Fighting the Winter Blahs

Time to cure the winter blahs for you.

I’m lucky…I’m down in Colorado getting some natural Vitamin D from the sunshine before heading back to Toronto’s cold weather winter.

As you know, the gloomy, overcast, rainy days of winter can take their toll on our emotional and mental health. There is a reason why the long days of summer seem to fly by but the short days of winter seem to drag on forever.

Take the example of a friend of mine. She grew up just outside of Vancouver British Columbia and as beautiful as it may be there, they get more than their fair share of gloomy, rainy days, especially in the winter months. She found a number of ways to hep make the days brighter and the blah months cheerier.

Shauna has always been very into health and fitness so making a change in her diet and workout regime wasn’t necessary. In fact, her lifestyle is likely what prevented her from being even more down in the dumps.

She did however make some changes in other areas. Her Doctor gave her some valuable advice and tips that she used to her full advantage. First of all, Shauna was advised on how crucial relationships could be on these dreary days of winter. She was told how uplifting a walk and chat with a good friend or loved one would be. It helped.

He explained the role of vitamin D and UVB rays. She took a good look at her diet and added in a Vitamin D supplement. She took advantage of sunny days and even spent a little time in a tanning bed, responsibly and in moderation of course.

He also told her to pay attention to her sleep cycle. She was instructed to make time for sleep and place it as a priority just as much as a workout or a meal would be. All of these factors made a big difference.

By making a few changes in your daily routine, you can beat those winter blahs and feel better during the cold, blustery months. Before you know it, those spring flowers will be popping up everywhere and you’ll be ready to break out the shorts and tank tops.

Social Support

Valued friendships and supportive family members should never be underestimated. In these days of email and texting, face to face contact seems to have been devalued, but it’s crucial to the state of your mental health.

Think about those days when everything seems to go wrong. Doesn’t it feel better to vent about your frustrations to a good friend that can offer some understanding or even just an open ear? The key is to fill your life with positive, happy people. If your so called support system consists of nothing but draining, negative individuals, that will zap your energy and do nothing but bring you down.

When you’re feeling down in the dumps, it’s natural to feel like you want to be alone. By ignoring that urge and placing yourself in a positive, social situation, you will likely emerge from that blah feeling and feel much more uplifted. You’ll snap out of it so to speak.

One of the best options for a quick pick me up is to call a good friend and go out for a nice brisk walk. Not only will you get the conversation you need, you’ll be exercising at the same time. If it’s a sunny day, that’s even better.

Vitamin D and Sunshine

The short, sometimes gloomy days of winter leave us all craving some sunshine. The lack of exposure to the suns rays, can pose certain health disturbances both mental and physical.

Vitamin D is an important nutrient that is obtained through both diet and exposure to sunlight. A sufficient supply of vitamin D has been shown to increase serotonin levels and decrease the production of stress hormones while regulating other important neurotransmitters like dopamine and adrenaline. All of these factors contribute to balancing mood and keeping spirits up.

There are very few foods that are rich in Vitamin D, which can make it challenging to consume the necessary requirements. This is why it is important to take advantage of those sunny days, no matter how few or far between.

If you live north of Atlanta Georgia however, even constant exposure to the sun will not allow for the production of Vitamin D in the winter months. This makes it even more crucial to ensure plenty of exposure during the summer. Ten to fifteen minutes of sunlight exposure, without the use of sunscreen, three to four times a week will allow for the necessary production and storage of Vitamin D all year.

During the winter months, or even the summer if you live in a particularly cloudy, rainy part of the world, it is important to consume as much Vitamin D rich foods as possible like fatty fish and fortified milk and cereals.

Although tanning beds have received negative press, they may be useful for some people in the winter months, especially those that are susceptible to depression. If used responsibly and moderately, a tanning bed that offers UVB rays will produce Vitamin D and help stave off the blues.

Last but not least, the sunny days just seem more cheerful than the grey, overcast days. Nature looks prettier and people tend to just smile more. Even a sunny smile from a stranger can brighten a person’s day.

Sleep

Sleep is crucial to our mental and physical well being. A good, quality sleep allows for the necessary recovery and rejuvenation of our mind, body and soul. It has been proven time and again that consistent sleep deprivation can lead to a number of ailments including heart disease, cancer, weight gain, and rapid aging.

Aside from the big health scares, sleep deprivation can also make you irritable, lethargic, weak and unfocused. Add this to a gloomy sight outside your window and it’s a recipe for the blahs. Most experts agree that we need seven to nine hours of quality sleep a night for it to have the necessary restorative effect.

While this may not be possible every single night of your life, it’s best to get into a habit of making sleep a priority. Shut down the TV, emails, facebook and twitter and get into a pre bedtime routine to make falling asleep an easy process.

Exercise

As if there aren’t already a million reasons to participate in a regular exercise program, now you can make it a million and one. Exercise has been shown to potentially be as promising a treatment for depression and anxiety as antidepressant medication.

In a scientific sense, exercise eases the symptoms of depression by releasing the ‘feel good’ brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine and endorphins. It also boots the immune system. A weak immune system can exacerbate symptoms of depression.

Exercise also helps regulate hormones including stress hormones, aids in digestion and proper circulation and acts as a wake up call to the metabolism. All of these factors help us to feel better physically and when we feel better physically, we often enjoy a more positive outlook emotionally as well.

On the emotional side of things, a good workout offers a distraction to the worries of the day. If your boss is hounding you, the kids are driving you nuts or you’ve had a big argument with your spouse, working out can give you the change of focus you need, even for a brief amount of time. You can clear your head and gain new perspective.

Using exercise to break through physical limitations you once placed upon yourself can have a very positive impact on self esteem as well. After a heart pounding, muscle ripping workout, you’re likely to leave the gym feeling much better about yourself than when you arrived.

Nutrition

A diet that’s high in unhealthy fats, sodium, sugar and calories will not only leave you looking awful, it will leave you feeling awful as well. Proper, balanced nutrition plays a very big part in keeping spirits up.

Processed foods and salty, sugary snacks wreak havoc on hormones, causing highs and lows that simply add to any existing winter blahs you may be feeling. As always, fresh, whole, real foods will need to be the meat of your diet if you hope to keep depression at bay.

Carbohydrates have long been known to aid in the release of the feel good neurotransmitter, serotonin. Whole grains, rice, potatoes, yams and pasta will keep serotonin flowing. Of course consuming these foods in moderation is imperative. You won’t feel any better about life if you pack on a spare tire from too many potatoes and too much spaghetti.

Omega 3 fats should also be a staple in your diet (try this source). These precious fats that are found in fish, seafood, avocados, nuts, olive and flax seed oil have been shown to play an important role in the brain. A diet rich in Omega 3 fats may increase the volume of grey matter, particularly the part of the brain that affects mood, impulsivity and emotion.

Stock up on salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, oysters, raw nuts, olive oil and flax seed oil for a brighter day.

In Summary

Winters are long, but they don’t have to be miserable. Enjoy some sunshine, even if it is man made, keep up with the high energy workouts even on the days you’d rather stay in bed, fill up on real food, chat with a good friend and get some shut eye. These simple things will keep the blahs away and maybe the Doctor too.

  • Marie

    Great article! I live in Victoria BC and it can get gloomy here too!

  • If you want a very, very, very geeky look at just how surprisinly crucial ‘Vitamin D’ is to our health and well being, then you MUST read the following page:

    http://www.grc.com/health/Vitamin-D.htm

    Steve Gibson is an uber-geek, but he does exceptional research on subjects that capture his interest. He gathered and refined a lot of very deep information on the subject and presented it in a very simple format. You will learn a lot.

    My wife suffered from depression for a number of years. Using a prescribed SSRI (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor), she gradually got better. Serotonin effects sleep, and she definitely didn’t sleep properly when depressed, but did sleep better with the medication. I happened to find out that serotonin levels were improved with ‘Vitamin D’. And that it affected the SAD (seasonal affective disorder) that she experienced each winter.

    We’ve been taking ‘Vitamin D’ supplements for years now. Long before I read that article by Steve Gibson. And our doctor even told us to up the dosage recently. Along with regular exercise, this supplement has made all the difference for both of us through the winter months here in Ottawa, Ontario.

    Thanks, Craig, for getting the message out to a larger audience. I know lots of people concerned with their fitness will be reading your blog and learning something new.

    • Thanks Gordon, happy to help and really appreciated your info.

      Craig

  • I live in Massachusetts and I hate the winters! I have an SAD light that I use for 15-30 minutes a day. My dirty secret is that I also go to a tanning salon once a week. The fact is that I feel soooo much better after just a few minutes in the light. The tan itself is a bonus, but I would do it regardless of the tan – it makes me feel so good!