As the temperature turns cold and the days become shorter, it makes it harder to roll out of bed with an energetic bounce in the step. Rather, curling up under warm blankets and hitting the snooze button become routine during the winter months. Although it is normal to slow down during the winter months, understanding the processes involved can lend to energy-giving solutions.
Sleep-Wake Cycle Imbalance
Many, if not all, processes occurring in our body function on a cyclical basis governed by our natural circadian rhythm or our ‘body clock’. This clock is driven by environmental cues based on light, temperature etc. One important aspect of this circadian clock is the hormone melatonin that regulates our sleep-wake cycle.
Melatonin is a hormone produced in our body, which allows us to sleep at night. At night melatonin production and secretion from the brain rises in order to allow us to sleep. In the morning, that level drops allowing us to wake up and be ready for the day. In the winter months, melatonin secretion lasts longer meaning that individuals will feel tired longer during the winter months compared with the summer months.
So why does this occur? Melatonin production in the brain is stimulated in dim light, making sense that it is our sleep hormone. In the evening, we are naturally in dimmer light, melatonin production occurs, we feel tired and we go to sleep. In the winter however, when the days are shorter and there is longer periods of darkness, melatonin production begins earlier and takes longer to decline in the morning causing tiredness and a desire to sleep longer and more often.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals produced by the cells in the brain in order to communicate with one another – they are the brain messengers. There are many neurotransmitters; however, there are 3 specifically known to be involved in the development of feeling tired, sluggish and down during the winter (serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine). Each messenger is responsible for a different task. The interplay of all three and a precise amount of each is required for “normal” mood and functioning.
Serotonin is the brain messenger responsible for feelings of well-being and happiness. Studies have shown in winter months, there is a decrease in the amount of serotonin leading to the feelings of sadness or depression.
Serotonin is also involved in regulating appetite. The body is continually trying to achieve balance; therefore, if the body is deficient in something, it will try to gain it some how, usually through food. Cravings of chocolate, sweets or carbohydrates are common because it is high in tryptophan, an amino acid needed for the production of serotonin. In the winter, a person begins to subconsciously eat a diet higher in these foods as the body tries to achieve the balance it is looking for. As a result, the poorer dietary choices associated with the decreased serotonin is responsible for weight gain. A diet lower in nutrients coupled with weight gain contributes to feeling down, sluggish and less energetic.
Dopamine is the brain messenger involved in behavior and cognition, voluntary movement, motivation and reward, sleep, mood, attention and learning. It is involved in allowing us to develop new behaviors because a main role of dopamine is the “reward” system. It is the reason we tend to repeat behaviors that give us maximum reward for our action. Again, dopamine tends to be decreased during the winter months. A decrease in dopamine leads to loss of pleasure in activities of usual interest, decrease in focus/concentration and poor sleep.
Norepinephrine is the brain messenger responsible for controlling attention and response. Norepinephrine is a stress hormone that is involved in the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, giving us that immediate energy in a stressful situation. Typically we notice our heart rate increase, which is that “rush of adrenaline” (epinephrine is also known as noradrenaline). Also during the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, sugar or glucose is released from the stores in our body to our muscles preparing us to move/run.
During the winter months, norepinephrine is decreased. A decline in norepinephrine contributes to anxiety (heart racing), fatigue and weight gain.
The Vitamin D Connection
Vitamin D3 is needed for adequate production of serotonin in the brain. The way our body produces vitamin D is through sun light exposure. In the winter, Canadians do not receive enough sunlight to produce adequate vitamin D3. With lack of vitamin D3, we have lack of serotonin, which leads to a depressed mood, weight gain and lower energy. Unfortunately, we can’t store vitamin D in our body so receiving plenty of sunshine in the summer, will not hold us over during the darker winter months.
With lack of sun exposure in our frigid winter months, supplementation is often required in order to prevent deficiency. A recommended 2000 IU of Vitamin D3 during the winter months can prevent deficiency and increase mood and energy.
Food sources rich in vitamin D are oily fish (salmon, mackerel and sardines), eggs and meat.
Once the summer ends, salads, vegetables and fruits tend to be replaced by sweets, breads and pastas. A continued effort to select nutrient rich foods in order to supply the body with the nutrients it requires for the proper amount of neurotransmitters and to avoid unwanted weight gain. Winter vegetables such as carrots, parsnips, and turnips can be roasted, mashed or made into soup for a warming winter meal. Stews and casseroles are also great options, providing lean protein and vegetables.
Including protein sources that favor serotonin production can help to improve energy and mood. Protein sources that favor serotonin production are high in the amino acid tryptophan, which is a building block in its production. These sources include chicken, white flakey fish, lean cuts of pork, veal, cottage cheese, lamb, low fat cheeses, low fat milk and dairy products, and legumes.
Dopamine floods into the brain when positive, which makes us more energetic, happier and turns on the learning centers in the brain allowing us to not only learn, but also improve focus and concentration. Some ways to increase positivity are:
3 Gratitudes – Write down 3 new things each day for 21 days. This teaches the brain to scan the world for the positive first, not the negative.
Journaling- Journal about 1 positive experience you’ve experienced over the past 24 hours. This allows your brain to relive that positive event.
Random acts of kindness- When opening your email inbox, write 1 positive email praising or thanking someone.
Achieving 150 minutes of physical activity a week can help increase energy levels by improving serotonin and norepinephrine levels. Engaging in physical activity in the late afternoon, early evening can help beat early evening fatigue as well as improve sleep quality at night.
Keep Regular Sleep-Wake Schedule
The production of serotonin for the next day requires at least 7 continuous hours of sound high quality sleep the night before. Try and stick to a regular schedule, going to bed and rising at the same time each day. A consistent sleep schedule helps to improve quality of sleep achieved.
Certain supplements can help to improve production of neurotransmitters important for mood and energy. Herbs such as Rhodiola, Ashwagandha, and St. John’s Wort, and B vitamins are all options available.