Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, i.e. the ‘winter blues’, affects millions of people around the globe during the winter months, more so in northern latitudes . Symptoms of sadness and lethargy start in the fall and continue through the dark months of winter. Energy levels drop and it’s more difficult to maintain a positive, happy outlook. Think about the effect this can have on your energy levels and motivation to train. SAD has effected me most of my life, but I have several ways to combat its affects on me and my life.
Currently, there is no definitive cause of this disorder. In a nutshell, your brain chemistry goes out of balance with the change in seasons. What we do know about potential causes and influencing factors:
1. Your biological clock or circadian rhythm is thrown off by a reduced amount of sunlight in the fall and winter. This disruption to your internal clock causes low energy and motivation levels.
2. Serotonin (a brain neurotransmitter) levels drop. Serotonin balances mood, regulates appetite and digestion, and influences sleep and memory. The reduction in sunlight can cause serotonin to drop triggering symptoms of depression, low energy.
3. Melatonin levels are attested by the seasonal change. Melatonin plays a key role in sleep patterns and mood.
Brushing it off as a seasonal funk to tough out on your own is a passive response to a condition that can be changed and improved with some simple action steps.
Don’t let the “winter blues” derail your triathlon goals! Here are 5 action steps can you take to change your brain chemistry in a positive direction this winter keeping your motivation and energy levels high.
1. Light therapy. Sunlight is the best source. We have plenty of sunny days in Colorado. Get outside in the sunshine daily; 30 minutes is ideal, but even 10 minutes is helpful-get outside on your lunch hour! If you can’t get outside in the sun, get some bright, natural, full spectrum light bulbs and put them in places where you spend a lot of time. Light not only improves mood and energy levels, but increases metabolism and alertness. (This has been key for me in my office. Without them, I’m falling asleep at my desk at 4 pm!)
Light therapy is best in the morning as it suppresses melatonin production and increases serotonin levels. Another option is the dawn simulator: an alarm clock that wakes you up with light. Make sure you are not exposed too late in the evening to bright lights as this will prevent melatonin production you need to sleep.
Here are some everyday lightbulbs (vs a light box) you can use in your home or office that are very affordable.
2. Exercise. Physical activity (especially in sunlight) relieves stress and elevates endorphins that elevate your mood, increasing levels of serotonin. Increased light exposure during the day positively correlates with increased exercise levels and compliance to a training plan.
3. Sleep. Consistent sleep helps to regulate energy and neurotransmitter levels. You will need adequate melatonin levels to get restful, plentiful sleep. In a study conducted by Northwestern Medical and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, participants who had offices with windows slept an average 46 minutes more per night compared to those with window-less spaces.
4. Nutrition. Maintaining a clean healthy diet will keep your body balanced, keeping your mood balanced. Avoid excess sugar, no caffeine after 2 pm and get adequate amounts of protein. Endurance athletes generally need 1.2-1.7 grams of protein/kilogram of body weight/day.
How do you know how much protein you need? Below are some guidelines to help you determine your needs. This will take a little trial and error to get the mix right for you, but the effort is well worth it.
Supplements. Certain supplements can help elevate your mood: St. John’s Wort, SAMe, Vitamin D, Melatonin, Omega-3 fatty acids, 5-HTP, Litium ororate, B-vitamins, and anti-oxidants.
An anti-inflammatory diet is a great direction to go as these foods will help to balance brain chemistry and benefit your overall health in many ways.
Take action today and everyday to take care of your brain and your body. You will be rewarded by feeling better, doing better and having more energy for your life and your workouts.