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March—In Like a Lion or a Lamb? Exploring Extended Winter Gloom

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Our extended winter delights many sports-minded folks who anticipate a longer ski season and abundant waterways in the coming summer. My good friend Juli (who hates the summer heat) is always happy to have more winter weather. On the other end of the mood spectrum, there are many who succumb to the darker days with darker moods.

The official medical term for winter blues is “Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)” and it is specifically correlated with shorter days and reduced light exposure. SAD can range from quite serious mood disorders to just feeling uninspired and irritable. While serious depression usually benefits from professional guidance, it is also true that depression of any level can benefit from some intentional and well-chosen self-care.  

Embrace winter. What if we actually looked forward to winter? The Scandinavian people are known to have very low rates of depressive illness, despite the fact that they face greater periods of darkness than we do. With their predictable long, dark winters annually, they embrace winter with special strategies for enjoying a bundled up part of the year. Danes call it hygge and Norwegians use the word koselig. The words are translated as “cozy”, but a broader concept, as in “Let’s enjoy a cozy night (even if it’s quite long) inside, with some soft lighting, a warming drink and close connections with dear friends.”  

Move around, with purpose! It is often reported that exercise modifies depression, and people are encouraged to get outside and take a walk with a friend. Great idea, but let’s push it a bit further. A couple of studies published last year looked at one of my favorite questions: how much exercise is helpful? When researchers looked at habits, any exercise provided some predictable benefit. When they looked more deeply and actually measured cardio-respiratory fitness, greater fitness was linked to a much lower risk for depression. The easiest ways to add good fitness training to a simple walking program are two.

First, add an “interval” challenge to your walk routine twice a week. Every two minutes, walk for 30 seconds as hard and fast as you can. Keep walking for another 90 seconds and then speed up again. Repeat that interval cycle eight times and you’ll see a big difference in a matter of weeks.

Secondly, add some “body weight” exercises. Anyone can do a full body push-up, seriously: all you have to do is decide whether to do it on the floor or with your hands pressed against the sink or counter! Keep your elbows tucked in at your side and do as many full body pushups as you can. Same as with intervals, do this twice a week. With a little caution to technique, you can add in sit-ups and squats.

Eat meat. The greatest response I’ve had to anything I’ve ever posted on Twitter was my link to a recent study on depression, mostly agreement and a few….detractors. In a study of 1000 Australian women, researchers were surprised to observe that rates of depression or anxiety were twice as high in those who ate red meat less than three to four times a week. By red meat they meant both beef and lamb, and in Australia the meat is largely grass-fed. In the United States most cows spend part or most of their life in confined, medicated and unnatural settings. Animals who spend their lives grazing and roaming outside have naturally higher levels of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, good for the brain. Many stores in our area carry grass-fed meat, just ask if you are uncertain. (Wild-caught fish is another option for good omega-3’s, but that wasn’t included in this study. Poultry is very high in omega-6’s, even pasture-raised poultry.)  

So go for a challenging and brisk walk, re-fuel yourself with a perfectly cooked steak, and find a way to embrace your environment, whether it’s sunny or snowing!  

Read more of Dr. Deborah’s healthy insights at www.DrDeborahMD.com.


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