During these cool months and shorter days, it’s crucial to think about how to stay healthy. Here’s what to focus on.
This week, we’ll all have to work a little harder to let the light in — and I don’t just mean pragmatically. The end of Daylight Savings time typically means winter is riiiight around the corner, and everything that comes with it: colder temps, shorter days, less light, and even depressed mood.
If you’ve ever noticed you’re more irritable, tired, apathetic or sensitive during the cold weather months, or if you’ve ever experienced physical symptoms like weight gain, loss of interest in your hobbies or headaches, you’re not dreamin’. According to estimates, four to six percent of the United States suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression that hits in late fall and rages until spring before disappearing; an additional 10 to 20 percent will report dealing with a milder form of winter blues. Mood changes that coincide with the time change tend to trend young, as well, affecting young adults more than older adults.
There are so many reasons you might be feeling down starting in November, many of which you will literally see and experience. Of course, dark skies and colder temperatures have long been associated with a dip in mood. When it’s cold, you can’t get outside as often, and breathe in that cathartic fresh air. Oftentimes, if you’re an outdoor exerciser, that means you’re moving less frequently, too — not to mention, you’re not getting mood-boosting vitamin D from the sun.
Vitamin D is thought to regulate our serotonin levels, a.k.a. the hormone that keeps is feeling calm and balanced. On top of that, the darkness and cold often messes with our sleep. Less sun may toy with your circadian rhythms, making it harder to keep a consistent snooze schedule. With more darkness, the body also tends to produce more melatonin, a crucial sleep aid that may lead you to feel tired more often than you would in the summer.
During these cool months, it’s crucial to think about how to stay healthy. Here’s what to focus on.
Believe it or not, some experts say you can increase your mood within five minutes after moderate-intensity exercise, like 30 minutes of walking, a 15-minute run or swimming laps for about 20 minutes. Now is the time to invest in exercise, whatever that entails for you. Maybe it’s buying a hat, gloves, warm winter coat and fleece-lined activewear leggings so you can still get outside for regular walks or runs. Perhaps you finally join that yoga studio, or buy the gym membership. Exercise is the best winter self-care.
It’s really common to see your normal sleep schedule become a raging nightmare throughout the winter, but there’s a lot you can do to re-regulate it. Watch alcohol and caffeine intake in the evenings, make sure to stick to a consistent bedtime, cut out screens and/or blue light two hours before bed (put that iPhone on Night Shift, friend!), and always make sure you’re eating the right bedtime snack. Avoid protein, caffeine or large meals. Instead, opt for small, healthy snacks like toast with nut butter and banana slices, oatmeal, or crackers with a slice of cheese. Carbs increase the amount of the amino acid tryptophan in the blood, which is thought to trigger sleep. Sleepytime tea, like Sakara Life Sleep Tea, or a melatonin supplement, like Love Wellness Lights Out, can also help if you need to kickstart those drowsy vibes at the right time. If you’re co-sleeping with a TV watcher or nighttime reader and want to block out the light, a sleep mask like Slip’s can be so helpful.
Research has continually validated the importance of strong social connections when it comes to health, wellness, and survival; one study showed isolation is an illness contributor similar to obesity, smoking, sedentary lifestyle and elevated blood pressure, and other research has linked loneliness to depression symptoms. Starting in late fall, people tend to avoid socializing; it’s more work and less fun to be “out” in inclement weather. But it’s so important. Have a biweekly standing coffee or happy hour date with a good friend, picking a spot halfway between your workplaces. Coordinate nights in with hot chocolate and comedies, instead of nights out where you’re trudging through snow. And don’t be afraid to fire up your group text in absence of legit hangs; researchers have found sending texts can be an instant mood-booster when feeling sad or lonely.
If you think you’re experiencing SAD symptoms or the winter blues, and an emphasis on good wellness practices does not seem to be helping, call your doctor or therapist. Feeling down this time of year is real condition with tried-and-true treatment options available. You don’t have to, and shouldn’t, suffer in silence.
ABOUT JENNA BIRCH
Jenna Birch is Free People’s lifestyle contributor. She is freelance journalist, author of The Love Gap: A Radical Plan to Win in Life & Love, and lifestyle expert. Her weekly relationship advice column, PureWow’s ‘Between the Sheets,’ runs every Tuesday. Her work appears in Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE, Bustle, Well + Good, Man Repeller, The Washington Post, and more. She is a huge personality-typing nerd, yogi and advocate for chronic pain awareness. She lives for researching and reporting on relationships, mental health, wellness, psychology and happiness, mapping how these subjects intertwine with each person’s unique story.
Lead image by Nicholas Eisley.