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January 13, 2014

Combating the Winter Blues. ~ Dina Omar

“In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

~ Albert Camus

For many centuries, the weather has been a perfect metaphor for human emotions. It has been a great source of inspiration for authors, poets and singers. We associate various kinds of our emotions with the innumerable swings of nature and weather.

Actually, come to think of it, our moods often mirror the weather. We usually feel happy in the sunny days of summer, and we get cold and blue under the dark, gray skies of winter.

But we also vary widely in how we respond to different weathers and seasons of the year. Many of us adore winter and can’t wait for the rainy, chilly days to come. But a lot of us dread it and can’t wait for it to be over. For some, it’s all about Christmas, holidays, and celebrations—for others, it’s frightening and depressing.

This is a very common psychological phenomenon, known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which strikes people during winter months. It seems to be triggered by decreased exposure to sunlight, with symptoms generally similar to those of depression. It can come in the form of lethargy, loss of interest, and a change in sleep habits and appetite.

Experts don’t fully understand the causes of SAD, but they theorize that it could be due to improper levels of either the hormone melatonin or the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Don’t Blame It All on Winter SAD-ness

While it’s easy to blame winter sadness, or SAD, for a lot of what’s going on with our mood and health, various studies on emotions and weather have voted against this stream of conventional wisdom, as they have shown that the weather does not really have a significant effect on the positive mood.

That is not to say they don’t play a role.

The effects of weather on our minds and bodies are undeniable. They are just not as straightforward as we think they are. There are different factors at play here: our lifestyle, activity levels, diet, etc.

Surely you noticed the drastic changes in your daily habits during winter. You don’t move much, and you eat a lot (putting on a few pounds sometimes, perhaps?). Winter often provides lots of excuses for curling up under a blanket and letting activity levels slide, typically by getting too lazy to go to the gym or exercise.

Why is that? Why does our appetite grow ravenously in the winter? And why do we get so sluggish?

SAD or not, the answer lies in modern physiology. Our bodies naturally respond to temperature changes. So when it gets cold, our bodies’ temperature drops and we start to shiver. This is an involuntary muscle movement that triggers our bodies into their dormant (but always alert) self-preservation mode. It sends to the body a simple message: We need to create heat…fast!”

Food provides the body with a perfect, readily-available substance for warmth. Duh, right? Studies show that we tend to eat more in winter months; and the colder it is, the more we crave food.

But healthy foods rarely cross our minds. Instead, we usually turn to greasy comfort food. Don’t get me wrong, fatty foods are good for somethings. They burn in the muscles to create heat. But they do, however, leave an insulating layer of adipose tissue—or, to put it more bluntly, fat.

Not surprisingly, people with SAD reach for more high-carb foods, which trigger a serotonin rush (since they have low levels of serotonin). And for those of us who don’t have SAD, the rich-carb foods elevate the blood sugar levels (the sugar rush). But then they quickly decrease, dragging our energy levels right down along with them, therefore striking us with the familiar case of “the blues.”

For many of us, food cravings in the cold, dark days are a way of self-medication. And that is perfectly fine, so long as we remember that healthy foods, notably fruits and vegetables, have the same effect on our metabolism as low-value foods, and they help our bodies to heat up just as effectively.

In short, winter keeps us indoors more, making us feel more isolated, lazier and hungrier, causing a direct effect on our mood and eating habits. And what’s the best way to deal with those gloomy, dark days?

By approaching them with…a holistic toolbox of “anti-blues.”

It’s true that we can’t control the weather, but we sure can influence the emotional barometer of our own bodies. And if you’ve never done yoga before, then it’s time for you to turn your inner blue winter into an invincible summer.

1) Move your butt: If you don’t work those muscles, your body will do it for you. So instead of shivering, actively respond to your body’s call by moving it. Try some backbends, like the camel pose, wheel pose, or downward-facing dog.

2) “Indoor-spection”: Adapt to winter’s hibernation by meditating. Meditation teaches us to go inward with great ease, and it creates a sense of calm and joy—the perfect antidote to winter blues.

3) Healthy snacks: Indulge in more low-calorie, high-value comfort foods, preferably whole grains and foods that are rich in the amino acid tryptophan (the precursor of serotonin). These types of food help to curb appetite, make us feel full, increase metabolism, and warm up the body. Instead of hearty greasy soups, go with vegetable soup. Instead of milky-fat hot chocolate, think ginger tea.

4) Go into the light!: The sun is the greatest “free and natural” anti-depressant. It is a human being’s most crucial source of vitamin D. The sun affects the levels of serotonin in the brain, so when exposure to the sun decreases, you know what happens. Soak yourself up in the morning light as much as you can. Try to get up early and sit by the window or, better yet, take a walk in the sunniest hours of the day.

5) Get free hugs: When you’re feeling emotionally cold and blue, spend more time with warm friends and family. Your loved ones will bring you sunshine.

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Assistant Editor: Melissa Petty/Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Elephant Archives

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