As the days get shorter and cooler, it’s not uncommon to feel lethargic, sad, or unmotivated. You may also find yourself overindulging in carbs and having zero motivation to get out and exercise. How can a simple change in weather have such dramatic effects on your health? And what, if anything, can you do about it?
Why Winter Can Make You Feel Like Hibernating
At face value, winter can feel romantic – crackling fireplaces, snuggly sweaters, mugs of steaming cocoa, the holidays, etc. So, why do some people feel like curling up in bed and sleeping the entire season away? While some seasonal moodiness is normal, if you feel overwhelmed or depressed, don’t hesitate to speak to a doctor or counselor.
Sunlight is essential for regulating your sleep-wake cycle—or your circadian rhythm. The sleep hormone melatonin is released when the body senses a decrease in sunlight, to help you relax and prepare for sleep. When the sun rises, melatonin levels in your body drop, helping you feel more awake and alert. If you’re not being exposed to enough sunlight, your body may produce too much melatonin throughout the day, leaving you feeling drowsy at the wrong times.1
2. Vitamin D
Vitamin D plays a role in many essential body functions.2 Studies have also suggested a possible link between vitamin D deficiency and depression. As it turns out, vitamin D may affect your body’s levels of serotonin – the “happy chemical” that contributes to feelings of well-being and happiness.3 Sunlight is the greatest natural source of vitamin D. So, a lack of sunlight (and less outdoor time) can really mess with vitamin D levels, particularly during the shorter days of winter.
3. Sedentary Behavior
When the weather is cold, wet, windy, or gloomy, chances are, you won’t feel energetic. That makes it all-too-easy to ditch your workout in favor of lounging around. But here’s the thing— it’s especially important to stay active this time of year, even if it means changing things up and working out inside your house.
On top of that, winter weather might lead you to eat and drink high carb, calorie-dense foods to feel warmer—no one craves a cold salad when they want to feel “warm and cozy.” These foods are quickly digested into glucose (sugar) and bring on a rush of energy. While this can feel really good while it lasts. it’s a short-lived effect that can result in a “sugar crash” and—if you’re lying around inactive—added weight gain.4
4. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
Seasonal Affective Disorder is real. Some people just don’t do well with cold or wet weather, and it appears far more frequently in darker, colder locations of the world. Those with SAD may experience low energy, problems sleeping, and difficulty concentrating. They might also overeat, crave carbohydrates, socially withdraw, and sleep excessively.5
How Can You Combat The Sluggish Effects Of Winter?
1. Get Outside
Find a way to get out into the natural light. Even a brisk 10-minute walk around the block will do the trick. In fact, a brief lunchtime walk at work could re-motivate your entire afternoon (even if that means wearing your rain or snow boots). Reminder: raking leaves and shoveling snow absolutely count as “outdoor time” — and they’re great exercise too! When you’re inside, open blinds and curtains as much as possible to bring in natural light.
2. Clean Up Your Sleep Cycle
Oversleeping can make you feel sluggish. Though it can be a real struggle to get out of a warm, cozy bed, setting some clean sleep habits will pay off in the long run. Set a schedule, and stick to it. Try to go to bed and wake up at roughly the same time each day, aiming for eight hours of sleep per night.
3. Have A Bad Weather Exercise Plan
Navigating a winter workout routine can undo the best of us, so put a plan in place.
- Keep it interesting. Find a unique activity for every day you exercise.
- Try to get outside whenever possible; simply taking a long walk is a GREAT way to burn some calories.
- Plan options for when you must work out from home; perhaps a YouTube or Instagram workout.
- Consider working with a personal trainer, in person or online.
4. Indulge Carb Cravings In A Healthy Way
- Winter holiday marketing can psychologically impact what you buy at the grocery store. Allow yourself some indulgences, but set rules. Pick one holiday-themed treat, and only allow one serving per day.
- If you love holiday cookies, find a healthier recipe online, or make them with half the sugar.
- Choose “good” carbs. Complex carbohydrates like sweet potatoes (roast them for natural caramelization), oats, quinoa, pulses, pumpkins, buckwheat, beets, bananas, and carrots are great choices.6 Add flavor with herbs and spices.
- Make your own pumpkin spice latte. In coffee shops, pumpkin spice flavoring is almost always a sugar syrup. But actual pumpkin spice is simply a mix of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg. All of these spices are calorie-free. Whip with your favorite nut milk and skip the cream.
- When you know you have to hit the market, come prepared with a strict shopping list.
Stick To the Plan
Combating the urge to binge on carbs and snooze the cooler winter days away isn’t easy. But having a plan will make it more manageable. Plus, the more you stick to healthy habits, the more you’ll continue to stick to them.
Dr. Amy Lee is a graduate of internal medicine at USC, and completed a fellowship at the Center of Human Nutrition at UCLA. She is board certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine, and is a member of the National Board of Physician Nutrition Specialists and the American Board of Obesity Medicine. Dr. Lee has given medical talks for HBO, Hulu, and PBS. As Head of Nutrition for Nucific, her mission is to help people achieve the body and life they deserve.