We are entering the darkest time of the year for the Northern Hemisphere. It’s no wonder so many religions celebrate light in December!
A reader wrote to ask me what to do to get ahead of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). With the time change a month ago, 6pm feels like midnight. It’s cold and sometimes wet. All of this can result in a deep drag on many people’s moods and energy.
So let's dive into some effective mood- and energy-boosting strategies! And remember to share this with your friends – let's spread positivity and empower each other to feel our best!
“I’ve been having brain fog and seasonal depression. Literally, the day the time changed I immediately felt it kick in. It’s not bad, but I want to get ahead of it - last winter and the one before were really hard.”
Light and Dark
Our bodies are super attuned to sunlight and darkness.
Melatonin rises as darkness comes. Cortisol rises as daylight approaches.
Even our gut microbiome responds to circadian rhythms, which affects our digestion.
What to do:
Get up as early as is comfortable to take advantage of the morning light. The light spectrum of morning sunlight triggers a natural uptick of cortisol, the hormone that wakes us up. We also experience an increase of the motivation/mood/focus/reward system neurochemical called dopamine.
Dress for the weather and go outside before doing anything else. Walk, jog, or even just stand in the sunlight. Face the sun for a minimum of 5 minutes, and as much as half an hour if it’s cloudy. Now, don’t look straight at it (we don’t want to damage your retinas!), but the goal is for your eyes to take in the sun’s rays. Be in nature as much as your surroundings will allow. If you live in the city, go to a park.
Forward movement: One benefit of a walk is that forward movement sends a signal to the brain that we are not stuck. It enables problem solving and a growth mindset. Go any time of day to clear your head and set yourself up for better thinking and mood!
Consider taking a cold shower or bath: Cold water running over your head and body for 1-3 minutes (or longer) causes a long lasting surge of dopamine, leading to a day of positive mood, better thinking, and focus. It also improves circulation (sending oxygen to brain, muscles, and joints), reduces bodily inflammation, and boosts your ability to fight infections.
Deep breathing: Deep breaths (see Breathwork below) bring oxygen to the brain, which improves cognition, problem solving, focus, and attention. It also helps to align your nervous systems (it’s a vagus nerve stimulant), which reduces stress chemicals, establishes a sense of safety (parasympathetic response), and releases positive mood chemicals. Meditation and breathwork are simultaneously calming and stimulating - great to do before work.
Aerobic Exercise: Getting your heart rate up releases endorphins and the “Miracle Gro” brain chemical called ‘brain derived neurotrophic factor’ (BDNF). Do this in the morning if you can, but not later than about 6pm (since it will wake you up). HIIT workouts count. Movement is a well-established mood enhancer, compared in studies to be as effective as antidepressants when utilized routinely.
Bedtime hygiene can make all the difference to the quality of your sleep and your ability to awaken rested, focused, clear headed, and in a positive mood.
What to do:
Evening natural light: Get outside in late afternoon or dusk. Again, perhaps take a walk. Try to be in nature. The angle and light spectrum of afternoon light/dusk cue our circadian rhythms that it will soon be time to relax and sleep. Circadian patterns are critical for balancing hormones like hunger/satiety hormones, insulin, sex hormones, thyroid hormones, melatonin, etc.
Indoor light: Artificial light artificially signals our bodies to release cortisol (remember - the wake up chemical). As evening rolls around, keep indoor light as yellow and warm as you can, and turn on as few lights as you need to function. TV and computers are especially stimulating. The blue light of the screens parallel the blue light of mornings.
Go to bed earlier than during the lighter months: Your body craves being in sync with the light/dark cycle. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep, depending on your needs.
Establish a bedtime routine: Put away all screens at least an hour before turning off the light. Remove electronics with screens (yes, even cell phones and Apple Watches) from the bedroom. They have a pesky way of keeping your thoughts turned on, even when the gadgets are off. You won’t need to track your sleep when you are sleeping better!
Generally do things in the same order: changing into pjs, face wash, teeth brushing, etc. Read before bed, or listen to gentle music. Limit fluid intake in the couple of hours before bedtime so you aren’t woken up with a full bladder in the middle of the night. If you drink alcohol, keep it to a single drink and have it early in the evening. Alcohol disrupts sleep. Meditation, interestingly, should be left to earlier in the day. It stimulates the brain and will cause wakefulness.
How we manage our emotions and our thoughts deeply influences our perceptions and even how our bodies function.
Importantly, the advice I give here may not be adequate for everyone. Please, please seek out a mental health professional (therapist, psychiatrist) if you are depressed for a week or more.
What to do:
Self-talk: Reframing is a useful cognitive tool. As negative thoughts impose themselves, step back and examine them. Review the thought (maybe even write it down): Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? Is it helpful? Now reframe your negative thoughts. If they’re useful, then translate them into positive language. If they aren’t, ditch them.
Social time: Leave the house and be with others! Even if it’s at the grocery! Socializing via Zoom or FaceTime are also good options. Time with others takes us out of ourselves, is energizing, and expands our perspective. Like walking, it can remind us that we aren’t stuck.
Meditation/prayer: These both allow for cognitive reframing and the expansion of perspective, and they are vagus nerve stimulants (creating a balance of calm stimulation). These practices open us to subtle energy and what some call a “higher power” that can be profoundly healing. There are many free apps for guided meditations to get you started. Look into Dan Harris’ Ten Percent Happier podcast and On Being with Krista Tippet.
Breathwork: So many options, but try one of these if you’re not familiar:
The decrease in energy that comes with SAD inspires an innate desire for foods that our bodies know boost energy. Our bodies and brains prefer glucose as fuel, and that means that we sometimes come to crave sources of glucose-rich carbohydrates, from bread and potatoes to cookies and candy as pick-me-ups. It’s not your imagination, and those cravings aren’t you losing control. It’s ok to eat something sweet every day! How you do it for sure can be managed with awareness and intentionality.
Along with the energy shifts, it’s no secret that viruses spread more effectively as we live more indoors. These food suggestions boost both energy and immune function.
What to do:
Eat a source of protein and healthy fat with every meal and snack: Protein and fat take longer to digest, so they make us feel full longer. They also slow down the absorption of those carbs, creating time-released energy without the blood sugar spikes. Think nuts with fruit, cheese and crackers, hummus and crudité. Even add some almond butter to that ice cream.
Choose high fiber foods: Fiber! It’s an unsung macronutrient. It also slows down the absorption of glucose while keeping your bowel habits regular (a huge mood boost) and feeding the mood enhancing “good” bacteria in your gut. Sources: vegetables (esp. cruciferous veg & sweet potatoes), fruit (esp. berries), whole grains (esp. whole oats), beans and legumes, and nuts and seeds (check out chia and flax meal)
Colorful vegetables: The vitamins, phytonutrients, and fiber are incredible for your immune system. My top recommendations are leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables. You need 1-2 cups of each of these daily. Overall, aim for 5-7 cups of vegetables a day, and I promise your energy and immune system will thank you. Herbs, spices, and green tea all enhance the benefits!
Balance your plate: ¼ protein; ¼ grains, or grains and legumes, or starchy vegetables; ½ colorful vegetables. Add 1-2 portions of fruit (esp. berries) daily.
Stay hydrated: About ½ of your body weight (if you said ounces instead of pounds. A 120 lb person would aim for 60oz) daily in fluids (not caffeinated, not alcoholic beverages). Soups, smoothies, and watery fruits count. Water and herbal teas are best.
Timing: Generally have your last bite of food 3-4 hours before bedtime. Eat again about 12 hours later. There is no need to go longer than that unless you really, truly feel good doing it. Hunger can mask as headaches, brain fog, low energy, mood swings, and irritability, even if your stomach doesn’t growl.
Vitamin D: This is one of those eponymous nutrients that has positive effects all over the body. We absorb vitamin D from the sun, and our kidneys transform it into the active form. In the winter, we obviously get much less.
Importantly, people who suffer from depression tend to have levels that are very low - in the single digits or teens. A standard normal measurement is 30 ng/mL or above, but the healthiest people measure between 40 and 80 ng/mL. I like to see my clients at 50 or higher. Vitamin D is needed: to lower inflammation (a marker of depression), boost immune function, balance hormone status (insulin, hunger/satiety hormones, thyroid hormones, etc.), calcium stasis, and bone strength.
Supplementing may be necessary: It’s hard to take in enough vitamin D via food, and sunlight is not strong enough in the winter months for the body to produce it. Most people benefit from supplementing with at least 2000 iu of vitamin D daily. Have your level tested, and talk with a nutritionist to know whether you would benefit from a higher dose.
You deserve to feel good, no matter what the season.
Start incorporating these strategies into your routine today, and see how your energy and mood improve. Share this newsletter with your loved ones! Let's support each other through the season, and don't hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or need further support. I honestly would love to hear about your successes and challenges.
May this winter be a time of self-discovery, inner peace, and renewed energy.
I am Mary Virginia Coffman (I go by “Mary Virginia”), a clinical nutritionist who focuses on mental health, digestive health, metabolic health, and nervous system regulation. My unique combination of clinical interventions, education, and coaching will help you feel well in body, mind, and spirit.