Why is it so hard to change a habit? The reason is because these habits are like ingrained behaviors that you have been doing for a long period of time. Habits are the coping mechanisms you use when stressed, and the behaviors performed on a regular basis in response to daily life. Habits can be healthy or unhealthy, the choice is yours to make.
When creating good healthy habits, it is important to know why you are doing the behavior. For example, if you are smoking or drinking in times of stress, the reason may be that the behavior helps you relax. If you are over-eating when you have a bad day, the eating in some way is lifting your mood. The same goes for laying on the couch, scrolling through your phone or watching TV, you may be tired or lack motivation. By realizing what reward the behavior is providing for you, you can change the action.
The New Year is here, but why do many people still feel down and depressed in the winter season? The gray rainy weather can cause us to stay inside for longer periods of time, socialize less, and eat more. There are some ways to kick-start your brain and body into feeling more energetic and happy this season.
There is such a thing called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), in which your mood takes a turn for the worst during the dark winter months. Our brain produces melatonin (a sleep hormone) in the dark, and without sunlight it has trouble suppressing the production in the morning, causing extra fatigue throughout the day. Vitamin D3 levels in the Northwest are notorious for being low, since we get almost no sunlight in the winter and spring months. I definitely recommend having your doctor check Vitamin D levels and supplementing them if needed. Some people may benefit from “light therapy” in which artificial light from a special lamp helps suppress the melatonin in the morning.
Diet also greatly effects mood. Sugar and carbohydrates can make the body feel sluggish, as well as increasing serotonin that converts to more melatonin. Overeating carbohydrates and sugar increases blood sugar and insulin levels leading to weight gain and decreased mood. Instead of choosing food for emotional comfort, try making a warm fire, or taking a hot bath with Epsom salts. Drinking a hot cup of green tea can also suppress hunger and keep you warm.
Loneliness is also a big contributor to mood. Getting out and being social can really help with feeling lonely by realizing that there are people in the world who care about you. Joining an indoor gym or taking up a new hobby or a class is a great way to meet more people. Maybe there is a new restaurant you have wanted to try or a fun coffee place. Other subtle signs of depression include: Lack of motivation, foggy thinking, feeling hopeless, oversleeping, weight-gain etc. If you are having any of these symptoms, please discuss it right away with your doctor.
A body that is sedentary will feel more sluggish and tired. Increased weight is another contributor to feeling depressed. Many people would love to lose 10 or more pounds, but instead each year they keep gaining more weight. I encourage you to stick to an exercise routine all through the year. Aim for at least 3 days a week for 20 minutes at a time, be realistic with your goals. People who stick to their goals are extremely happy, believe me the hard work will pay off.
Another important contributing factor for mood is sleep. When you get good quality sleep, the body is able to heal and restore itself. Cortisol (stress hormone) levels are able to stay balanced which helps with weight loss and blood sugar. Shut off bright lights (TV, computer, phones etc) about 40 minutes before bed for better quality sleep. Avoid caffeine and chocolate after 4pm. Magnesium or melatonin for some people can be helpful, as well as nervines like chamomile tea. Avoid alcohol at night to prevent anxiety and insomnia, as well as nighttime urination. Good quality sleep means waking rested, falling asleep well and staying asleep all night.
Hopefully these tips help lift your gloomy winter mood. If all else fails, at least consider planning a sunny short vacation for the spring!
Dr. Apfelbaum is a primary care Naturopathic Doctor at Tree of Health Integrative Medicine clinic. To learn more go to www.treeofhealthmedicine.com or call 425-408-0040