Short, grey days and cold weather are generally enough to drive even the most optimistic of us into a bit of a funk. But if you’re an avid exerciser who can’t get in your regular workout because of bad weather, the stress and rush of the holiday season can really throw you off your game. These frustrating bouts of sadness and moodiness are known, informally, as “the winter blues.”
But for about six percent of Americans, these mood shifts can be much more serious, and account for a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Unlike the winter blues, SAD can occur during any season, and include much more severe symptoms, including suicidal thoughts. Since SAD can be related to hormone imbalances and may require prescription medication, it’s important to work with your doctor if you’re experiencing severe depression.
The good news: for both SAD and the milder winter blues, there is strong evidence that simple changes in diet and regular exercise can help you endure these seasonal mood swings until the sun shines again.
Work It Out
Especially during the colder months, exercising can be difficult if your energy levels are low to begin with and the weather makes it difficult to get outside. Focusing on the benefits you can expect to reap from exercise, though, will encourage you to get yourself up and moving.
The American Council on Exercise recommends remembering your past successes and setting clear goals to keep you moving. Joining a class or finding a workout buddy will help you stay focused.
Thinking in terms of “activity” rather than exercise may also help. Look for opportunities to inject some added activity into your day: take the stairs, skip the shortcuts and turn some of your household chores into workouts. Don’t underestimate how many calories you can burn working around the house. For example, an hour of pushing a vacuum around can burn 238 calories in a 150-pound person.
Simply taking brisk walks outdoors can go a long way toward improving your mood. The sunlight is directly responsible for production of serotonin and melatonin, two mood-regulating hormones. Any exercise will increase the release of several endorphins which can help improve your mood, help you sleep and regulate your appetite.
Specifically, cardiovascular exercise and mindful exercises like yoga and Pilates can be especially useful. Because these workout modes help you focus on your breathing and heart rate, they help to modify your stress response, and consequently fight depression. Look through the top rated elliptical machines to find one that will complement your home gym and help you keep up your cardio routine, regardless of the weather.
Depression can increase your cravings for simple carbohydrates, which absorb quickly into your body but also cause a crash in blood sugar. And since fatty, starchy treats are easy to come by during the holiday season, it’s important to pay particular attention to how you’re eating in order to avoid SAD symptoms.
Stock up on complex carbs, which can give you the same serotonin boost as their simpler cousins, but keep your blood sugar steady and balanced. This would include foods that contain whole-wheats and oats, like whole grain breads, bran muffins, brown rice and oatmeal.
Since seasonal depression, in most cases, is related to reduced exposure to sunlight, researchers have examined the impact of vitamin D, which is produced by sunlight, on depression. The research is still inconclusive but promising enough to spur more studies. While fortified foods, like milk and cereal, have vitamin D added, very few foods contain it naturally.
Two foods that do provide vitamin D are salmon and tuna. These fatty fish are also rich in omega-3s, which have shown potential in several studies for improving mood and brain function. If you don’t enjoy fish and choose to supplement, though, try to select a supplement that is particularly high in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), since this variety of omega-3 is thought to be the most effective.
These small changes in your activity and diet could help you improve your mood and get you through your bout with seasonal depression. However, always consult a doctor if you are battling depression.
Have you experienced the benefits of proper diet and increased activity on depression? Please share your experience with us in the comments.