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4 Ways to Combat the Winter Gloom According to Brain Science

By Max Cynader January 23, 2021 Health and Fitness

For many of us, winter can feel like a season that just drags on and on and on. Shorter days, colder temperatures, and more precipitation are perfect for putting us in a constant state of misery. Mix that in with the post-holiday blues, and it’s no wonder this time of year can be tough.

Perhaps the power of science can give us the extra motivation we need to elevate our spirits and keep ourselves focused on our new year’s resolutions for our wellbeing.

The Effects of Seasonal Change on Our Minds (and Brains)

You might feel lazier and gloomier this time of year. Well, there’s a reason for that. The consensus among health scientists is that a lack of sunlight affects our brains.

Photosensitive receptors in our eyes detect changes in the light levels in our environment. These receptors contain a photopigment called melanopsin, which responds to blue light and signals to our brain that it is daytime.

The specialized melanopsin neurons in our eye are poorly stimulated in the winter due to a lack of sunlight, and this impacts our internal clock, or circadian rhythm. As we age, our circadian rhythm also becomes less consistent, making it harder for us to adjust to the winter.

The low melanopsin responses and altered circadian rhythm that we experience in the winter can make us prone, among other unhealthy things, to sleep disorders, carb cravings, depression, and anxiety. The good news is that there are ways to actively combat the winter doldrums.

Have a Consistent Sleep Schedule

Light is the most important driver in our circadian system because our natural sleep schedule relies on our exposure to daylight. Once it’s dark outside, specialized cells in our brain prepare us for sleep, making us tired.

The decrease in the number of daylight hours tells our body that we should be sleeping. While we could simply indulge in more rest, too much shuteye, just like too little, can negatively impact our health.

Moreover, as we age, sleep becomes more necessary, because it helps reduce our risk for age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. So, how can we cope with the seasonal change and prevent common sleep problems?

Create a regular sleep schedule and a light-exposure schedule. Train your body to sleep well by going to bed and getting up around the same time each day, even on weekends. Expose yourself to sunlight or bright light when you wake up and throughout the morning.

Bright light can help to regulate your circadian rhythm, decrease the time you need to fall asleep at night, and help you to stay asleep longer. Avoid spending time in front of a screen at least two hours before bed: the blue light from screens will keep you up at night, throwing off your sleep schedule.

A solid sleep schedule yields benefits beyond a good night’s rest. It will also make it easier to regulate your exercise and diet and manage your stressors during the winter.

Set a Goal to Exercise

It might be hard to get exercise in the winter. The external chill isn’t exactly motivating, and it can be tempting to just stay cozied up at home. Yet, just like sleep, exercise is important when it comes to regulating our circadian rhythm. So, it’s also important to set times for moving around and being active throughout the day.

If possible, exercise outdoors. Not only will the sunlight and physical activity boost your mood, they will also help to regulate your sleep. If you’re stuck indoors, try yoga or Tai chi. Both have been shown to reduce stress and promote a greater sense of ease by reducing physical stress responses to triggers in the environment.

Drink Green Tea

Winter is a season that dehydrates us, because the systems we use to heat our homes and workplaces dry the air around us. Dehydration can significantly impact our ability to concentrate. Adjusting your total fluid intake to your lifestyle and environment is an obvious solution to this problem.

If, in addition to drinking plenty of water, you make drinking herbal tea part of your daily routine, you’ll be treating your body to various mood-boosting substances. Green tea, in particular, can reduce anxiety, relieve tension and help you feel more relaxed, all thanks to a compound called L-theanine. So why not cozy up this season with a hot cup of green tea?

Avoid Loneliness

The chill and darkness of winter make it especially tempting to hunker down and avoid social interaction. However, don’t allow yourself to become lonely through isolation. Loneliness is one of the biggest risk factors for dementia.

Make an effort to contact friends and family, invest in a hobby or play some of your favourite tunes during the daytime!

Stay on Track This Winter

The winter season can be hard on all of us. Making an effort to get light exposure and shifting our routine to fit the season can improve our overall brain health.

Scheduling our light exposure, getting some exercise, drinking green tea, and engaging in fun activities are easy ways to avoid seasonal affective disorder, decrease our risk of cognitive decline, and feel relaxed. They’ll also keep us on track to achieve our new year’s resolutions.

It can be hard to stay motivated during this season. Sometimes, having someone holding you accountable can help you get through the winter doldrums.

The Synaptitude Brain Fitness Program can help you develop personalized strategies for optimizing your sleep, diet, exercise, stress, and memory and for tracking your progress. To learn more about the program, check out our Brain Health Assessment.

How is winter affecting your mood? Do you feel gloomy most of the time? How often do you catch yourself craving more light? What strategy are you using to keep yourself motivated and out of the doldrums? Please share in the comments below.

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The Author

Dr. Max Cynader is one of Canada's leading Neuroscientists. Winner of many awards (Order of Canada, Order of British Columbia, Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, Canadian Medical Hall of Fame), he is the Founding Director of the University of British Columbia's Brain Research Centre and Centre for Brain Health. His research focuses on Neurodegeneration and The Aging Brain.

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