When winter rolls around, it can feel as if someone hit the dimmer switch on your happiness. Dreary days and scant natural light can be murder on your motivation and alter your circadian rhythm, leaving you short on the mood-boosting hormone serotonin.
In fact, some 15 million people (three-fourths of them women) suffer from a depressive condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which can have symptoms like low energy, carb cravings, weight gain, and dwindling sex drive. SAD's severity can vary from totally manageable to life-disrupting, says Michael Terman, Ph.D., director of the Center for Light Treatment and Biological Rhythms at Columbia University Medical Center. (To see where you might fall on the SAD scale, visit the Center for Environmental Therapeutics website, cet.org.) Here's how to keep up your summer spirit when the sun disappears.
Into the Light
If you spend the majority of your days indoors, consider investing in a light box packed with superbright white fluorescent bulbs; it can elevate your serotonin levels and reset your internal clock to a spring/summer schedule, says Terman. Position the gadget above your line of sight, angled downward toward your head, and flip it on each morning for about 30 minutes while you eat breakfast or check your e-mail. Although you don't need a prescription, it's best to have a powwow with a mental health doctor before buying a light boxÃ¢â‚¬”she can make sure you get the correct-intensity bulbs (generally, 10,000 lux) that properly filter out harmful UV rays.
You may be able to talk your way to feeling better. A University of Vermont study found that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy that helps you change negative thought patterns, helps relieve depressive symptoms in just a few months. CBT focuses on specific mood-lifting solutionsÃ¢â‚¬”scheduling ski trips, sticking to a weekly mani-pedi planÃ¢â‚¬”that counteract an "it's too crappy out to do anything" attitude. Seem too simple? Get this: Only 7 percent of CBT patients suffered a recurrence of SAD the next winter, compared with 37 percent of those who used light therapy alone.
Negative Air, Positive Vibe
Finally, a reason to bust out your sixth-grade science. Negative ionsÃ¢â‚¬”remember those atoms that have an extra negatively charged particle?Ã¢â‚¬”may be key in fighting depression. Turns out, the ions are most prevalent in outdoor summer air; in winter, a dearth can send your mood downhill. But a Columbia University study found that the use of an electrical ionizer machine (a long name for a small black box) combats SAD by mimicking summer air. Bonus: It's totally hassle-free. You just set a timer to switch the box on 90 minutes before your alarm clock buzzes, then click it off once you're up.
A Solid D-fense
It's been widely suggested that vitamin D, often called the sunshine vitamin, may play a role in mental health. Indeed, women with SAD tend to have low D levels; getting enough of the stuff might help improve depression. While scientists figure out why, it's a good idea to make sure your D level is adequate, says Elizabeth Bertone-Johnson, Sc.D., a vitamin D specialist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Between 1,000 and 2,000 IU daily may help even out winter moodsÃ¢â‚¬”not to mention bolster everything from colon to bone to breast health.
When your jogging path is covered in three inches of ice, you could wallow between the sheetsÃ¢â‚¬Â¦or you could hit the treadmill. One study showed that about 60 minutes of daily indoor cardio was just as effective as light therapy in whacking back SADÃ¢â‚¬”and any form of aerobic exercise helps depression. In one study, moderately depressed people who walked briskly three times a week for four months saw their symptoms ebb (those only on meds saw less of a turnaround). While you're sweating, pick up some dumbbellsÃ¢â‚¬”preferably, ones heavy enough to tire you out after about 10 reps. Intense strength training can unleash a hefty shot of serotonin, and regularly lifting heavy weights can significantly reduce many SAD symptoms, says The Journals of Gerontology.