One of the hardest times of the year for active, healthy individuals is winter. Frigid temperatures force those that would rather be outside, to be locked indoors. Winter activities, such as downhill and Nordic skiing, snowboarding, and even ice climbing, are incredibly expensive to take part in.
So, what can you do to stave off the winter blues?
Avoid cold weather depression with budget-friendly activities to keep you moving, cozy meals to keep you warm, and an understanding of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a form of depression that directly relates to seasons with the lowest temperatures and overcast skies. While the popularization of the term has led most to believe it’s a winter-only disorder, SAD regularly affects people in the fall and, less commonly, in the spring and early summer. Yet, there is much more to SAD than being a little down in the winter and it’s incredibly important to recognize the legitimacy of the condition.
Feeling down is simply one symptom of SAD. Many sufferers also experience low levels of energy, disinterest in favored activities, irritability and moodiness, difficulty sleeping, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, and, in severe cases, suicidal thoughts. With that said, some symptoms are more prevalent than others when it comes to winter-specific seasonal affective disorder. Winter SAD usually is accompanied by oversleeping, weight gain, sluggishness, and carbohydrate cravings.
Yet, almost every continent in the world experiences a spell of cold weather sometime in the year, but not everyone develops SAD. So, why does SAD affect some and not others?
Seasonal Affective Disorder, Serotonin, and Your Brain
While Seasonal Affective Disorder largely affects the psyche, recent studies have shown that chemicals, specifically serotonin, plays an important role.
First, it’s important to understand serotonin.
This chemical is produced by nerve cells and is made primarily from tryptophan, an essential amino acid. While serotonin travels through the central nervous system and blood platelets, its highest quantities are found in the digestive system. Serotonin is ingested through food and deficiency can lead to anxiety and depression.
Some Seasonal Affective Disorder sufferers are found to have a dysfunctional brain signal that controls the release of serotonin. Researchers at the University of Copenhagen used Positron Emission Tomography (PET) brain scans to look at the changes in the brain of those suffering from SAD. These scans discovered “significant summer-to-winter differences in the levels of the serotonin transporter (SERT) protein.” The SERT protein that transports serotonin throughout the body (medically referred to as serotoninergic neurotransmission), has been linked to depression as a possible cause or attribution.
Therefore, it makes sense that those suffering from SAD were found to have higher levels of SERT and lower levels of serotonin.
Combating Seasonal Affective Disorder
While some may have a predisposition to depression, and therefore SAD, there are ways to preemptively and actively combat the negative effects of the disorder. For those hoping to avoid prescription medications, connecting with the outdoors, your physical body, and diet are all great avenues to help boost your mood. With that said, it’s always recommended to consult a medical professional before pursuing any form of treatment.
Get Active! Budget and Winter-Friendly Activities to Get You Going
Exercise is one of the recommended aids for those suffering from anxiety and depression. Its effectiveness is due to the “feel-good” chemicals, such as endorphins and serotonin, that are released during physical activity. Along with a boost in positivity, exercise has been proven to inspire healthy changes in the brain such as “neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being.”
Yet, when it’s cold outside it can be incredibly difficult to motivate. On top of that, cold-weather sports are expensive. Therefore, try some of these alternative, budget-friendly, and creative ways to get moving!
- Sign up for classes at your local recreation center. If you live in a non-rural area, you’ll most likely have a local recreation center. These centers offer incredibly reasonable prices for access to exercise classes and gym equipment. During the winter, you can access indoor swimming pools, yoga, pilates, and aerobic classes, cycling classes, and even indoor climbing
- Create an at-home gym. All you need is a workout mat, some weights, a regimen, and the drive. If you’ve got a flexible budget, try adding additional weight-bearing items such as a medicine ball, a stretch band, and a fitness ball. Also, invest in a workout app such as Freeletics Bodyweight, Keelo, or Daily Yoga to help you devise an indoor workout routine.
- Get the right cold-weather clothes. Walking, running, and outdoor cycling are incredibly effective ways to fight the cold weather blues, especially when the sun is shining. The key to cold weather activity is clothing. Invest in quality cold-weather shoes, head and hand gear, and protective eyewear. Even when the temperatures are below freezing, the right clothes will keep you warm, cozy, and active!
Meditation has countless positive benefits, one of which is fighting Seasonal Affective Disorder.
One of the main combative components is stimulation of the pineal gland. The pineal gland is an organ located in the epithalamus, near the center of the brain, and it produces melatonin, which is a hormone that helps regulate sleep patterns. Since the pineal gland is influenced by light, referred to as photosensitive, when the sun goes down melatonin is released into your system.
Yet, this gland can be stimulated via meditation — a state of heightened relaxation and tranquility — which has shown to be an effective treatment for SAD.
Dr. Norman Rosenthal, an innovative, world-renowned psychiatrist who coined the term ‘SAD’, was one of the first to explore the use of meditation for Seasonal Affective Disorder. It has been shown that meditation inspires the “release of calming hormones, suppression of stress hormones, full-body relaxation and stimulation of the pineal gland.”
Therefore, integrating meditation practices into your daily routine throughout the winter months can help alleviate the depressive symptoms of SAD.
Last, but definitely not least, is diet.
A healthy plant-based diet not only affects your physical body – stronger and leaner muscles, weight management, and healthier skin — but it also has been proven to have positive effects on mental health. When it comes to Seasonal Affective Disorder, incorporating more fruit and vegetables and lowering your intake of sugar can be a highly successful way to combat this disorder’s negative effects.
While a plant-based diet is rich in vitamins, minerals, proteins, and healthy fats, the key to avoiding SAD is serotonin. Serotonin is an integral part of staving off depression. Where do you get serotonin? As mentioned earlier, serotonin is a chemical found in the amino acid tryptophan. Therefore, it’s important to make sure to integrate vegetables with a high concentration of tryptophan to help heighten the production of serotonin.
Serotonin Concentrated Recipes to Boost Your Mood
There are a variety of foods that have a high concentration of serotonin, tryptophan, or other essential ingredients to stimulate the production of serotonin. Many of these foods are already staples of a plant-based diet such as whole grains, nuts and seeds, cruciferous and leafy vegetables, and many fruits. In order to use diet as a combative resource for Seasonal Affective Disorder, make sure to choose recipes that integrate more than one of these serotonin ingredients like these from the Food Monster App.
This Pineapple and Peanut Sauce Tofu Wrap, by Colorful Kitchen, is an Asian-inspired recipe that uses two of the best serotonin instigating food sources: pineapple and tofu. Pineapple provides a natural enzyme called bromelain, which, among numerous uses, helps to relax muscles. Combine this with tryptophan-rich tofu and your body will have a helping hand in producing serotonin.
When it comes to chilly weather and overcast skies, the craving for warm, tasty, comfort food skyrockets. With this Peanut Butter Blossom Cookie recipe by Robin Runner, you get the best of both worlds: a delicious treat and a boost in your mood.
The key to the cookie is peanut butter. All nuts and seeds, including peanuts, have high concentrations of tryptophan, an essential amino acid that produces serotonin. By increasing your intake of tryptophan, you can increase the production of serotonin and lower your risk or symptoms of depression.
This healthy vegan breakfast alternative runs the gambit on essential vitamins and minerals, including a healthy dose of serum via grapefruit. Serum is an important part of serotonin production. This Breakfast Bowl With Oats, Pistachios, and Grapefruit recipe by Steph McKercher, also includes tryptophan-concentrated pistachio.
This Nori Wrap With Cauliflower Pate and Veggies recipe by Maria Llamas, packs two serotonin-heavy veggies into one delicious and creative meal. Both cauliflower and nori help the production of serotonin. Cauliflower actually carries the chemical serotonin, while nori, a sea vegetable, is tryptophan-rich.
If you’re looking to begin a plant-based diet or looking for more Seasonal Affective Disorder fighting veggies, try downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for both Android and iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 10,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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