Winter Blues? Six Ways to Improve Mood and Energy

A packed winter social calendar, endless temptations for fattening comfort foods and mounting holiday expenses may make one want to hide under the covers until spring. These feelings could be signs of the winter blues, said Catherine Powers-James, Ph.D., clinical psychologist in integrative medicine at MD Anderson.

“During winter months, some people experience feelings similar to depression,” Powers-James said.  And, the shorter days and darker nights of winter can amplify this sluggish mood. Daylight lets the body know when it should be awake and asleep. So, more sunlight makes people more alert and less sunlight makes people groggier. As a result, people crave comfort foods, lack interest in their usual hobbies and have less energy to exercise during winter.

“But giving in to unhealthy habits can not only negatively affect your health, but also cause extra stress,” said Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., professor and director of integrative medicine at MD Anderson.

Get regular exercise.

Get regular exercise.

Cohen and Powers-James offer these strategies to help avoid or overcome a winter slump:

1. Eat a healthy diet. Feeling blue can make it easy to desire foods high in fat, carbohydrates and sugar, but try to resist temptation. “A carbohydrate- and sugar-rich diet will spike your blood sugar, and then, it will drop,” Cohen said. “So, one may feel more energized initially. But in the long run, feelings of tiredness and moodiness can intensify.”  Instead, eat more plant proteins, like vegetables, nuts and beans, fruits and whole grains. They provide vitamins, minerals and protein, which restore energy levels. Plus, it will also help maintain a healthy weight and lower cancer risks.

2. Get regular exercise. Exercise might be the first thing to go when the cold weather won’t let up. Don’t let it. “The feel-good chemicals released during exercise can help ease anxiety and improve your mental health,” Powers-James said. And, exercise strengthens the immune system, helps people maintain a healthy weight and reduces risks for colon, breast and endometrial cancers. Aim for at least two and a half hours of moderate physical activity or an hour and 15 minutes of more vigorous physical activity each week.

3. Try sun therapy. Winter typically means less light and more darkness, making people want to hibernate inside. Instead, get outside when the sun is shining, but be sure to wear sunscreen. “Being exposed to sunlight wakes up your body and allows it to adjust back to its normal sleep-wake cycle,” Powers-James said. “A midday walk outside can do the trick.”

4. Increase social interactions. Being around family and friends can boost mood and help motivate people to do the things they enjoy. Ask a friend to go to the movies or grab a cup of green tea with a co-worker.

 5. Get enough sleep. Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep each night. That amount helps people wake up feeling refreshed. “Sleep is restorative. It’s a time for the body and mind to heal,” Cohen said. “Getting too little or too much can cause moodiness, memory troubles and problems with thinking and focusing.”

6. Practice relaxation techniques. Anxiety and stress often accompany a winter slump, and both are damaging to one’s health, Cohen said. To boost energy and mood, try to relax.

If anxiety symptoms are severe or persist into the spring and summer, talk to a mental healthcare professional. They may offer more effective therapies or medications. The best bet to prevent the blues? “Engage in a healthy lifestyle year round,” Powers-James said. “You’ll feel better and lower your cancer risks.”

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