Whether it’s SAD (seasonal affective disorder) or just a common case of the blahs, try these simple strategies to boost your energy and beat the cold weather blues.

The winter blues is a lesser form of SAD (seasonal affective disorder) but can still be debilitating,” says Jonathan Prousky, chief naturopathic medical officer at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine.

SAD is characterized by fall and winter depressions, excessive sleeping, increased appetite with carbohydrate cravings and weight gain.

Research suggests that a lack of bright light and low levels of serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical and vitamin D may contribute to this condition. Although SAD does not increase with age, it is more prevalent among women and patients with pre-existing mood disorders, adds Prousky.

Whether you have SAD or just a common case of the blahs, try these 10 simple strategies to boost your energy and feel what a cheering effect they have.

1. Try a mini-spa in the shower. Alternate the water temperature from hot to cold — one minute hot followed by one minute cold, repeated three times — to speed up metabolism and boost circulation, thus eliminating sluggishness. The Swedes have long used hot/cold to increase vitality.

2. Turn on a light box. “Research suggests that using a light box to deliver intense, bright light (between 2,500 and 10,000 illuminance, or lux) early in the morning (7 a.m. or earlier) is effective in lifting the winter blues,” says Prousky. Commercially available light boxes use the full spectrum of light found in nature to restore levels of mood-regulating brain chemicals.

“The therapeutic response time is generally two to four days, with greater improvements occurring within one week. Side effects are virtually nonexistent when the boxes are used properly, and there is no damage to the retina. Patients with risk factors for retinal damage such as diabetes, cataract surgery and photosensitizing medications should be monitored by an eye doctor and regular doctor.”

 3. Turn on to D. There is a link between vitamin D and mood during the winter months, and Canadians — particularly those over 50 — have significantly lower levels of this mood-boosting vitamin,” says Alan C. Logan, PhD, a faculty member of the Harvard Medical School Mind/Body Medical Institute. This is largely because vitamin D is manufactured in the body in response to sun exposure on the skin, explains Logan.

“In addition to its importance for bone health, vitamin D has been shown to support normal communication between brain cells. Studies have shown that oral vitamin D 400 to 600 IU supplementation is helpful in easing depression and warding off the winter blues among older adults.”

And, when possible, get outside for short periods while the sun is shining.

4. Exercise regularly. Physical activity is crucial to avoiding and combating winter blues. You’ll get a natural high from the release of endorphins, and your energy levels will remain high for a while after you stop exercising. Toronto fitness expert Eva Redpath suggests getting outdoors and breathing fresh air.

“Winter can be one of the most beautiful times of year. Walk the dog after dinner, go skating, organize a ski trip, make a date and try snowshoeing.”

5. Make time for breakfast. A healthy and high-energy winter begins with eating breakfast every day, says registered dietitian Stacey Segal, as it replenishes blood glucose levels in the brain. You’ll notice improved strength and endurance that last into late morning.

Segal recommends breakfast cereals as they are a good source of protein while being low in calories and fat to help you manage your weight. In the winter, she tops cereal with frozen blueberries for an added hit of anti-oxidants to help a stressed immune system.

6. Eat mood-boosting foods. To boost the feel-good brain chemical serotonin, eat fish and seafood that are rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids, known to support proper nerve cell functioning and reduce depressive symptoms.

“For the 45-plus age group, oral fish supplements are recommended as the ability to metabolize and convert plant-based omega-3 (such as flax, walnut, canola, hemp oils) into the active EPA significantly declines with age. Adequate B vitamins, zinc and selenium can help maintain adequate omega-3 metabolism,” advises Logan. Leafy green vegetables, lentils and cereals contain folate and selenium, which can help boost your mood. And a little dark chocolate can lift your mood by releasing endorphins into the brain.

7. Supplement with 5-HTP. As a practitioner of orthomolecular medicine, which uses diet and nutritional supplements to heal and prevent illness, Prousky often prescribes 5-HTP (5-hydroxy-tryptophan) supplement, the direct precursor to serotonin that raises serotonin levels in the brain.

“It can alleviate many of the symptoms that characterize the winter blues,” says Prousky. “Side effects are mainly gastrointestinal, such as flatulence, feeling full and rumbling sensations.” 

8. Sniff a bracing scent. The human olfactory system is intricately tied to our emotional control centre. Essential oils from plants can reduce stress, promote relaxation and enhance cognitive function. A 2008 study at The Ohio State University found clear evidence that lemon oil enhances positive mood compared to distilled water and lavender, regardless of expectancies or previous use of aromatherapy.

Logan recommends scents that promote relaxation and clarity like citrus, jasmine, grapefruit or peppermint.

9. Turn up the music. The right melody can increase endorphin levels, lessen pain and induce a natural high. A 2008 review conducted by the international Cochrane Collaboration, which provides information about the effects of health care, concluded that people who participated in music therapy reported a greater reduction of depressive symptoms, suggesting it may be worth considering music therapy as an adjunct to other treatments.

10. Create a winter opportunity plan. “Change your outlook on winter from a challenge to an opportunity,” suggests life coach Randy Taylor, author of Life Before Can’t.

“We should not be looking to ‘get through’ winter but embrace it and ‘get from’ it. Pick a skill: a second language, dance class or an area of personal or professional interest you would like to acquire or improve. Create a list of books, movies, plays and hobbies that you and your family can enjoy. Retrain the subconscious to look forward to winter for all it has to offer. Life is beautiful, and spring will be here soon.”