple habits that you can adopt each day to help you get through this transition. The first is to exercise and move your body, especially if you have a desk job. I know you’re probably grumbling about this and that the thought of picking up a set of dumbbells is making want to barricade yourself in your bedroom forever, but working out releases endorphins and reduces the body’s level of adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones); overall this allows you to reduce stress and anxiety. I’m a big advocate of scheduling in your workouts for a time that works best for you and regardless of how much you may not want to do it, you will feel so much better after you hit the gym. If you really don’t have the time for a full workout or even 20 minutes of HIIT training at home then try spacing your workout throughout the day instead; start with some light stretching first thing in the morning for 5-10 minutes, go for a quick 10 minutes power walk on your lunch break and maybe try some body weight training like push ups, squats and plank in the evening for a another 10 minutes. Another great strategy is to step outside each day. Although it can be challenging when it’s cold out and windy and the ground is covered in ice, just try to bundle yourself up and step outside to get some fresh air; being outdoors really does impact your mood so give it a try even if for only one minute each day. It’s also a good idea to stay on track with your sleep each night and try to stick with the same schedule; go to bed and get up at the same time each day whenever possible and really aim for 8 hours each night. Lack of sleep can impact your metabolic function and your body’s ability to naturally produce the human growth hormone which helps you repair any damaged cells and helps fight the signs of aging; nobody has that nice youthful glow when they’re sleep deprived and have bags under their eyes. I know that I when I don’t get enough rest I feel terrible the next day, just exhausted and unproductive, my energy just tanks and I’m not in a good mood at all. Make yourself feel really comfortable before bed and just take some time out to really relax and un-whined.
Nutrition will also play a very big role with your overall well-being and mood during seasonal changes. As I mentioned before, we tend to crave more carb heavy and rich meals during this time and with the holidays right around the corner, there is temptation everywhere. Instead of drowning your sorrows in a starchy meal and some cocktails, it is essential to maintain a well-balanced diet, meaning that you focus on eating vegetables at every meal (fill up half your plate with veg) and then add in your lean protein and some whole grains. Also have some healthy sources of fats including unsalted nuts, olive oil and coconut oil as well, but watch your portion sizes. Try to avoid sugar when possible as it really is addictive (the more you eat it, the more you want it) and it will cause your body to store it as fat. Brown bag it to work each day and always keep healthy snacks with you, I always have protein powder in a shaker cup and a small bag of nuts with me since you never know what can come up and this has saved me many times. It’s equally important to keep yourself hydrated and to drink lots of water as it aids in digestion and helps your body filter out the bad stuff that it doesn’t need. Although you may be tempted by hot cups of coffee, tea and hot chocolate keep your caffeine intake on the low end, it dehydrates you and you’ll usually end up crashing once your fix wears off. In terms of supplements, although I believe that you should always first try to get as much as you can from food, it is still a good idea to take something extra to help fill in the gaps. I suggest a multivitamin, but ask your doctor which brand and type they would recommend for you (some are geared towards people based on their age group, some for active individuals, etc.), and skip the candy/gummy flavoured ones … you’re a grown up so take your vitamin and don’t be a baby about it! You may want to also add in a vitamin D supplement on top of your mutli, but again consult with your doctor for the best dosage. Be sure to check the ingredients listed on the label, the non-medicinal list may include some weird fillers or added sugars that you’ve never heard of before.
I am definitely finding it difficult to adapt to the season even though the winter hasn’t hit my area full force just yet. If you’re anything like me then just try to keep everything simple for yourself so that you don’t stress over the small stuff or the stuff that’s completely out of your hands anyway. Focus on the things that you can do for yourself until you fully adjust to the changes by eating well (and enough!), staying hydrated, working out and getting plenty of rest (but not overdoing it). Before you know it you’ll be back to your old self and feeling great again.
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