Seasonal Blues and How they Impact our Health
As I sit here typing out this blog post, the rain is pouring outside my dining room window after an early morning tornado scare.
That's life in Tornado Alley... well, in Arkansas. Where you can have freezing temps and icy roads one day and tornadoes the next!
Regardless of the weather front, when we go long periods of time without sunshine or the ability to be outside to enjoy sunlight and fresh air, it can impact us mentally. And, for those who have been on this weight loss journey with me know, our mental health greatly impacts our progress!
The "professional" term is Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD aka The Winter Blues. However, any extended time without sufficient sunlight can cause SAD regardless of the season.
Symptoms of SAD include:
feeling sad almost daily
losing interest in activities that you normally enjoy
sleeping difficulties whether that be insomnia or excessive sleepiness
mental and/or physical fatigue
lack of concentration
food cravings and overeating
feeling hopeless or even suicidal
We know that reduced sunlight can trigger symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, but why?
Well, the lack of sunlight can cause a change in our Circadian Rhythm. This is our bodies way of transitioning us from day to night, wake to sleep, regulating our metabolism, state of alertness, energy levels, and so on. When we do not have a distinct designation of daytime to nighttime, this can become disrupted. It happens often to those who work swing shifts or rotating hours. A disruption in our circadian rhythm often affects melatonin levels as well. This leads to further problems as we cannot get adequate sleep.
Another cause is low vitamin D. Sunlight produces vitamin D in our skin which in turn boosts serotonin activity. When we are unable to be outdoors or it is overcast, rainy, or cloudy for days or weeks, we do not make as much vitamin D leading to decreased serotonin activity.
And, just as with any disorder, environmental, biological, genetic, and mental factors can compound the problem:
A family or personal history of depression, especially if untreated
A withdrawal from social functions due to cold weather and most recently, the addition of a global pandemic and its impact on socialization
How can we prevent and treat SAD?
While some of us are just more prone to symptoms of SAD, it can affect anyone. It may not be completely preventable but there are things you can do to offset the severity of the symptoms and perhaps even prevent them from disrupting your life:
1. Take a multivitamin daily and supplement with vitamin D, a B vitamin complex, and magnesium. All of these vitamins support energy, our mood, and mental health.
2. If you are having trouble sleeping, supplement with melatonin.
Also, avoid naps during the day. Especially if you are having difficulty sleeping at night. This only adds to the disruption in your bodies natural circadian rhythm. Cold, rainy days are great days to curl up on the sofa and nap, but try to avoid this if you are feeling the winter blues.
3. Light therapy.
Even on cold days, take advantage of sunlight.
Bundle up and get outside. Soak up the UV rays! Experts recommend we get at least 10-15 minutes of sunlight per day.
We underestimate the benefits of not only sunlight, but just breathing fresh air.
If the sun is not to be found, invest in a UV light box or a Happy Light.
I lived an apartment with poor natural light for a brief period and my UV light box saved my sanity.
Tanning beds also offer UV light but I only advise their use if cleared by your PCP and sunblock is used.
If you cannot sit outside, open those blinds or curtains and let the sunshine in. If you work in a windowless office or cubby, take your breaks and lunch outside or near a big window. Incorporate sitting on your porch or in front of a window as part of your morning routine.
Exercising releases endorphins (happy hormones) that boost our mood and improve our sleep. And, the good news is, you do not have to run a 5K to get those feel good endorphins! Research has shown that just 10 minutes a day can improve your mental and physical health (can't hurt your weight loss efforts either).
5. Start journaling.
Everyone knows I am a huge advocate of food journals for weight loss success but journals can help us with many other health issues.
If we document our food intake, what we are drinking and how much, our sleep patterns, daily ailments, emotional well-being, and exercise we can quickly see connections between our behaviors and physical/mental symptoms we may be experiencing.
You may learn that caffeine after 6 pm keeps you awake all night. Or, taking a brisk walk in the morning improves your mood for the whole day. You may have never known dairy constipates you. How will you know the exact correlation if you are not documenting it?
6. Manage stress.
Remember those 3A's of stress management I talk about so much?
Avoid: learn to say NO to those things you can avoid. You do not have to serve on that committee. You do not have to cover an extra shift at work for someone else (unless your job depends on it). You do not have to babysit again this weekend. Feel free to eliminate any unnecessary stress in your life.
Adjust: Some things we cannot say no to, however, we can make adjustments to make our life less stressful. Set boundaries and be assertive with others about your needs. If you do volunteer to babysit, set your time limit and hold them to it. If you agree to take on extra responsibilities at work, be specific about what you are willing to do.
Adapt: Stress often comes in the form of change. We must learn to be flexible but also realize our limitations. If job demands change and you must be there two hours earlier each day, go to bed earlier at night to ensure you still get a good 8 hours of sleep. Adapting to changes, even seasons, can make life much easier.
7. Make time for you.
As the old adage goes, "you cannot pour from an empty cup"
We are not much use to ourselves or others if we are mentally and physically beat. Taking time for you is not a selfish act. Selfcare should be expected of everyone.
Get that massage. Take that weekend trip. Schedule time to just sit and read a good book, garden, watch a movie, go to the ballgame, or spend time with a significant other.
Whatever you do, do it for you.
8. Stay connected.
The winter months are conducive to hibernating behavior. It is all too easy to just stay home and avoid the cold weather. But, that disconnect with others can be detrimental to our mental health. Even now, it is compounded by covid restrictions making depression worse for so many of us.
If you cannot physically be with others, you can still stay connected. Zoom, Facetime, phone calls, Snapchats, or other forms of telecommunication can serve as a way to keep in touch with friends and family. If the weather permits, meet outdoors.
The key is to continue socializing even during the dreary seasons. Disconnecting does nothing to improve our mental wellbeing.
9. Get a hobby.
Often, the weather does not permit outdoor activities and we all get a little cabin fever. Let's face it, you can Netflix and chill for only so long...
Finding something creative to occupy your time not only prevents cabin fever but it stimulates those areas of your brain that are not getting much activity just sitting on the couch.
The feeling of learning something new and accomplishment boosts that serotonin too!
10. Declutter your space.
Stuck inside? Bored? Why not purge your home of unwanted things that are taking up space? There is much to be said about cluttered spaces and our mental status.
I know that is very true for me. Take one look at my house and you know what is going on in my brain!
Taking one room at a time, purge yourself of the things you no longer use, need, or want. Donate these items to a local thrift store, Salvation Army, or charity.
This provides you with a sense of accomplishment, a clearer mental outlook with a neater space, and a break from the monotony of sitting inside all day.
I recommend Marie Kondo's "The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up"
It is a quick read but very informative and a great straight forward approach to decluttering your life. She addresses our emotional attachment to objects and how to overcome this burden when cleaning out our spaces.
***And lastly, I would not be a worthy Nurse Practitioner if I did not add, SEEK HELP.
If you are depressed, having feelings of hopelessness, suicide, homicide, or having worsening symptoms of depression, anxiety, or mood swings due to SAD, get help immediately. If your depression is untreated, you can benefit from antidepressant therapy.
If you are currently on medication, perhaps you need a dosage increase or your medication changed to something more effective. Maybe, you just need additional support from a therapist, counselor, psychologist. Do not ignore the signs.
It goes without saying, our mental health greatly impacts our physical health. When we are working to achieve a better version of ourselves, it can become nearly impossible when faced with depression, loneliness, anxiety, or just plain old winter blues.
It is a fact, we must have our basic human needs met before we can find the resources within ourselves to work on self-improvement.
If we are struggling with depression, chronic pain, fighting a chronic illness, or battling ongoing stress in our lives, losing weight takes a back seat. We must first address those struggles that are interrupting our daily lives before we can work on improving ourselves.
Failing to realize this leads to feelings of failure. You ask yourself why you cannot successfully lose weight and feel you are doomed to never achieve your goals. However, this negative thought pattern only serves to make us more depressed and likely to self-sabotage.
Learn to recognize where you are, what is priority, and what you can change. Take care of those basic needs so that you can make room for self-improvement.
If you are struggling with weight gain and want to lose weight through a healthy approach that leads to a lifestyle change, then seek professional help.
If you are in my area, call and schedule and appointment to see me: 870-936-8000
To Sunny Days,