First, know that not having that same get-up-and-go sensation in the winter that you usually have in the summer is actually totally normal. In fact, it’s legitimate chemistry. “Mild changes in brain chemistry or the circadian rhythm — your body’s internal clock — related to the seasons can make you feel down,” says Dr. Melina Jampolis, M.D., a physician nutrition specialist in Los Angeles. “Winter blues, or feeling a bit less energetic on occasion during these months, is relatively common and may be related to a number of lifestyle factors — including decreased light exposure, decreased exercise due to colder temperatures, and decreased socialization during the colder winter months.”
Dr. Jampolis says it’s important to be extra vigilant in maintaining patterns that are good for you year round — the things that often fall to the side when work and stress take over, not too mention cold weather. What can help? “Increase your exposure to light, especially in the morning,” she says. Try opening up your blinds as soon as you get up and also get out of the office during the day, before it gets dark, even for a little walk.
Regular exercise is also important, adds Dr. Jampolis. “It may help fight depression in numerous ways by changing brain chemistry and improving insulin resistance. Insulin helps tryptophan to enter the brain. Tryptophan is needed to produce serotonin, the happy chemical, and it also helps to decrease the damaging effects of stress on the brain and body.”
Of course, increasing your workout regimen might be easier said than done. Luckily, they’re actually quite a few foods that you can lace throughout your daily meals to help boost your mood without the need to hop out of your toasty bed at 5 a.m. “In addition to eating an overall balanced diet, there are three nutrients that I often recommend to patients struggling with seasonal mood disorders,” explains Dr. Jampolis.
“Research has shown that low levels of vitamin D may be associated with depression, and this may be particularly important during the winter months when sun exposure is limited,” explains Dr. Jampolis. You can get your D levels checked via a blood test to find out if you're meeting the daily recommended supplement dose, which is 1000 IU of vitamin D3. “D3 is the most active form,” says Dr. Jampolis. Also, consider eating foods fortified with the vitamin — such as cereal, milk, and OJ — since foods don’t contain it naturally.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
There’s research that suggests an association between low levels of omega-3 fatty acids (as well as a high ratio of omega-6) and depression, so it’s important to get enough in your diet. “If you don’t eat fatty fish like salmon, sardines, tuna, or herring at least twice a week, I recommend taking a high quality omega-3 fatty-acid supplement.” Try Omax3 Ultra-Pure.
“Low levels of certain B vitamins have been associated with depression. And, it’s especially important in vegans and people who do not consume a balanced diet — for example, if you exclude a major food group due to allergy, intolerance, or to follow a specific diet,” says Dr. Jampolis. Eat B-rich foods, such as fortified tofu, cheese, and shellfish, to supplement your diet, too.
You know how sometimes a bowl of pasta can solve everything after a long winter's day? That’s because a low-carb diet can lead to a drop in serotonin levels, the hormone responsible for a balanced mood. “Following a low-carbohydrate diet is probably not a good idea if you suffer from a winter mood disorder, which can make mood disorders worse,” says Dr. Jampolis. Just make sure to add some veggies into the mix and opt for whole-wheat variations that won’t spike blood sugar, too.
How do you know if you really have S.A.D.?
Yes, eating healthy foods and hitting the gym can make you feel better. But, if you experience low energy, extreme carb cravings, weight gain, zero sex drive, constant hunger, and fatigue for more than two weeks straight, it might be time to see a doc. “If I’m suspicious of S.A.D., I refer patients to an expert in treating this specific condition,” she says.
And, although S.A.D. was once considered a mood disorder, experts have deemed it a straight-up variant of depression. “It’s a subtype of major depression that affects up to 5% of the population — and women more often than men,” says Dr. Jampolis. “It involves major depressive episodes brought on by the autumn or winter that resolve in the spring for at least two years in a row.”
If it doesn't matter how many Spin classes you take or how well you eat, and you still don’t feel like yourself, then get help. “See a qualified healthcare professional — a psychiatrist or general practitioner — so they can diagnose it and recommend specific treatment,” says Dr. Jampolis. While doctors know some ways to help alleviate the major symptoms, customizing a specific regimen is crucial to pinpoint your personal triggers. “A professional can determine what type of light therapy is best, how to use it, whether or not you may also benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy, and if you need medication,” she says. The most common medications used for S.A.D. are SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors), often used to treat depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
Whether it’s just a fleeting mood or a more severe medical condition, it’s nice to know that not only is there legit science to explain why you’re feeling blah, but that you aren’t alone. Focus on the best-bet ways to pep yourself up, and go see a doctor if they just don't seem to be working. And, just remember: Summer is a mere six months away.