Winter miles bring summer smiles. Unfortunately, in much of the world, winter is a time of gloomy skies, cold, ice, snow, and in turn a dip in motivation not only to train but sometimes in everyday tasks. Getting out of bed and out the door can become a challenge, workouts can feel lackluster, and you may even begin to become moody and lethargic. While many can trudge on, the winter blues are very real and can have dramatic effects on not only athletic performance but also on normal everyday functioning.
WHAT ARE THE WINTER BLUES?
The winter blues are known as a subsyndrome of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This syndrome is characterized by an individual’s difficulty in regulating the neurotransmitter serotonin, which is believed to aid in balancing a person’s mood. In tandem with a decrease in serotonin, SAD sufferers may also overproduce melatonin. The pineal gland produces melatonin in response to darkness, causing an increase in sleepiness. The combination of these two phenomena can affect a person’s circadian rhythm or internal clock, causing sleep disruptions and lethargy.
WHAT CAUSES THE WINTER BLUES?
In the winter, most people are less likely to spend time outside. In addition, there is a decrease in daylight hours in the northern hemisphere during the winter months. These factors lead to a decline in vitamin D absorption, which is most readily absorbed through sunlight. If not addressed with supplementation, this can lead to a vitamin D deficiency. This decrease in vitamin D plays a role in serotonin activity. As a result, there can be a decline in serotonin, leading to feelings of despair and depression. In addition, melatonin levels will increase in response to the increase in hours of darkness, leading to sleepiness and lethargy. This decrease in sunlight during the winter months also causes disruption in the body’s internal clock, leading to additional symptoms.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF THE WINTER BLUES?
- Sad mood
- Low energy
- Sleep more
- Crave carbs and sugary foods
- Weight gain
- Less active
- Difficulty concentrating
WHO IS MORE LIKELY TO GET THE WINTER BLUES?
Women are four times more likely to experience SAD than men. Those who live further from the equator in far northern or far southern latitudes are more likely to experience SAD due to a decrease in sunlight hours during certain parts of the year.
HOW DO I TREAT AND BEAT THE WINTER BLUES?
One treatment that has seen success is the use of a light box. These boxes emit light similar to that of sunlight. As a result, users benefit from an increase in vitamin D absorption, which helps regulate the circadian rhythm disruptions associated with SAD.
Supplementation with vitamin D via food, supplements, and outdoor exposure to sunlight can help combat SAD.
Exercise, especially outside in the sunlight, is important for SAD sufferers. In addition, exercise increases the “feel good” chemicals in the body. Endorphins and enkephalins produced via exercise are known to relieve pain, are responsible for the “runner’s high”, and play a role in decreasing the symptoms of depression. If possible, exercising outside during peak sunlight will give you the best bang for your buck as you will reap the benefits of exercise and increased vitamin D absorption via the sun.
Those who experience depression often have low vitamin B and folic acid levels. These micronutrients play an important role in the production of serotonin and dopamine, which are important for regulating mood.
One major symptom of SAD is carb and sugar cravings. This craving is the body’s attempt to boost serotonin levels. By eating these high glycemic foods, the body will get a quick boost in energy and mood. However, this boost is short-lived and results in a crash in blood sugar, leading to the urge to consume these foods again. By flooding the body with insulin, your energy levels will plummet again. Diets lower in high GI carbohydrates and higher in lean proteins and low GI complex carbohydrates preserve energy, protect health, and can help prevent weight gain.
Dark chocolate or high-quality cocoa flavanol products such as Cocoa Elite contain brain-protecting antioxidants that can help reduce anxiety and depression and improve mood. Furthermore, dark chocolate contains the neurotransmitter phenylethylamine, which can increase dopamine and acts as a natural antidepressant. Tryptophan present in dark chocolate helps the brain produce serotonin and as a result increases mood.
SOME FOODS THAT CAN HELP WITH THE WINTER BLUES:
- Whole grains and complex carbohydrates
- Dark leafy greens – high in folate and vitamin B12, which helps boost serotonin
- Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, anchovies) – contain healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which help boost dopamine and serotonin and are also a good source of vitamin D
- Milk and yogurt – good source of vitamin D in addition to containing protein and calcium
A consistent sleep schedule can help better regulate energy levels and optimize neurotransmitter levels. Adequate sleep is important in regulating hormone levels and allowing adequate recovery from exercise bouts. In addition, a consistent bedtime schedule can help in keeping your circadian rhythm in check.
While the winter blues may be plaguing you during these cold dark months, there are many ways to combat the negative symptoms associated with this syndrome. The good news is that many of the treatments recommended for SAD are also beneficial to athletic recovery and performance. By getting adequate sleep, proper nutrition (including flavanol rich Cocoa Elite products), exercise, and getting some fresh air and sunlight, you can not only survive through these winter months, but you can thrive to work toward your spring and summer athletic goals.
Heather Wilson is an Elite Track Runner. She became the 60th U.S. woman in history to break the 4:30 barrier in the mile. Heather clocked in with an impressive 4:29.39.
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