As the days get shorter and the winter slush sets in, many of us are left feeling out of whack. Sluggishness takes over. We binge on heavy comfort foods. Motivation wanes and a general feeling of lethargy takes over. In other words, winter is here.
According to Rosenthal, who first described seasonal affective disorder 30 years ago, brain serotonin naturally drops during the dark days of winter. (Serotonin is a famously feel-good chemical.) Not surprisingly, sweet foods and simple carbohydrates boost it back up.
“What’s happening is people are sort of medicating themselves with cakes and candies and eggnog,” says Rosenthal. “Then you feel really badly about yourself because you feel like you’re not in control.”
Feeling down and out this time of year? You’re not alone – roughly half a million Americans are diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder every year. Rosenthal says the most common symptoms of SAD include junk food cravings, weight gain, decrease in energy, concentration problems, and a general dip in the desire to get out and socialize.
The good news is that there are steps you can take right now to get back to feeling like yourself. Read on for some of Rosenthal’s best tips for keeping the winter blues at bay.
First things first: Bring some more light into your home. Paint the walls light colors and scrub your windows of any excess grime to really let the sunlight in.
“On a decent winter day, get out and trim your hedges – half the light of the window may be blotted out by overgrown bushes,” says Rosenthal.
If you live in a space with limited exposure to natural light, Rosenthal advises investing in a fluorescent-based light box. When shopping around, look for one that gives off about one square foot of light and has a protective screen. Ideally, it should put out about 10,000 lux of white light (not blue). Research has shown that 50 to 80 percent of light therapy users experience a complete remission of symptoms.
Watch your diet
The weather may have you craving sweets and starches, but Rosenthal warns to watch your junk food intake. Eating simple carbs like doughnuts and sweet breads may energize you in the short term, but they also pack on the pounds. Weight gain aside, this type of eating is known to trigger boosts of energy followed by intense crashes.
“I would say eating protein and slow-impact carbs, like lentil stew, don’t create those peaks and dips in the blood sugar,” says Rosenthal, who adds that proteins that are absorbed slowly won’t make you feel like a yo-yo that swings between hunger and binging.
Get out and exercise
You may need to give yourself a pep talk beforehand, but working out during the colder months is an excellent way to stave off the winter blues.
“Bundle up and get out on a bright winter day,” says Rosenthal. “If there’s snow on the ground, the snow reflects a lot of light, and that can be very pleasant.”
According to Rosenthal, the amount of seasonal affective problems is actually lower in places where snow has fallen. But even if it’s a cloudy, overcast day with no snowfall, you’ll still benefit from a brisk walk. Rosenthal says it can be invigorating.
In fact, research has shown that one hour of outdoor aerobic activity is comparable to two and a half hours of light treatment – even if the weather is cloudy.
“Then you come in, have a hot drink, turn on a bright light, and you’re now in your cozy home, and there’s this lovely contrast,” says Rosenthal.