16 ways to beat the winter blahs

Section: SECTION 6 the guide
A step-by-step plan for healthy living Simple strategies to keep your energy level soaring all season long.

IT HAPPENS every January. Holiday adrenaline carries you into the new year, and then--bam!--you've got nothing left to look forward to except the darkness of winter. You scowl at your alarm clock in the morning; during the day your energy sags; and by quitting time all you want to do is go home, eat dinner, watch TV, and get in bed.

Diagnosis: the winter blahs, or what doctors call seasonal depression. This malaise, scientists say, is likely caused by a decrease in the amount of daylight you're exposed to in winter's shorter days. Over half the population notices some seasonal mood changes, says Michael Terman, Ph.D., who directs the winter-depression program at the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City.

Women seem to be more likely than men to suffer seasonal lows; some studies say as much as twice as likely. Researchers speculate that this increased vulnerability is due to normal hormonal fluctuations that increase a woman's sensitivity to light changes. And while the blahs aren't life-threatening, "they can compromise work productivity and quality of life for up to five months," Terman says.

Luckily, you don't have to live in lethargy. We asked the nation's leading experts on winter depression, diet, and exercise what they do to raise their spirits. Follow their advice, and you may not feel the need to hibernate this year.

FEEL THE LIGHT: Pop fluorescent bulbs into your lamps, and your mood may brighten.

LIGHT THERAPY is the first-line treatment for seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and scientists say it is also an effective remedy for its milder cousin, the winter doldrums. But even if you're not wild about the idea of basking in front of a bright lamp every day, there are simple ways to get a lift by lightening up.

1 expose yourself to superbright light: Years of research have shown that light deficiency is a leading cause of the winter blahs. When it's dark, your brain secretes more melatonin, a sleep-related hormone associated with SAD, so shorter days can make you feel sluggish.

Light therapy is the standard treatment for SAD. Studies prove that when your eyes are regularly exposed to a lamp specially designed to be 10 to 20 times as bright as ordinary indoor lighting, melatonin levels in your blood drop and energy increases. The tricky part of light therapy is matching the amount to your circadian rhythm, the internal clock that tells you when to wake up and when to sleep. The dosage involves three factors: the intensity of light, or lux; the daily duration of exposure; and the time of day that you're treated. "There's no cookbook formula for light therapy," Terman says. "You need to close for your individual needs."

To help you determine your optimum light prescription, take the Automated Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire at the Center for Environmental Therapeutics' Web site (www.cet.org). You may notice an improvement after a few days of treatment.

2 change your bulbs: Deborah Burnett, a Tennessee-based interior designer, may not have to shovel mounds of snow, but she still feels the effects of less light in winter. "From the end of August until the end of April, I sit under a full-spectrum, high-intensity fluorescent lamp at night while I watch TV," says Burnett, who specializes in lighting and color.

If you don't want to invest in special equipment, a few simple lighting changes can make a difference. "Things look better in the correct light, and you feel better when you're well-lit," says Burnett, author of Comfortable Living by Design.

The best change you can make, she says, is to switch the bulbs in overhead lights in the two rooms women tend to frequent: the kitchen and the bathroom. Look for a fluorescent tube with a minimum of 4,100 degrees Kelvin (a measure that tells you whether the light will have a warm or cool appearance) and a color-rendering index, or CRI (a scale that is used to describe the tone of light on objects), of at least 85. The higher both of these numbers are, the closer to natural light the bulbs will be. (Sometimes the numbers aren't listed on the box, so ask a salesperson.) If your overhead light fixtures can't accommodate fluorescent tubes, Burnett suggests screwing bright-white halogen bulbs into recessed or decorative fixtures. You can also try inserting compact fluorescent lights into your table lamps; these bulbs aren't as bright as the tubes, but Burnett says they can improve your point of view. (She recommends the new Philips Marathon Mini-Decorative Twister, which sells for $7.95 and is avail able at The Home Depot.)

3 sit near the window: Lamps aren't the only source of mood-brightening light. Even something as simple as moving your desk near a window can help, Terman says. Or run errands during your lunch break; even a cloudy day offers far more light than indoor spaces.
4 create rainbows: Living in the Southwest, environmental psychologist Janetta McCoy, Ph.D., doesn't have to endure long winters, but she still makes a point of using light to improve her state of mind. "I like to hang a crystal in a window facing south to capture the sun and produce colorful rainbows around the room," says McCoy, assistant professor in the College of Architecture and Environmental Design at Arizona State University. "You can't feel moody or sad in a room of rainbows."
HAPPY FEET: Brightly patterned socks can help put a spring in your step.

DESIGN CAN be good preventive medicine. Rearranging your space can help stop you from sliding into a funk, says McCoy, who has investigated the effects of environment on stress and creativity. The trick, she says, is creating an atmosphere that relieves energy-sapping tension. Here's how to make your surroundings work for you.

5 enjoy the view: Natural landscapes seem to have a mood-elevating effect, McCoy says; plants and natural materials may, too. But you don't necessarily have to spend your days gazing out the window or drive miles to a particularly scenic spot. Interior views, created by incorporating earthy touches into your space, can be just as soothing, McCoy says. Arrange the furniture at home or in your office to take advantage of the elements around you: exposed wood floors, indoor plants, a vase of flowers.
6 add color with affordable accessories: Of course, an occasional jolt of caffeine can get you going. But "you can't get through winter with just Starbucks," says Mimi Cooper, a principal in the Cooper Marketing Group, a color-consulting firm that helps retailers and manufacturers select palettes based on decades of tracking people's responses to different shades. "Color is the easiest and cheapest way to make a visual and emotional change," Cooper says. For an espresso-size jolt, she suggests accessorizing with vibrantly colored socks, scarves, lingerie, pillows, towels, or sheets. When Cooper is feeling particularly glum, she pulls out her own secret weapons: patterned socks, a red bag, and bright-yellow underwear.
MEDICINAL PLANTS: Surrounding yourself with any kind of greenery can help cure seasonal blues.

7 decorate with plants: From a feng shui point of view, winter is governed by water--the deep abysmal kind, not the Caribbean blue variety. So it's no wonder that people feel gloomy during the first few months of the year, says national feng shui expert Stephen L. Field, Ph.D. Because the dark forces of water are tempered by elements from the earth, placing plants in clay or terracotta pots in the sunny southern portions of your house "might be an effective counter for the winter abyss," says Field, professor of Chinese and chair of the department of modern languages and literatures at Trinity University in San Antonio.
8 eat by candlelight: Fire strengthens Earth's mojo, giving it an added edge against the energy-zapping effects of water, according to feng shui beliefs. Field recommends lighting candles at dinner to fuel the fight against the forces that drag you down.
9 clean house: You take cues from your environment. So even if you devour all the self-help books at Barnes & Noble, you'll probably still lack the motivation to get off your butt if your house is in shambles. "I make sure that my refrigerator is clean, I get rid of clutter, and I clear the space under my bed," Burnett says.
10 charge the air: Ever experience an all-natural high while walking on the beach or standing beside a mountainous waterfall? It could have been the fabulous scenery--or all the negative ions in the air, Terman says. Levels of these charged particles tend to be lower in airtight, heated spaces, such as those in the typical winter home. If, like most people, you can't sit out winter on a beach, a machine called a negative ionizer may help. "We've explored this therapy in three separate controlled clinical trials with impressive results," Terman says. "Negative air ionization proved just as effective as light therapy or antidepressants." The reason for the effect is still unclear, but some researchers believe negative ions increase levels of the mood-lifting brain chemical serotonin. If you want to try out this theory for yourself, consider the Sphere FreshAir Negative Ionizer, the only available product that's survived clinical testing. It costs $165 at www.cet.org (click on "CET Store").
11 take control of the thermostat: Nothing sours your outlook like a room that's either too hot or too cold, McCoy says. At home, experiment with the thermostat to find the temperature that feels best to you. (If your husband protests, tell him your health depends on moving the needle a few degrees.) When you venture out, adopt the old layering strategy to counter the effects of an ice-cold theater or a broiling restaurant.
SIGNATURE STRETCH: If you find an exercise that appeals to you, you'll be likely to keep at it--no matter what the weather.

STUDIES HAVE shown that a good walk or run can chase away the dumps as effectively as antidepressants, says James A. Blumenthal, Ph.D., professor of medical psychology at Duke University Medical Center, who has researched the connection between mood and exercise. Consider these ways to stay active.

12 go for a test run: Don't expect an overnight attitude adjustment. Blumenthal advises that you'll probably need to exercise regularly for several weeks before the therapeutic effects kick in. Studies have found that 30 minutes of aerobic activity three times a week should do it, Blumenthal says. "Data suggest that strength training can improve mood, too," he adds. How? "One of the more prominent theories is that exercise may influence brain chemicals, like serotonin, that control mood," Blumenthal says. Another explanation: "Exercise may make you feel better because you've accomplished a task you once thought was difficult."
13 take a spin in the mall: Not up for facing the cold--or the stale gym air? Expand your definition of the track: Blumenthal suggests a brisk walk around the mall.
14 work out in style: When you update your winter attire, don't forget to spruce up your fitness wardrobe as well. "Even buying a jogging bra with a red stripe can give you an edge," Cooper says.
15 dream it, do it: The power of imagination can help you find an activity you'll enjoy enough to stick with no matter what the season, says Jay Kimiecik, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Physical Education, Health, and Sport Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and author of The Intrinsic Exerciser: Discovering the Joy of Exercise. Visualize yourself in motion: Are you speedy and quick? Maybe you should take up running. Or are you more the rhythmic type? Try biking or swimming. Methodical and mindful? Go for yoga. "When you stop focusing on external reasons for exercising, like weight loss or living longer, and start focusing on the vision you have for yourself, you're more likely to really enjoy physical activity," says Kimiecik, who puts on a flotation belt for buoyancy and "runs" laps in the pool in nasty weather. When you enjoy exercise, he says, you're more likely to creatively handle obstacles, like weather, family, or jobs, that can get in the way of workouts.
16 sleep in: Even early birds struggle to make crack-of-dawn workouts when it's dark as midnight. "Don't fight human nature," says Gregory Florez, CEO of FitAdvisor.com, an online health-coaching service. "In winter, schedule late-morning, lunchtime, or after-work workouts."
GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK: If it's gloomy outside, hit the snooze button and make time for a workout later in the day.

Learn more ways to beat the blahs--go to Health.com and click on "Mind."

are you SAD, or just blue?
IT'S ONE THING to subsist on DVDs and takeout over a cold and dreary weekend, but it's another to hole up for three or four months at a stretch. If during the winter your appetite (specifically carb cravings) shoots up, you gain weight, you have trouble concentrating, and you become irritable easily and often--not to mention you feel like camping out in bed 24-7--you may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or even depression. If a combination of these symptoms persists for longer than two weeks, see a doctor.

Not sure whether you should get medical help or self-treat? Take the Personal Inventory for Depression and SAD questionnaire at www.cet.org, the Web site of the nonprofit Center for Environmental Therapeutics, which is overseen by SAD expert Michael Terman, Ph.D.


Edited by Abigail Walch

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