Wintertime is certainly here. The frigid temperatures, snow, ice, and freezing rain. For some of us, this is great news! We can ski, skate, and go ice fishing, enjoy sparkling winter scenes, and inhale refreshing, crisp winter air. For others, the steady decline in temperature, and disappearance of bare ground, causes a sure and steady decline in our mood, our desire to go anywhere, and our energy.
In my last blog post, I described Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a recurring depression brought on by the onset of fall and winter. In most cases, SAD disappears with the return of spring, extended daylight, and warmth; however, the 4-6 months during which SAD might be affecting someone can seem endless and discouraging.
One of the main factors in both SAD (and the milder “winter blues”) is the change in our hormone levels. These changes are brought on as our circadian rhythm (sleep/awake cycle) shifts. The circadian rhythm is controlled by an area of our brain that responds to light and dark. As darkness comes, our brain signals the production of melatonin, a hormone that makes us sleepy. If we have to wake up in the dark morning, and come home in the dark, an increased melatonin level is part of the reason we don’t feel more energized.
There’s good news! Another hormone involved in our circadium rhythm is serotonin. Serotonin is the hormone that gives us energy, makes us feel motivated, and improves our mood. As our eyes take in the light of day, seratonin levels rise, and melatonin levels fall.
The other good news: there are a lot of things we can do to boost our serotonin levels, keeping them at a good level throughout the day and evening.
Sunlight: Sunlight raises Vitamin D levels. Vitamin D promotes serotonin production.
Try to get some sun exposure, as close to the middle of the day as possible, on as many days as possible. Walk outside with a friend. Try “Nordic walking” with pointed walking sticks and treads on your shoes. Sit by a sunny window during lunch or while you take a break.
Exercise: Exercise has been shown to boost serotonin levels. In addition to walking, return to an exercise you used to enjoy: dancing, skating (roller blade or ice), water aerobics, etc. Try a new winter sport. Ask your doctor for a referral to a health coach. Get out those exercise videos.
Vitamin D: Get your level checked and speak to your doctor about supplements, if needed.
Massage: Studies have shown that massage increases serotonin levels. The cause is not yet clear, but the connection is. Whether it’s from a partner, a friend, or a massage therapist, it is a great way to reduce stress and boost those positive hormones.
Light Therapy: You can purchase a light box and sit in front of it for a period of time every day, all winter. See your doctor for an evaluation and for the right dose of light.
Positive thoughts and feelings: People experiencing positive emotions and thinking positive thoughts have elevated serotonin levels. We can actually affect the amount of serotonin activity in our brains by engaging in pleasant activities, remembering good times, and imagining positive things happening in the future. The more we focus on positive things, the longer our serotonin levels will stay elevated.
In the months ahead, try following some of these tips to boost your serotonin levels, thereby maintaining a positive approach to winter, and to your day and night.
Linda Patterson, LICSW, is a counselor in the Employee and Family Assistance Program at the University of Vermont Medical Center.