Has your mood plummeted along with the temperature? While you stare forlornly out the window at another bleak, winter day, is your spouse dozing rather than playing with the kids? Do you find yourself power snacking on Skittles by the 5th day of a rain storm. If so, you could be one of the 14% of Americans battling the winter blues. The reasons why our moods slip and our appetites take over by mid-winter could be simply that we’re cooped up, bored, and restless, or it could have a deeper cause, resulting from a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical that regulates mood and hunger. Whatever the reason, most people have some kind of behavior change in the winter. Children and teens can suffer from the winter blues too. Here to give us some helpful hints on how to side step the Winter Blues is Elizabeth Somer, registered dietitian and author of Eat Your Way to Happiness.
1. What Is Winter Blues?
While other forms of depression strike at any time, the winter blues is a seasonal thing; you feel irritable and eat more as the leaves start changing colors in the Fall and perk up and drop a few pounds when the daffodils sprout in the Spring. The seasonal drop in sunlight throws brain chemistry out of whack, making some of us more anxious, depressed, and tired this time of year. We snap at the kids, sleep more, crave sweets, and as a result, gain weight.
2. What’s the Difference Between Winter Blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Depression, mood swings, and chronic irritability can be symptoms of other more serious problems than Winter Blues, including Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, which affects another 6% of Americans. The winter blues and SAD rest on the same continuum, differing only in their degree of severity. A person suffering from winter blues might feel grumpy and tired, while someone with SAD suffers serious depression, with feelings of desperation, anxiety, and exhaustion. If your depression interferes with important aspects of your life, such as your job or relationships, or if you have feelings of hopelessness, these are possible symptoms of SAD that should be discussed with a physician. The good news is - there is much you can do to maintain your mood and figure while waiting for the hum of bees in the spring.
3. What can we do to beat the blues?
You might consider getting some light. If your mood improves while vacationing down South, it’s probably more the sunshine than the trip. According to researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, dark winter skies are linked to low levels of a brain chemical called serotonin, which makes some people drowsy and more prone to depression. Ample sunshine hitting the retina of our eyes triggers a cascade of events in the brain that raises serotonin levels. Voila...moods improve!
Up to 80% of SAD and winter blues sufferers report at least some relief when exposed for 30 minutes to 1 1 /2 hours daily to sunlight or a specialized light box that emits light 5- to 20-times brighter than typical indoor light. Check out the internet for a local resource for these lights. Bio lights by Enviro Med in Oregon is one source for these lights.
4. Diet-wise, what can we do?
A) Eat Regularly: Don’t attempt to skip breakfast in an effort to cut calories. You’ll overeat later in the day, struggle more with mood swings and fatigue, and battle a weight problem in the long run. Eat breakfast, but make it light and include some carbohydrate. Such as cereal, fruit, and milk. Then have lunch. Something as simple as a sandwich, nonfat milk, and a piece of fruit will fuel your brain, body, and mood.
B) Snack, but not on sweets. A voracious sweet tooth during the winter months also might stem from low serotonin levels. Chowing down on sweets works temporarily - serotonin levels rise and we feel better, but that high is followed by a crash, setting up a roller coaster of highs and lows that causes overeating and weight gain. Replace these foods with more nutritious sweet treats, such as fresh-sliced kiwi mixed with nonfat strawberry-kiwi yogurt, a bowlful of watermelon chunks topped with lemon yogurt, fresh fruit layered in a parfait glass and topped with a dollop of low-fat whipped cream, or nonfat milk whipped in a blender with fresh fruit and a sprinkle of nutmeg.
One way to sooth your mood and save your waistline is to switch from fatty sweets to high-quality carbs, such as whole grain breads and crackers, brown rice, oatmeal, or starchy vegetables like corn or potatoes. Plan a mid-afternoon all-carb snack, such as half a whole wheat English muffin with jam, 3 fig bars, or drizzle honey over a toasted cinnamon bagel to counteract the desire to eat sweets at this crave-prone time of day. Also include carb-rich foods into meals, such as pasta primavera or marinara, whole wheat couscous, or yams cut into strips and baked on a cookie sheet to make “french fries.” (Serotonin also improves sleep, so a serotonin-boosting evening snack, such as air-popped popcorn or a scoop of sorbet, will help you sleep better, too!)
C) Try Protein: If you don’t see any improvement in your mood or appetite after a few weeks on a high-carb menu, try substituting some of those carbs for more protein. New research from the National Institute of Mental Health shows that some people don’t experience a mood boost when they eat high-carb diets. So, if you still feel grumpy after a week’s worth of the high-carb choices, try cutting back on the carbohydrates and increasing protein intake by adding a slice of turkey or a glass of milk to the meal. Protein has a satiating effect that keeps you full longer and curbs cravings in some people.
D) Drink water: The first sign of dehydration is fatigue, which is the stepping stone for depression. Many of us are mildly dehydrated, because thirst is a poor indicator of your body’s need for water. Drink twice as much water as it takes to quench your thirst, or at least 8 glasses daily. Drink even more water if you exercise intensely or drink a lot of coffee and tea.
E) Limit coffee. While caffeine is a great pick-me-up, if you are drinking more than 3 small cups a day, this beverage could be fueling fatigue. For the person who is sensitive to sugar or caffeine, simply removing these substances from the diet may be all it takes to reduce or even eliminate depression, according to research from the University of South Alabama. How coffee affects mood is unclear, although caffeine is a drug that affects the nervous system. Cut back or eliminate coffee, tea, chocolate, cocoa, colas, and caffeine-containing medications, such as Excedrin, Dristan, and Dexatrim
5. What about supplements? Are there any that work for Winter Blues?
A. Several nutrient deficiencies, including the B vitamins, show a link to impaired mental ability and mood swings. According to a study from the University of Arizona Health Science Center in Tucson, more than one in four patients with depression are deficient in vitamins B2, B6, and B12, and folic acid. B-rich foods include chicken, legumes, fish, bananas, avocados, and dark green leafy vegetables.
B. Vitamin D also is showing promise in helping to boost mood during winter months.
C. The omega-3s, especially DHA, also show promise in lowering depression in general and Winter Blues specifically.
A moderate-dose multiple vitamin and mineral supplies B vitamins and vitamin D, altho you may need an extra vitamin D supplement to boost intake up to at least 1000 IU s. A DHA supplement of at least 220mg also is a good idea. These can fill in the nutritional gaps on those days when you don’t eat perfectly.
5. Will exercise help?
Absolutely! People who exercise daily report they feel good, physically and mentally. A daily workout releases epinephrine and norepinephrine, brain chemicals that boost alertness, while raising serotonin levels. Exercise helps calm the body by lowering blood levels of the "stress hormones" including cortisol. A daily, one-hour brisk walk outdoors also may be all the light exposure you need to boost your mood.
Exercise relieves depression better than psychotherapeutic medications, counseling, or a combination of the two. The level of intensity and even the type of exercise doesn't matter; both aerobic activities such as walking, running, or cross-country skiing, or anaerobic sports such as bodybuilding, improve mood.