Beat the winter blues by learning the ways you've been sabotaging your mood.
November 16, 2015
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Beat the winter blues
Let's face it: Unless you're a ski bum, winter's frigid temps and shorter days can really bring on the blues. "The cold and gray present significant challenges to all of us," says Carol Ewing Garber, PhD, an exercise physiologist and professor of movement sciences at Columbia University in New York City. But the weather outside isn't the only reason you may feel down in the dumps. Here are some common bad habits that have a tendency to creep up every time the temperature starts to drop. Being proactive before the season hits its stride, says Garber, can set you up for a happier and healthier winter.
Exercise is a potent stress-reducer, and research suggests that it may even help ease symptoms of depression and anxiety. But even the most devoted runner or gym-goer can lose motivation when the days get short, cold, and gray, and lose the mental health boost along with it. "It's so easy to talk yourself out of it," says Garber. So how to keep up with the recommended 30 minutes of activity, five days per week? Garber suggests scheduling exercise, as you would for a salon or doctor appointment, and sticking to it with the help of a group fitness agreement with friends or family. Yoga can also ease your mind and get your body moving in a low-key group setting. "We know it improves depression and anxiety," says Michelle Dossett, MD, physician and researcher at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
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Cooping yourself up inside
Not much beats Netflix and a warm blanket on a chilly day, but holing up indoors can have consequences. "In the winter, a lot of people do start to feel depressed," says Garber. "Getting outside in the cold weather helps people feel better." Daylight is ideal, as sunshine boosts mood and levels of depression-fighting vitamin D, but some studies suggest that even going outside in the dark can shift your negative outlook, Garber says. Your best bet: Don't get out of the habit of spending time outside as summer fades into fall and winter. "If you start before it gets too cold, you sort of adjust gradually to that temperature," Garber says.
If you do get outside regularly in the colder months, that's greatjust don't forget that the sun is always there, lest you wind up with a painfully sunburned face. "Even on a cloudy day, you can still get a significant degree of sun exposure," says Rajani Katta, MD, professor of dermatology at Baylor College of Medicine. Skiers should be particularly vigilant about applying sunscreen. "Whenever there's snow, there's an opportunity for the sunlight to reflect back onto your skin," Dr. Katta says. For the rest of us who may forget to slather on sunblock on gray, wintry days, Katta suggests keeping a bottle next to the toothpaste or, if you're a parent, beside your child's backpack. "Put it somewhere where you're just not going to be able to avoid seeing it," says Dr. Katta. While sunblock does cut back on the skin's ability to create vitamin D, you only need about three weekly 10- to 15-minute bursts of sunlight exposure to generate enough.
It's one thing to cancel dinner plans when the roads are slick; it's another to coop up alone by default. "People are usually isolated because they're feeling down in the dumps anyway, and they don't want to be the low light in the group," says Dr. Dossett. But research shows that socializing makes you happiergroup memberships ward off depression, and social interactions are part of what makes exercise so uplifting. If solo jogging is your thing, try running with a group once a week. Or, as Dr. Dossett suggests, find an activity that both you and a friend enjoy, whether it's woodworking class or indie movies, and make time for it together at least once per month.
When the weather's warm, you may be more apt to venture outside your comfort zone with a trip to a vegan restaurant or a rock climbing class. The tendency to become isolated makes it easy to fall into a rut. Suddenly, it's February, and you've convinced yourself that it's not worth trying anything new until spring. To spark a change of perspective, take up meditation, suggests Rebecca Erwin Wells, MD, assistant professor in the Department of Neurology at Wake Forest Baptist Health. "People learn how to pay attention to their sensory experiences and then respond," says Dr. Wells. In other words, you'll begin to recognize limiting thoughts, and stop them in their tracks.
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A healthy routine hinges on sleep no matter the time of year; experts recommend 7 to 8 hours a night. On the other hand, curling up in your cozy bed for marathon sleep sessions can do you more harm than good. Excessive sleep raises risk for depression, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Sleep. What's more, additional research has linked sleeping more than 8 hours a night to a higher risk of stroke, weight gain, and type 2 diabetes.
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Overindulging in comfort foods
"Sometimes food is to comfort us, to make us feel warm," says Lisa Sasson, RD, a clinical associate professor of nutrition at New York University. While tucking into starchy casseroles can make winter feel a little less bleak, too much can leave you feeling sluggish, says Sasson. Your body treats refined carbohydrateslike highly processed grainsas if they're sugars, quickly digesting and absorbing them. Your blood sugar will spike, followed by an energy crash when your body secretes insulin to process that excess glucose. Try replacing fatigue-causing carbs with healthier alternatives, such as whole wheat pasta, which has far more protein and fiber than its refined, white counterpart. And you can still have those warming dishes, like soups and stews filled with low-calorie, highly nutritious veggies, says Sasson.
What would a holiday party be without a mug of spiked cider? Or a cup of eggnog? Or a glass of wine? Or a flute of champagne? Control yourself: Binge drinking can weaken your immune system, according to a 2015 study from the University of Maryland (not to mention all the other negative health effects of drinking too much. A runny nose, sore throat, and body aches (or worse) are sure to leave you feeling miserable, so add alcohol moderation to your cold-and-flu prevention checklist, right along with washing your hands and getting enough sleep.
On chilly mornings and sub-zero nights, there's a temptation to indulge in long, steamy showerswarming up can feel next to impossible otherwise. Despite the immediate satisfaction, however, super-hot water can dry out and damage your skin, leaving you itchy, scaly, and uncomfortable, Dr. Katta says. Stick with lukewarm water instead, and when you get out of the shower, pat gently with a towel before applying moisturizer while your skin is still damp. This ensures that water won't evaporate from your skinand take moisture with it, Dr. Katta says.
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Not moisturizing enough
Even if you avoid hot showers, you'll almost certainly wind up with dry, itchy skin if you don't moisturize. Between the icy conditions outside, desert-like air inside, and requisite hand-washing to ward off cold and flu germs, your skin is under attack from damaging, drying elements throughout the winter. Rather than hydrating your skin with lotions, which tend to be high in water and fail to really lock moisture into skin, try a cream or ointment, suggests Dr. Katta. Find a product with a consistency that you like, and apply often to damp skin, including after showering, washing your hands, and using hand sanitizer, she advises.
At some point this winter, you'll likely be exposed to an overheated space, whether it's your drafty house, older apartment, or office. Cranked-up heat can feel really good, but this artificial source of warmth comes with repercussions. "Anytime you put the heat on, it dries out the air, and that helps to suck moisture out of your skin," Dr. Katta says. Your nasal passages and throat can also become parched, she says. While there's no one-size-fits-all temperature, Katta suggests paying attention to your skin; if it gets dry and cracked, try lowering the heat. Putting a humidifier or pans of water in a room also helps add some moisture back into the air, she says.
'Tis the season for eggnog and cider, but don't forget the water. Yes, hydration matters just as much in the wintertimeand you probably won't realize it when your body is crying out for sip. A 2004 study from the University of New Hampshire found that exposure to the cold made people feel 40% less thirsty than they would otherwise, both at rest and during a moderate workout. The reason? Your body is more concerned with staying warm than conserving water. In addition to sipping water all day, try snacking on water-rich winter fruits, like grapefruits and oranges.
Beautiful as it looks, the freshly fallen snow hides a serious health threatit reflects up to 80% of ultraviolet radiation, reports The World Health Organization. The harmful rays can cause photokeratitis, a temporary inflammation that feels like sunburn of the eye (yeeouch!). Remembering to wear sunglasses throughout the year is a good start, as UV rays are present with or without snow. But to really protect your eyes, the Skin Cancer Foundation advises wearing sunglasses that block 99 to 100% of UVA and UVB rays.
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Wearing the wrong shoes
Hidden patches of ice, slippery steps, deep puddles covered in slushthere are all too many ways in which winter weather can mess with our coordination. According to National Safety Council statistics, slips and falls cause 300,000 injuries per year. No one wants to be on crutches all winter, and while you can't eliminate the risk of falling, your footwear can strongly affect your chances of hitting the pavement. Rubber soles are considered best for preventing accidents in wet, icy conditions.
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Wearing the wrong fabrics
Winter outerwear is often worth a splurge, but what you wear underneath can be just as important to cold weather comfort. The layers closest to your skin, like thermal underwear and leggings, can leave you feeling itchy and constricted all day long if they're made with the wrong fabrics, says Dr. Katta. She advises wearing silk underwear, which provides warmth while also being soft against the skin, and leggings with smooth, microfiber linings. Wool, however, "tends to be really irritating to the skin," Dr. Katta says, so try wearing a soft, flexible layer underneath it.
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Not protecting your hands
You may be buying a cup of coffee, rifling around in your bag, or texting on your phone, but you've decided for whatever reason to take off your gloves. If you keep them off, you run the risk of damage. Sudden temperature changes, whether hot or cold, can trigger eczema flare-ups in those who are predisposed to the (often genetic, according to new research in Nature Genetics) condition or who already suffer from it. "A lot of people will develop hand eczema in the wintertime," Dr. Katta says. But all of us can benefit from less exposure to dry winter air, which causes water to evaporate more quickly from the outer layer of skinand has been linked to depletion of protective fats, leaving hands more vulnerable to dryness and cracking. So, it's worth being vigilant about wearing gloves or mittens.
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Skimping on fruits and vegetables
Yes, winter produce is a little lackluster compared to summer, but that's no excuse to spend the colder months loading up on simple carbs and fat. A fruit and veggie-heavy diet helps control your weight, keeps you feeling energized, and protects against wintertime ailments like the common cold and flu. When you get bored with seasonal picks like Brussels sprouts and butternut squash, mix things up with frozen or canned options, which can be just as nutritious, according to 2007 University of California, Davis research. Sasson suggests adding frozen berries to cereal and salads, and mixing cooked seasonal fruits and vegetableslike sweet potatoes with applesto keep things interesting as winter wears on.
You're assaulted by sugar from Halloween through Valentine's Day, and the temptation to snack on leftover pie can be tough to resistsugar woos your brain's pleasure center, according to 2013 research in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, setting you up for compulsive eating, and the same blood sugar surge and energy dive that come with starchy comfort foods. Holiday treats also tend to be high in hard-to-digest fat, a perfect recipe for fatigue and weight gain, says Miriam Pappo, RD, director of clinical nutrition at Montefiore Medical Center in TK CITY. Knowing yourself and being prepared with a bag of tricksa piece of fruit, a mini chocolate barcan help. "Give yourself permission to have one a day, at the time you crave it most," says Pappo. If you love sweets, then you might also misinterpret hunger cues as sugar cravings, Pappo says, so the next time you're dying for candy, check your watch; it could be time for your next meal.
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You could survive on holiday party rations alone, what with the office shindigs, happy hours, and fancy dinners filling your calendar over the coming months. But you probably shouldn't try. Skipping meals in advance of the festivities only sets you up for low blood sugar, followed by fatigue and overindulging. "Don't succumb to the all-or-nothing mentality," says Pappo. "Eat breakfast and lunch, and then at dinner, and you're going to have more control." Staying on track could require some extra planning. "Look at what days or weeks are going to be problematic, and eat as close to normal as you can during those times," Pappo suggests. That means aiming for the same healthy mix of vegetables, fruits, complex carbohydrates, and lots of water that would get you through the day, party or not.
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Getting stressed out by gift shopping
Black Friday is only the beginning, prompting that wave of pressure to find perfect gifts for everyone on your list. Combine trips to your favorite boutiques and department stores with the double-edged-sword-convenience of online shopping and you've got a recipe for consumerist burnout. Research from Cornell University found that buying material goods causes you to dwell on whatever you didn't buy, undermining your satisfaction. You're better off spending money on experiences, the researchers discovered. So, instead of stressing over which pricey perfume to gift your best friend with, consider planning a home-cooked dinner or daytrip with her instead.