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5 Smart Ways To Beat The Winter Blahs

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We’re almost through February — the cruelest month — and you’re just about done with this winter business. After all, it’s hard to get up the energy to do anything — go out with friends, make it to the gym, take up a new hobby — when the days are short and the outdoor temps in most of the country are none too forgiving.

Maybe you’re one of the 14 million Americans suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder [SAD], or maybe you’re just lowercase sad. Either way, it’s understandable. “It’s very common to feel your mood dip when the cold weather rolls in,” says Susan Blum, MD, an integrative physician and founder of the Blum Center for Health in Rye Brook, NY.

Yes, the dark, shivery days are upon us, but you don’t have to succumb to yet another month of near-hibernation. These five expert-backed tips will make this the winter you feel like your summer self again.
Illustrated By Alex Marino.
Seek Out The Sun
Weirdly, scientists aren’t 100% clear on what causes SAD. However, research from the University of Copenhagen suggests it’s partially a matter of how well your brain regulates serotonin levels. Bright sunlight — something that’s lacking come winter — helps your body produce the feel-good chemical, and less of it leads to depressive symptoms. “For a lot of people, low mood is serotonin-related,” Dr Blum says. “That’s why SSRIs [selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors] work so well.”

So how can you give your serotonin levels a leg up? By getting more sunlight (or sunlight-like light), specifically in the morning. Drinking your a.m. coffee while standing in front of a window may help, but for many people with SAD, the answer is light therapy. Light therapy involves daily timed exposure to a light box, a medical device that emits light of specific wavelengths. (It sort of looks like a Lite-Brite and a space heater had a baby, and its only purpose is to shoot beams of sunlight-like light into your eyes. In other words, it’s not mood lighting.) Many doctors recommend using a 10,000-lux white fluorescent light box for 30 minutes or more as soon as you wake up, Dr. Blum notes, but you should talk to your physician about what’s best for you.
Get Plenty Of Vitamin D
People with low levels of the vitamin are at a higher risk for developing mood issues in winter, Dr. Blum points out. According to research conducted at the University of Georgia, this is because vitamin D helps the brain synthesize serotonin, which, as we’ve already learned, the body needs to avoid depression. The thing is, vitamin D is pretty hard to come by; it’s difficult to get enough from food on the regular, and if you live north of Atlanta, the November-to-February sun is too low and indirect to kick off D production (even if you were to go polar-bearing in your bikini every single day).

While the National Institutes of Health sets the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of vitamin D at 600 IU for those under 70, some experts say that’s too low. Dr. Blum recommends 1,000 or 2,000 IU supplements — and suggests seeing if your doctor feels the same. If you want to go the diet-only route, a serving of wild-caught fatty fish, such as salmon and mackerel, contains around 400 IU, and a glass of fortified milk packs around 100 IU, research shows.
Sleep Like You Mean It
Oh yeah, a tip that involves curling up under a pile of bedding! “Better sleep supports a better mood,” Dr. Blum says. In fact, people who don’t sleep well have almost 10 times the risk of developing depression compared to people who sleep well. And, according to a study published in the journal Sleep, between 17% to 50% of young adults who suffer bouts of insomnia that last two weeks or longer go on to develop depression.

What’s more, when we’re sleep deprived, we’re more likely to throw a shit-fit in response to a stressful situation, according to researchers from the University of Arkansas and the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It seems that our brains need adequate rest to regulate emotions the following day, so consider ducking out of a so-so birthday party early, pausing a TV show to finish tomorrow, and pushing brunch back an hour. Forget FOMO: Catching enough ZZZs will ultimately allow you to do more stuff without feeling like you’re dragging or just going through the motions.

To help avoid tossing and turning, power down electronics well before bedtime — they really do make you fall asleep later, sleep less well, and feel more zonked-out the following morning. Creating a quiet, dreamy environment in your bedroom is also a good idea. Get yourself some blackout curtains (or a sleep mask), and invest in a lavender sachet, the smell of which may help relax you, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Breathe For A Bit
Meditation’s kind of magical in winter because it a) has incredible mood-balancing effects and b) can be done while you remain wrapped up in a plush throw, sitting cross-legged on your comforter. In fact, a 2014 study review published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine showed that effects of mindfulness meditation can be comparable to those of antidepressants.

Scientists aren’t totally sure why it’s so beneficial, but MRI studies have shown that meditation quiets the brain’s amygdala, the region that freaks out in response to stress. And as anyone who practices meditation can attest, it feels pretty good to step back and realize those angsty, winter, everything-sucks-so-bad thoughts are just thoughts. “Meditation allows deep feelings to come to the surface,” says Dr. Blum, who also likes yoga for its meditative benefits. “This helps you process and move the emotion out of your body, where it can stay stuck and cause physical symptoms and problems.”

Ready to give it a shot? The high-investment option involves finding a class, such as those offered by the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Mindfulness. An app for mindfulness-based guided meditation, like Headspace, can also do the trick. Or, just sit quietly for 5 or 10 minutes, listening to the sound of your breath and noticing, acknowledging, and releasing any thoughts that crop up (and oh, there will be many).
Move, At Least A Little
Study after study after study demonstrates that exercise is an effective tool in battling the blues. “It’s an established, well-known link,” Dr. Blum says. “Working out increases endorphins and improves mood for sure.” While you know you should exercise, we’re with you: It’s really, really cold out and you’re feeling awfully tired. “Many animals hibernate in winter,” Dr. Blum points out. “It’s okay to be lower-energy this season.”

If you can’t quite make yourself get to kickboxing class, know that walking, dancing around your living room, and doing leg lifts and tricep dips during a deep, season-long TV binge all count.
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