15 Tips for Beating the Winter Blues

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SEE THE LIGHT

If you have the winter blues, you're not alone. Seasonal depression affects up to 20 percent of the population, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. The lack of light in northern latitudes during the winter months is thought to disturb the neurotransmitters that regulate sleep, mood, and appetite. This can result in carbohydrate cravings, exhaustion, trouble concentrating, weight gain, irritability, and depression. For those who suffer from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a doctor may prescribe 30 minutes of daily light therapy. Unfortunately, lightboxes can be pricey and are rarely covered by health insurance. To relieve less severe symptoms, try these easy, inexpensive steps to help lift the fog.

GET SOME FRESH AIR

Getting outside, even when it's cold, can help. If it's dark before and after work, take a walk at lunchtime to get some welcome vitamin D-enriched sunlight -- plus, the exercise doesn't hurt.

DITCH THE COOKIES

Carbs may seem like a quick mood booster, but the simple sugars in cookies and donuts can lead to a sugar crash as well as weight gain. Complex carbohydrates are a better choice. Try eating oatmeal with nuts for breakfast, making stews for dinner that include whole-grain pasta or potatoes, and sipping hot chocolate when a craving hits.

EAT FISH

Foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish, walnuts, and flaxseed, may improve your mood. Lower cholesterol levels are another welcome side effect.

AVOID ALCOHOL

Because alcohol is a depressant, make sure to limit yourself to moderate social drinking. Binge drinking can result in bad moods, low energy, and sleep disruption. People who have alcoholic tendencies might self-medicate in the winter months, exacerbating a dangerous condition.

STAY WARM

Although seasonal depression has been traced to a lack of light exposure, the cold can make it feel worse. The Seasonal Affective Disorder Association recommends keeping the house at 64 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and wearing appropriate clothing and footwear.

HIT THE GYM

Exercise releases mood-boosting serotonin, and some studies suggest that it also restores the circadian rhythms often disrupted by SAD. When there's too much snow to maintain an exercise routine outside, get aerobic exercise at the gym, or work out at home with a DVD or YouTube routine for at least 30 minutes a day.

SOCIALIZE

Hibernation is tempting, but being around other people alleviates the isolation that can lead to further depression. If the idea of leaving the house is too daunting, invite friends over for a movie day.

WAKE UP YOUR BRAIN

Winter classes usually start in January, so consider signing up to learn a new language or study Shakespearean sonnets. Education stimulates the brain, and by the time the semester is over, spring will be on the horizon.

TURN ON THE LIGHTS

Although indoor light cannot replace the sun, just being in a bright place can improve your disposition. If possible, move your desk next to a window to take advantage of any natural light.

TAKE YOUR VITAMINS

Vitamin D from the sun is in short supply during the gloomy winter months. Some studies show that taking 2,000 mg of vitamin D daily in capsule form acts as a replacement for the real thing. Melatonin, which helps regulate sleep cycles, can also ease SAD symptoms.

INHALE AROMATHERAPY

A drop of lavender oil can provide relief from insomnia and, according to one study, help lift depression. Other experts suggest that oils such as bergamot, peppermint, rosemary, and jasmine are also mood enhancers.

MEDITATE

There is a reason Buddhist monks are said to be among the happiest people in the world. Meditation has been shown to stimulate the pineal gland, which secretes melatonin. It also relaxes both the body and the mind, which can lead to increased activity in the parts of the brain associated with happiness.

DO SOME YOGA

Yoga has been found to increase the levels of mood-enhancing serotonin in the body. The conscious breathing used in the practice also lowers stress. The yoga asanas (or postures) known as surya namaskar, or sun salutations, are especially soothing (and should be done in the morning on an empty stomach).

TAKE TIME OUT FOR JOY

It's particularly important in the winter months to take some "me" time for fun activities, whether that's playing the piano, painting, singing, or going out with friends. A little self-indulgence is an easy way to feel better.

EAT CHOCOLATE

Have a chocolatey treat, but not just any chocolate. Cocoa contains tryptophan, which is used in the body to make serotonin. The amount of tryptophan is directly related to the amount of cocoa consumed, so put down the leftover Halloween candy and opt for chocolate that contains at least 70 percent cocoa.