Although we're nearly a month past the shortest day of the year and we get a few added minutes of sunlight with each passing day, we've still got a couple of months to go before the first day of spring gets here. After the excitement of the holidays pass, we get into the depths of winter, when it can sometimes be hard to get out of bed. With cold temperatures, gray skies and frosty windshields, it's tempting to stay in bed and hibernate! For many of us, winter causes seasonal depression—about half a million people are affected each year by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and thousands more get a milder form of the winter blues, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Symptoms of SAD include lethargy, low self-esteem, anxiety, sleepiness and the desire to be alone. While the causes of SAD aren't certain, the Mayo Clinic says the reduction in sunlight can cause a change in our biological clocks, a drop in levels of serotonin (which keeps us from getting depressed) and a disruption in the hormone melatonin (which affects sleep patterns).
Fortunately, a few easy behavior modifications can help us fight sad.
1. Work with the sun: As we discussed in this recent article, simply giving yourself daily access to sunlight can help. If privacy isn't a concern, sleep with your curtains open so the morning sun can help you wake up. Start the day with a daily dose of sunshine, in the form of a brisk walk around the block (I know this can be hard to do in cold winter temperatures, but it truly does help!). If you work indoors all day, make time to take three 10-minute walks throughout the course of the day. Then, at night, avoid blue-based lights such as those from televisions and computer screens. These lights mimic the color quality of sunlight and can disrupt our release of melatonin, keeping us awake and not allowing us to follow our healthy, natural sleep patterns.
2. Get exercise: Exercise naturally releases endorphins in our brains, which help us feel happier. Regular exercise also helps us sleep better, allowing us to keep a regular sleep pattern. If you exercise outdoors, you're also giving your body a daily dose of fresh air and sunshine—two of our bodies' requirements it can be easy to miss in winter.
3. Light therapy: If you suffer from severe SAD or if you live in a place where dreary days make it hard to EVER get sunlight, consider bright light therapy. Light therapy boxes radiate a very bright light, similar to sunlight. Exposure to the light is said to produce a change in brain chemicals that helps improve your mood.
4. Supplements: Exposure to sunlight allows our bodies to manufacture vitamin D, a vital nutrient for immune system regulation, metabolism and brain health. When we don't get enough sunlight, we might be creating insufficient levels of vitamin D. A supplement can help. If we're getting virtually no sunlight, here are our vitamin D requirements, according to this article from Medical News Today.
Children up to 13 years - 5 mcg (200 IU)
14-18 years - 5 mcg (200 IU)
19-50 years - 5mcg (200 IU)
51-70 years - 10 mcg (400 IU)
71+ years - 15 mcg (600 IU)