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Winter blues? 6 ways to improve mood and energy

Focused on Health - December 2013

by Brittany Cordeiro

A packed winter social calendar, endless temptations for fattening holiday foods and mounting holiday expenses may make you want to hide under the covers until spring.  winter blues 

Could you be suffering from the winter blues? It's possible, says Catherine Powers-James, Ph.D., clinical psychologist in Integrative Medicine at 
MD Anderson.  

"During winter months, some people experience feelings similar to depression," Powers-James says.  

And, the shorter days and darker nights of winter can amplify this sluggish mood. How? Daylight lets your body know when you should be awake and asleep. So, more sunlight makes you alert and less sunlight makes you groggy. 

As a result, you may crave comfort foods, lack interest in your usual hobbies and have less energy to exercise during winter. "But giving in to unhealthy habits can negatively affect your health and cause extra stress," says Lorenzo Cohen, Ph.D., professor and director of Integrative Medicine at MD Anderson. 

Cohen and Powers-James offer these strategies to help you avoid or overcome a winter slump.

1. Eat a healthy diet. Feeling blue can make you desire foods high in fat, carbohydrates and sugar. But try to resist temptation. "A carbohydrate- and sugar-rich diet will spike your blood sugar and then it will drop," Cohen says. So, you may feel more energized initially. But in the long run, your feelings of tiredness and moodiness can intensify. vegetables

Instead, eat more plant proteins, like vegetables, nuts and beans, fruits and whole grains. You'll get the vitamins, minerals and protein to restore your energy levels. Plus, it'll help you maintain a healthy weight to lower your cancer risks.

2. Get regular exercise. Exercise might be the first thing to go when you'd rather stay snuggled in bed. Don't let it. "The feel-good chemicals released during exercise can help ease anxiety and improve your mental health," Powers-James says.

And, exercise strengthens the immune system, helps you maintain a healthy weight and reduces your risks for colon, breast and endometrial cancers. You should aim for at least two and a half hours of moderate physical activity or an hour and 15 minutes of more vigorous physical activity each week.  

3. Try sun therapy. Winter typically means less light and more darkness, making you want to hibernate. Instead, get outside when the sun is shining. (But be sure to wear sunscreen.)

"Being exposed to sunlight wakes up your body and allows it to adjust back to its normal sleep-wake cycle," Powers-James says. A midday walk outside can do the trick.

4. Increase social interactions. Being around family and friends can boost your mood and help motivate you to do the things you enjoy.  Ask a friend to go to the movies or grab a cup of green tea with a co-worker. 

And, don't be shy, a phone call or email to ask for encouragement can go a long way. You may laugh more, worry less and gain a positive outlook. Plus, the person you call may benefit just as much as you from your contact. 

5. Get enough sleep. "Sleep is restorative. It's a time for your body and mind to heal," Cohen says. "Getting too little or too much can cause moodiness, memory troubles and problems with thinking and focusing." sleep

You should aim for seven to eight hours of sleep each night, Cohen says. It will help you wake up feeling refreshed.

6. Practice relaxation techniques. Anxiety and stress often accompany a winter slump. And both are damaging to your health, Cohen says. To boost your energy and mood, try to relax.

"Just five minutes of meditation can help you manage stress," Cohen says. "And, more is better." 

Powers-James suggests relaxation techniques such as guided imagery, progressive muscle relaxation, massage or self-hypnosis.

If your symptoms are severe or persist into the spring and summer, talk to a mental healthcare professional, Powers-James says. They may offer more effective therapies or medications.

Your best bet to prevent the blues? "Engage in a healthy lifestyle year round," Powers-James says. "You'll feel better and lower your cancer risks." 

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