The INSIDER Summary:
• The winter blues are not unbeatable.
• INSIDER asked a doctor for some science-backed ways to stay happier during the cold season.
• The best strategies: Think positive, get social, eat right, get some sun, have sex, and exercise regularly.
The season of frigid temperatures and ice-encrusted everything is now upon us: Winter, with all its attendant gloominess, is coming.
But that doesn’t mean we’re powerless against seasonal mood slumps, according to Dr. Michael Dansinger, MD, an assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. In fact, there’s a whole slew of strategies proven to favourably adjust our internal cocktail of endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin — better known as the brain chemicals most integral to happiness.
Here are Dansinger’s top six strategies for fending off winter blues the science-backed way.
1. Practice positive thinking.
The best way to get started? Think happy thoughts.
“You can affect your own happiness with the attitude that you choose,” Dansinger told INSIDER. “A positive attitude improves these brain chemicals. So my number one recommendation is to treat positive attitude as a skill set and work on it.”
In other words: Don’t think of positivity as a personality trait that you do or don’t have. Think of it as a skill you can hone — here are a few doctor-approved strategies to start with.
2. Avoid isolation.
Winter might make you feel like crawling into bed and avoiding human contact. That’s one of the worst things you can do for your health.
“When you’re in the cold, it’s easy just to get into a habit of isolating yourself, and that exacerbates the winter blues,” Dansinger said. “We know that engaging with other people makes a very big difference, so go out of your way to avoid isolation.” Need proof? Research shows that lack of social interaction can be as bad for you as smoking.
Better yet, sign yourself up to do some volunteering with a group of people. Altruistic activities will even further improve the balance of happiness chemicals in the brain, Dansinger explained.
3. Eat right.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: There is no one superfood that will invariably cure a mood slump. But committing to a healthy eating pattern will make a difference.
“There are individual foods that might be especially favourable for brain chemicals — foods with antioxidants like blueberries and kale and pomegranates,” Dansigner said. “But I would really emphasise an overall healthy eating plan rather than the idea of using individual foods.” Broadly, Dansinger said, that means lots of fruits and vegetables and plenty of lean protein.
Eating well during winter can boost your mood in two ways.
First, it helps keep weight in check. “We all know about the cycle where you’re eating poorly and then you gain weight and then you don’t feel like exercising because you gained weight,” Dansinger said. “The best way to break that potential cycle is with [healthy] eating.”
Second, a produce-heavy diet is naturally rich in fibre, which is a major boon for the bacteria living inside your gut. “We know from research studies in animals and to some extent in humans that the intestinal bacteria can affect mood by altering brain chemicals,” Dansinger said. Here’s more on the fascinating gut-brain connection.
4. Get real sunshine.
“In general,” Dansinger said, “our mood is lifted by getting more sunshine and light.”
In fact, in people who have Seasonal Affective Disorder (basically the most intense variety of winter doldrums), doctors often prescribe what’s known as light therapy — when patients sit in front of specialised lights that mimic natural sunlight.
One note: Even though being in the sun prompts your body to produce vitamin D, Dansinger said that taking a D supplement probably won’t lift your mood the same way real sunlight does.
“I just don’t think the science is there to really for me to confidently make a statement that taking vitamin D will enhance your mood,” he said.
5. Have sex.
“The science is really converging on the value of sexual activity, and if no one like me talks about it from a medical perspective, then it just doesn’t get its fair due,” Dansinger said. “We know that sexual activity has a whole lot of benefits starting with the brain chemicals — especially oxytocin.”
You’ve certainly hear dof oxytocin before — that’s the brain chemical that seems to facilitate bonding, among many other functions.
“It’s valuable to get oxytocin spikes, and orgasm is the best way to do that,” Dansinger said. “And it’s good physical activity. If you’re stuck indoors, that’s a great way to spend an hour.”
6. Break a sweat.
This should come as no surprise, but it always bears repeating: Exercise causes the release of feel-good endorphins in the brain — and it can help with weight management, too.
In Dansinger’s words: “You don’t need to be a lifestyle medicine expert to see how valuable [exercise] is.”
Need help getting started? Here’s a little advice on how to motivate yourself to get moving when all you feel like doing is hibernating. Your body will thank you later.
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