February may be the shortest month of the year, but it can feel like the longest. All but the most fanatical winter sports fans among us are tired of gray skies, short days, slippery footing, and layering up like Eskimos. Intellectually, we know that springtime starts in a few weeks. Emotionally, it can feel a million years away.
So how best to make it through the dark tunnel of winter's hind end? On this topic, perhaps unsurprisingly, the experts sound a lot like wise grandmas through the ages: Eat right, exercise, get sunshine, fresh air, and a good night's sleep.
But first of all, be reassured that you're not imagining it: Winters in the Northeast are grueling, and there are solid physiological reasons for your dragged-out feeling. "Getting cold causes your blood vessels to clamp down," says Dr. Elizabeth Costley, DO, who treats patients of all ages at her offices in Kingston and Poughkeepsie. "That puts stress on your whole system, and contributes to that overall feeling of not being at your best."
So, layer up—and do get outside, especially when the sun is shining. "Living here, most of us just aren't getting enough vitamin D in the winter," says Juli Colotti, owner of the Kingston personal training studio Bodies by Colotti. "Increase your intake, and do try to get out in the sun when it shines, even if just for a quick walk."
Along with sunshine and supplements, it helps to include foods high in vitamin D, such as oily fish like salmon and sardines, egg yolks and foods that are vitamin D-fortified, says Costley. Along with vitamin D, vitamin C and zinc are important nutrients that keep your immune system amped up and ready to fight off the latest wintry crud.
Gut Health & SleepOverall health is the foundation of immunity—both to physical germs and the winter blues—and it begins with gut health. "Thriving in winter or any other time relies on our parasympathetic nervous system—that's what governs our ability to rest, digest, and heal," says Dr. Erika Gabriello, DACM, LAc, who practices acupuncture and integrative healing in New Paltz. "It starts with healthy spleen qi. That's the system that governs digestion, absorption, assimilation, and energy metabolism. If your stomach pH isn't right—if you lack hydrochloric acid there—you can't digest protein or carbs. That impacts everything else. Around 80 percent of your immune system is in your gut."
Beyond eating well, sleep hygiene is key to winter thriving and can be harder to manage amid short days and decreased activity. "It's hard to do, but try to get on a steady sleep schedule of at least seven hours a night," says Costley. "It's incredibly important for immunity, gut health, brain health, and mood. And it gets harder when our bodies aren't getting enough warmth, light, and activity. Activity is another key factor here; even if you're just getting up and doing stuff around the house every so often, it's better than sitting all day. Quick walks are great. If you can do at least 20 minutes of brisk activity three times a week, you'll sleep and digest better."
Gabriello gives her clients a list of tips for better sleep: reduce evening caffeine, shut down your screens (keep the TV and computer out of the bedroom entirely), darken your bedroom (ideally, your bed should be north-south aligned, with your feet to the north), and take deep, slow breaths from your diaphragm to activate that all-important parasympathetic system. "It's during deep sleep that we rebuild tissue and detoxify waste," she says. "It's also when the cognitive mind shuts down, enabling the subconscious mind to process deep-seated thoughts and emotions. The physical, mental, and emotional self heals during satisfying rest."
Don't Be SADAbout those emotions: Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which manifests as deep sadness, loneliness, increased sensitivity to feeling rejected, oversleeping, poor appetite, weight gain, hopelessness, and fatigue, usually isn't diagnosed unless you experience major depressive symptoms with the changing seasons two years in a row or more. But that doesn't mean the simple winter blahs aren't a real thing.
"SAD can get very serious, so don't ignore feelings of encroaching misery," says Allison Chawla, MA, LMSW, a certified coach and alternative therapist in Rhinebeck. "Talking to your doctor is always a good first step—physical ailments can intensify depression. If you're not against taking medication, there are many treatments out there that can be prescribed temporarily while our hormone levels are thrown off by the shifts in circadian rhythm."
Beyond that, Chawla says, there are self-care tactics that will help. Get outside, even if just for a few minutes. Try a gratitude practice to start the day off on a positive note. Move around, stretch, and stay in touch with the people you love. "They say misery loves company, but so does someone curled up by the fire feeling blah," she says. "Be the person who takes the initiative and keeps connections vital—a simple call or message can lift someone out of their funk."
Chawla points out that making commitments on a calendar can help you stay motivated to keep them—a view she shares with Colotti. "I can't tell you how many times clients have told me that if it weren't for our attendance policy, they'd have stayed on the couch," Colotti says. "Most of us respect the commitments we make. Making that commitment to a fitness community gets you out and talking and laughing with people, and it seems less like work—I think that's why group fitness training studios have become so popular."
It's also important to keep those commitments realistic. "If you tell yourself you're going to work out an hour a day six or seven days a week, you're likely to end up just quitting," says Chelsea Streifeneder, owner of Body Be Well Pilates, which has studios in Red Hook, Catskill, and Windham. "If one day is what you can do, start there, and then maybe add another day. Think about your time, your budget, what you can handle, and schedule it just as you would any other important appointment in your life and you're more likely to stick with it."
Costley concurs: When it comes to beating the winter doldrums, approach every aspect of wellbeing at a manageable scale. "Break things into smaller bits," she says. "Eat a healthy snack. Step outside for some deep breaths of fresh air. Don't overburden yourself with tasks, because then it just becomes all the more depressing."