Don’t let winter sap your energy or your motivation to improve your health and Fitness
Part I: Dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder
Winter has terrible boundary issues. In the Northern Hemisphere, the season officially runs from December 21st to March 20th, but it rarely has a clean start or finish. Here in Kansas City, we’ve had snow as early as October and as late as May. None of the other seasons show such impertinence. They know their place. Summer’s heat sometimes is gone by Labor day weeks before Autumn’s formal ascension. Maybe I am a “glass half empty kind of guy,” but summer seems to just vanish faster than dew on a June morning, but Winter, well it’s the bad penny that doesn’t appear to ever………..end.
Maybe that’s just the S.A.D. talking. Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) is a malady that manifests itself in lethargy, depression and a compromised immune system for many people during the wintertime season. In doing research for this post, I found out some people can have S.A.D. in the summertime too. Excessive sunlight can cause overstimulation in certain people. That will never be an issue with me though. I swear I may have been an Iguana in a past life. I crave light and heat. So to keep my sanity until we actually have a bona fide Spring (not just March 21st but genuinely warm weather and longer days), I have come up with some coping strategies in not only dealing with S.A.D. for yourself or a loved one.
DISCLAIMER: These are ideas that may be able to help one stay on top of Seasonal Affective Disorder. They aren’t the only options. I have researched this topic as best I could, but I am not a Medical Professional. Since S.A.D. is a medically recognized condition, questions or concerns should ultimately be brought to a trusted practitioner. This is especially true if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed, you turn to alcohol for comfort or relaxation, or you feel hopeless or think about suicide. The suggestions I have researched helped me and may be of help to you. I welcome any comments, just bear in mind I am trying to deal with these issues myself.
I figure we should start with what is the medical definition of S.A.D., what is believed to be the cause, and ways to cope with and thrive despite the malady.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
According to the Mayo Clinic, Season Affective Disorder is defined as the following: “(SAD) is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons, SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody. Less often, SAD causes depression in the spring or early summer.”
How do the shorter daylight hours and colder weather affect me physically?
Less daylight affects your circadian rhythm (sleep patterns) Our bodies work naturally with sunlight. The day usually makes us awake, and the dark makes us sleepy. Our brains produce chemicals that wake us up and make us tired. The shortened daylight means your body produces less serotonin and more melatonin. This can directly lead to depression. Less sunlight also indicates less Vitamin D. Deficiency in this vital vitamin can cause mental impairment, especially in older adults. Colder weather makes people spend more time indoors and often sedentary. Indoor heating tends to make air dryer which can also lead to mild dehydration. All these factors can lead to lower blood sugar and weaken your immune system. And more immunity compromised people in an enclosed area leads to colds and flu being rampant.
What are the symptoms of S.A.D.?
The reduced serotonin and increased melatonin can wreak havoc on your sleep patterns. People tend to oversleep to try to make up for a deficit. It is not uncommon to be tired during the day, but have insomnia at night. The reduced serotonin can also lead to an increased appetite for Carbohydrates as your brain looks for something to replace the lower serotonin. Many people finding themselves eating more sweets and sugar-laden bread items in the winter which can temporarily increase energy but lead to a profound crash later. The slower metabolism and additional (and unhealthy) food intake also mean many people put on weight during the winter. Anyone of these factors could lead to depression. Working in tandem, they create a vicious cycle that is hard for many of us (me included) to break.
How to keep S.A.D. from negatively impacting your health and Fitness goals
Not everyone who gets a winter funk has S.A.D. but for those who do, maintaining your fitness and health goals can be troublesome at best if not seemingly impossible. Practically everyone finds Winter a challenge as far as staying motivated, so hopefully, these ideas can be of help to those who don’t see themselves in the S.A.D. spectrum.
There are times I really wish I lived in the Southern Hemisphere I might find Christmas in the heat a bit odd, but I would love to have New Year’s Day in the summer. Imagine it. You make your resolution to work out more in the new year, and you go to work out on a bright sunny day. The sunlight just bolsters your resolve. You got three months to be motivated, and by the time winter does come, you’ve been at it for six months, so it’s easy to keep at it. But here in the northern climes, we have a festive enough Christmas but come January, it’s cold, dark and all the bright lights from Christmas are boxed up for another year. Have fun working out!
The worst part is many of us enter a funk and stay there until Spring (if not later) Our good intentions for being healthier in the new year have been, traded in for a box of donuts and Redbox. Sadly even when it does get warmer, many of those intentions stay gone. So here are some ways to get motivated regardless if you have S.A.D. and also improve your overall mental well being despite the outside conditions.
It’s not just you. (well, not entirely)
Realize that S.A.D. or even just run of the mill, low-grade depression affect millions of people especially those who are in the latitudes closer to the poles. These seasonal conditions create a physiological reaction in our brains and bodies. It’s not just us being “sad” or “tired.” Understanding this means we don’t have to just accept it. There are proven ways to mitigate these symptoms. Consider getting a physical. Other factors can create depression such as thyroid malfunctions and Blood Sugar levels. Make sure you discuss anything irregular in how you usually feel especially if you have thoughts of harming another person or yourself.
Depending on your situation, your Doctor may prescribe anti-depressant or anti-anxiety medication. For many, this can be a significant help. Just my opinion, but I found any drug therapy usually works best in tandem with other forms of treatment and not a panacea in itself. (But I tend to be dubious of “one pill cures all” and tend to see the most value in drug treatment as part of a bigger picture in a body/mind paradigm) As always your mileage may vary. I would also recommend Vitamin D supplements to help make up for the diminished sunlight especially if you are Vegan as Vitamin D is only really found in large quantities in meat and dairy foods. (Although some Soy and Almond Milk and Breakfast cereals have been fortified) Supplemental Magnesium has helped my mood as well. (although I may have just been deficient.) A blood test can determine if you are low in any vitamin or mineral. Increasing this alone can significantly improve your sense of well being.
I am an enthusiastic proponent of Light Therapy. It is a natural, non-chemical form of treatment. It usually works quickly and has no side effects. All you need is a light box. A lightbox is a specially designed lamp that can simulate sunlight. Consult with your doctor to make sure it is right for you, but as a rule light therapy is useful for just about everyone. What makes the lightbox different from conventional light bulbs is that they offer an intensity similar to sunlight and without UV. They are regulated by the FDA, and most insurance plans won’t cover them but the upside many are available for less than $100, and many are less than 50$. Look for a box that is at least 10,000lux (light intensity units) a standard lightbulb isn’t even half that.
Most doctors recommend at least 30 minutes in the morning. The nice thing about the box is that most come with a stand and you can set up while you are having breakfast or putting on makeup etc. You should see a difference in a few days. If time permits, I also recommend body/mind connection exercises such as Tai-Chi, Meditation or Yoga. Having a firm body/mind awareness also helps in making better choices regarding health such as better eating and helps increase motivation for exercise.