Hibernation: It May Not Be Only for Bears!

Do you find yourself having a hard time getting out of bed in the morning? Do you feel too tired in the evening to exercise? Have you put on a few pounds this winter? Have you noticed that this pattern occurs every year?

During the spring and summer, you enjoyed long walks, running, swimming, riding your bike, and eating fresh fruits and vegetables. You managed to build healthy lifestyle choices into your daily routine. Then, sometime after daylight-saving time ended, you began to find it hard to get out of bed in the morning, and to feel too tired to exercise in the evening. As the days became shorter, your sleep and waking cycles may have become disrupted, leading to fatigue, a decrease in physical activity, and for some, a general feeling of lethargy accompanied by depression.

Your body has its own internal clock that controls your natural cycle of sleeping and waking hours. When there is less sunlight, your brain produces more of a hormone called melatonin. Melatonin is produced by various tissues in the body, but the major source is the pineal gland in the brain. The production and release of melatonin from the pineal gland is often in sync with your body’s own natural (circadian) rhythm. Melatonin levels begin to rise in the mid to late afternoon, remain high throughout the night, and then drop in the morning; light affects how much melatonin your body produces. During the very short days of the winter months, your body may produce melatonin earlier in the day than usual, which may result in your feeling too fatigued in the early evening to do anything other than watch Netflix or curl up on the coach with a good book. The very idea of exercise or going out seems overwhelming.

While it is normal for us to slow down in the winter months, lethargy can sometimes be a sign of a condition known as winter depression or seasonal affective disorder. It is estimated that 1 out of 15 people are impacted by this disorder. Some of its symptoms include low energy, irritability, oversleeping, appetite changes, craving foods high in carbohydrates, and weight gain.

Fortunately, however, there are some lifestyle changes, aside from hibernation, that may help you make it through the winter happier and healthier.

Get as much natural daylight as possible. Layer up, put on your leggings, scarf, hat, and gloves and go outdoors, even if it is for only a brief period. Walk with a friend. Try to enjoy the feeling of the cool air on your face. When indoors, open the blinds and allow sunlight to shine into your home and work place.

Get a good night’s sleep. You may feel like you need to sleep more during the winter months, but you should try to resist this temptation. Sleeping too much can actually lead to a greater feeling of fatigue and lethargy. Aim for 7 hours of sleep each night and try to stick to a consistent sleep schedule.

My favorite antidote for lethargy and irritability is any kind of aerobic exercise. If you enjoy walking, but do not want to battle the cold weather outside, try walking in the local malls. A great exercise option for people who don’t want to leave their homes at all is YouTube. You can find exercise videos suitable for almost any background and skill level, ranging from beginner walking videos to boot camp, to yoga, weight training, ballet barre, and much more. The videos last anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour or so. If you need a little extra motivation this winter, try working out with a personal fitness coach and really challenge yourself. There are also a variety of classes and exercise options available in local studios and gyms. Motivate yourself to move; your body, mind, and spirit will thank you.

In terms of diet, try to eat foods that are rich in nutrients and low in sugar. During the cold weather months, you may be tempted to eat high carb foods such as pasta, potatoes, and breads. But you will have more energy and feel better if you eat vegetables, fruit, and protein. Soup is the perfect food for the cold days of winter. Cut up your favorite vegetables, spray a little olive oil on them, add kosher salt and onion and garlic powder, and bake in your oven until soft. Sautee onions in a skillet and then put all the ingredients into a pot with some vegetable stock. Mix everything together with an immersion blender, simmer for a short time, pour it into a big mug, and then sit by a window and enjoy.

Winter certainly poses its share of challenges, but in the words of the Romantic poet Percy Shelley, If winter comes, can spring be far behind?

By Beth S. Taubes, RN, OCN, CBCN, Certified Health Coach