“Sunlight is one of the best natural mood enhancers available because sunlight helps the body produce mood-enhancing vitamin D.”
If you ever find that you have trouble keeping a smile on your face during the winter months, you’re not alone. From feelings of being “a little down” to actual symptoms of depression, the winter blues are experienced by people all over the globe when the days become shorter. Fortunately, there are plenty of natural pick-me-ups to help chase away the blues during these dark and dreary months.
The winter blues are not unique to you (although it’s easy to feel that way sometimes), and there is scientific evidence for why they occur. The two biggest factors are environmental and social. But both can be blamed on winter weather. Sunlight is one of the best natural mood enhancers available because sunlight helps the body produce mood-enhancing vitamin D. There have been multiple studies over the past several years that link low levels of vitamin D in the body with gloomy moods. Looking at it from the other direction, higher levels of vitamin D can help keep a smile on your face and chase away the winter blues.
Getting enough vitamin D can be problematic during the winter because the days are so short and the temperature is so low, and the amount of vitamin D-creating ultraviolet light is much lower than in spring, summer and early autumn. We have fewer hours of daylight in which to be outside, and often we think it’s too cold to go outdoors. If you can spare 20 minutes outside during your lunch break with the sun shining on your face, you may notice a significant boost in your mood—even though winter sun does little to produce vitamin D in your skin, it does have other benefits to the brain, which are not yet well understood. Most people who live in non tropical parts of the globe need to rely on supplements to get adequate vitamin D in the winter. On days when the sun doesn’t shine, getting exposure to bright lights in the morning (10,000 lumens) for at least 30 minutes can significantly improve mood, especially in people prone to seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
It’s also important to note that in the latitudes where winter is coldest, the winter sun is lowest on the horizon, so the sun’s rays travel through a lot more of the atmosphere. Therefore, they contain less of the vitamin D-producing ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. To counteract this, you may need to spend a little more time outdoors with the sun shining on your face.
If you just can’t stand the cold weather, vitamin D can also be obtained from certain fortified foods and high-quality supplements. If you choose this route, keep in mind that more and more doctors and nutritionists are stating that the current accepted daily value of 400 IU per day of vitamin D is probably insufficient for most people. This can be especially true in the winter when we need all we can get of this mood-enhancing vitamin. Many experts are beginning to recommend at least 1,000 IU per day, and many suggest as much as 4,000 IU daily. The European 10,000 IU. Summer sunlight stimulates as much as 10,000 to 20,000 IU of vitamin D production in less than an hour of whole body midday exposure without sunscreen.
The other major factor behind the winter blues is rooted in social practices. Cold weather and short days often keep us cooped up in our homes and offices. We tend to spend more time alone on the couch in front of the television and less time being physically active or with groups of friends.
We all know physical activity is good for the body, but did you know it is good for the mind and mood as well? Exercise causes the body to produce endorphins, which are natural chemicals that literally cause you to feel good. Even more amazing is that the more you exercise (within reason, of course), the more of these feel-good chemicals your body will produce. They add up quickly to boost your mood and get rid of the winter blues. There are countless ways to exercise during the winter, both indoors and out. If you can make time for skiing, ice skating, snowshoeing or any other outdoor activity, you will also give your body exposure to mood-boosting sunlight. However, there are many indoor options as well, for when the temperature is just too cold.
In addition to boosting your mood, exercise also helps regulate sleep. And since lack of sleep is another major contributor to depressed moods, being more active in the daytime can help alleviate restless nights to leave you feeling alert and happy in the morning. A full night of deep,healthy sleep can do wonders for beating the winter blues.
Getting off the couch doesn’t just mean getting physically active, it also means spending time with positive-minded friends. It’s easy to succumb to negative feelings during the winter, often without realizing it. But optimistic feelings are just as influential in your life. Surrounding yourself with positive-minded people who motivate you, while at the same time moving away from negative, detrimental relationships, is one more way to keep depression at bay during the winter. As you find yourself focusing more and more on joy and the positive aspects in your life, you will quickly see more opportunities for happiness to come into your life.
One final way to help beat the winter blues is to make sure you are eating a healthy, well-rounded diet. The foods we eat can have a major impact on how we feel physically and emotionally. Unhealthy meals that are high in sugar and fat tend to make us feel sluggish and drowsy afterward. If you’re already feeling like you are experiencing the winter blues, these foods will only make those feelings worse. Conversely, healthy foods that supply longer-lasting, more stable energy will help avoid lulls in energy and keep you feeling energized and sharp.
Some foods offer a little extra benefit for dealing with mood. The B vitamin complex and omega-3 fatty acids are among the most beneficial. B vitamins play a critical role in producing the brain chemicals that affect mood. Vitamin B is found in abundance in meats such as turkey, tunaand liver but can also be found in whole grains, potatoes, bananas and yeast products. If your regular diet doesn’t provide enough vitamin B, it may be helpful to try a daily supplement (make sure it contains vitamin B-12).
Omega-3 fatty acids may be among the absolute most important nutritional factors in chasing away the blues. In recent years there has been an explosion of research into omega-3 fatty acids for their possible role in mental health and mood. Their best natural source is fresh fish, but you can also find omega-3s in some plant-based sources such as flax, kiwi fruit and chia seeds. However, just like vitamin B, if your diet does not contain enough, you may find that supplementing helps to improve mood.
The cold weather and shorter days of winter do not mean you have to give in to feelings of sadness and depression. When you find your mood starts to drop, keep in mind that a little extra sunshine and an hour of exercise followed by a nutritious meal eaten in good company may be the perfect recipe for chasing away the winter blues.