by Dr. Will Cole
As the days become colder and shorter, many people spend that extra indoor time sitting by a warm fire, sipping warm drinks, spending time with family and friends, and reflecting on the past year.
But as beautiful as the winter months can be, they can also do a number on your hormones. If you feel more lethargic, irritable, down, or depressed in the cold months than at the peak of summer, you’re not alone. Twenty to 35 percent of us either have seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or the milder “winter blues,” – and hormonal dysregulation is the reason.
Your Endocrine System in Winter: SAD
Your endocrine system – the name for your entire hormonal system, including such sub-systems as your thyroid, adrenals, and sex hormones – is potently affected by sunlight. A study published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society found that shorter days increased levels of both melatonin (the sleep hormone) and DHEA (a sex hormone precursor produced by your adrenals), and also caused actual physical changes to the adrenal glands, which are your main stress-response system. These changes lead to further hormone fluctuations downstream, and all that hormonal shifting can have a noticeable impact on your mood.
Several studies have also found that levels of iodine, an essential nutrient for healthy thyroid hormones, and TSH, the brain hormone needed to wake up the thyroid, were both adversely affected during winter months. Another factor is the “happy” brain hormone or neurotransmitter, serotonin. SERT (serotonin transporters) levels in people with SAD were shown to be 5 percent higher in the winter. The higher levels of serotonin in the winter indicate less serotonin in the brain, which can lead to feelings of depression.
All of these hormonal changes can leave you feeling SAD and blue.
Warm Up Your Hormones Plan
Fortunately, there is a lot you can do to combat those winter blues. Here’s where to start, so you can feel your best even when the snow flies:
1. Try a light therapy box
Blue-light therapy boxes, which are basically little sunlight machines, have been shown to warm up winter blues by shifting brain chemistry and the body’s perception of light exposure.
2. Get more vitamin D
Healthy hormone production – and the resulting good feelings – require the sunshine vitamin. Get your levels tested and if yours are low, eat more D-rich foods and supplement until your level climbs into an optimal range of 60-80.
3. Get scent-sual with essential oils
4. Step outside
Breathe as much fresh air as you can, even if that means hanging out the front door and taking a few quick gulps of winter air. If temperatures permit, also take advantage of any sunny days by getting outside for a brisk walk, hike, or cross-country ski. If you can, winter is also a good time to escape to a warm and sunny climate, even if just for a few days.
5. Consider a dawn simulator
Dawn simulators are a cool riff on alarm clocks. Instead of being awakened by an obnoxious noise, these little guys produce light that gradually increases, just like the sun, to wake you up naturally. I recommend the ones that use full-spectrum light, which is closest to natural sunlight.
6. Work up a sweat
I am a big fan of infrared saunas during the winter months (or anytime!). Sweating and light are both good for your hormones and stress levels. You may be able to find an infrared sauna at a local spa or, if you have the space and money, invest in one for your home.
7. Move it or lose it
Make sure to be active as much as you can during the colder time of the year for a serious mood boost. I like hot yoga in the winter for this because it combines movement, strength training, and heat all in one class. Find a local hot-yoga studio and bring on the sun salutations!
8. Go adaptogeic.
Feed your hormones with healthy food medicine. I like using blends of adaptogens such as ashwagandha and mucuna pruriens in different liquids to balance my hormones. Check out my 3 Elixirs To Boost Your Thyroid, Adrenal + Sex Hormones for the recipes!
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