5 Ways to Beat the Winter Blues
This winter, I’ve been obsessed with researching ways to beat Seasonal Affective Disorder (also known as S.A.D., ironically enough). In the darker months of the year, the lack of sunlight (which our bodies turn into the natural antidepressant Vitamin D) causes the brain to work overtime producing melatonin. Melatonin* is the hormone that gets released at night or in low lighting, which regulates our body clock and sleep patterns. It’s also been linked to depression, which makes sense: when we are depressed, we tend to stay inside and sleep a lot -- and the more time we spend sleeping or sitting in dark rooms, the more melatonin our brains produce.
As I get older and more familiar with my body and my physical sensitivities, I have definitely noticed that I get sleepier and slower in the winter, and am more easily prone to bouts of depression. I get Vitamin D3 from my multivitamin, but last winter my doctor said I was still extremely deficient in Vitamin D, even with the 500% DV amount I was taking. So I upped it to 2000 IU per day, and that truly did wonders. I take that every day almost year-round, except when I’m getting a lot of sunlight each day during the summer.
Here are some great ways to get started in beating S.A.D. to the punch this winter:
1. 2000 IU per day of a vegan D3 supplement
I recently wrote a piece on vitamins about my daily vitamin routine. I was frustrated to learn about the source of most D3 out there being lanolin -- which comes from the skin of sheep. I did a ton of research and found out that certain mushrooms also produce D3, and was excited to find the Garden of Life MyKind vegan D3 chewable supplement, which is around $12 for a thirty-day supply. If you aren’t as worried about animal products, I would recommend the Solgar (lanolin-based) D3 that comes in a vegetarian capsule.
2. 15 minutes a day in real sunlight
Only about 1% of Florida residents suffer from S.A.D., while closer to the Canadian border it gets up to 9% or more, according to one study. All it takes for us to get the Vitamin D we need from the sun each day is about 15 minutes, or just enough for our skin to get warm and turn slightly pink. Anything beyond that is when the dangers of sun exposure kick in. Even in winter, the sun peeks out from time to time. My goal this year is to soak it up by standing outside with as much exposed skin as I can stand to bare, any time I see the sun come out!
3. 20-30 minutes a day in front of a lightbox
According to this article in Real Simple, sitting next to a full-spectrum artificial light -- also called a light box -- for 30 minutes per day can be as effective as antidepressant medication. I found one with great reviews for around $60 on Amazon.
4. Dawn-simulating alarm clocks
Another thing that changes during winter is the amount of light we get in the morning. I’m really excited about this wake-up light and alarm clock with all kinds of cool features like touch snooze, wake-up phase options, and sunrise color options. Update: I've been using this alarm clock every day for nearly eight months, and it works better than I could have imagined! Waking up when it's dark outside is 100x easier when natural light fills the room. Plus, the bird sounds are legit!
5. Exercising under bright lights
I was kind of annoyed yesterday when my yoga teacher came in to the dark room at the Y and turned on all the fluorescent lights. I was enjoying my sleepy meditation before the class began. But by the end of the class, I felt awake, invigorated, and energized. According to a preliminary study, exercising under a bright light improved general mental health, social functioning, depressive symptoms, and vitality, while exercise in ordinary light improved vitality only. Reason enough to get my butt to the gym!
*A note about melatonin: On the flip side: I often suggest taking a melatonin supplement (specifically the kind that dissolves under your tongue) to my friends who have trouble sleeping. It’s a natural, non-addictive alternative to powerful and scary chemical drugs that people take to induce sleep. Melatonin has helped me regulate my sleep cycle, and nowadays I rarely need it except on trips to other time zones. When I do take it, I take a very small amount (1mg at most). It’s important to make the room dark, and settle your brain while the melatonin kicks in, e.g. turning off the TV and using only dim lights, candles, or a Himalayan salt lampwhile you get ready for bed.