Winter is in full swing, which means the days are shorter and sunlight is limited. Whether you have symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder or not, it’s normal to feel a dip in your energy and mood when it turns pitch black outside at 5 p.m.
There are a number of reasons why your body might feel like it’s struggling through Daylight Saving Time, but much of it has to do with the hormones that sustain your circadian rhythm, the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle on which your body runs. Two key hormones in this cycle are cortisol (also known as “the stress hormone”) and melatonin, a hormone involved in sleep.
“Many of us know of melatonin to help us sleep at night, but our body equally releases cortisol in the morning as we wake up,” says Jaquel Patterson, N.D., a naturopathic physician with a medical practice based in Fairfield, CT. “Sun and light help to influence cortisol to be released to wake us; when sunrise is later, it makes it harder for us to get up in the morning as a result,” she explains.
Additionally, when our bedroom is dark in the morning, there isn’t enough light to quell melatonin production, making it all the more difficult to get out of bed and start your day.
Lastly, because sunlight is essential to producing high enough levels of the feel-good hormone serotonin, you might also feel emotionally lower than usual during these darker days, says Patterson. The good news: There are remedies that can help you power through the winter. Read on for expert tips to improve your energy and mood while the days are at their shortest.
1. Eat foods that will lead to production of happy hormones
Though you may turn to your favorite comfort foods during this time (which is fine), it’s important to eat enough mood-lifting whole foods. Start by focusing on foods containing tryptophan, says Christine Bishara, M.D., founder of From Within Medical, an integrative medical wellness practice. The tryptophan helps increase the production of the mood-elevating neurotransmitter serotonin. Most people think of turkey when they hear tryptophan (it’s a myth that the tryptophan in your Thanksgiving turkey makes you sleepy), but it’s also found in tuna, as well as non-animal food sources including pineapples, bananas, and walnuts, says Bishara.
The second neurotransmitter to target is dopamine. “It is partly made in the gut and partly made in the brain. When our body makes enough dopamine, we have increased energy and focus,” says Bishara. One dietary precursor to dopamine is the amino acid tyrosine, which can be found in lentils, chia and pumpkin seeds, edamame, kiwi, and hard cheeses.
2. Load up on Vitamins B and D
Along with the low serotonin levels you might be experiencing with less sunlight exposure, your vitamin D levels might drop, too. The body depends on vitamin D for bone health, but it’s also crucial to your immune system, insulin production, nervous system, and mental health (low vitamin D could lead to depressive symptoms), says Patterson.
Vitamin B, specifically B6 and B12, is the other vitamin that’s vital to your energy at a cellular level. If you’re struggling with low energy and feeling sleepy or down, it may help for your doctor to run tests to see which nutrients you’re lacking most, Patterson says. Then, your healthcare provider might suggest a vitamin D or vitamin B supplement.
3. Think Outside The Alphabet
In addition to the classic letter vitamins, you may benefit from some natural supplements, including inositol and L-theanine, according to Bishara. Inositol is a type of sugar found organically in your body that can help keep serotonin in your system for longer, effectively improving stress, anxiety, and depressive symptoms, says Bishara.
L-theanine, on the other hand, is an amino acid in your body. “It has also been shown to help relax us and give us a sense of calm, by helping to boost our levels of GABA, our relaxation neurotransmitter, while decreasing our excitatory neurotransmitters,” Bishara says. Chat with your doctor before taking these or starting any new supplement routines.
4. Don’t discount herbal remedies
Pass the adaptogens, please.
“Adaptogens are also a gentle approach to helping support our energy levels and adapt to stress,” Patterson says. This group of herbal medicinal supplements includes Siberian ginseng, rhodiola, ashwagandha, and schisandra. “These herbs support our stress hormones, mental and physical stamina, and natural circadian rhythms.” adds Patterson. The goal of them is to help the body resist stressors and return to a state of homeostasis. (Again, you may want to run new supplement routines by your healthcare provider.)
Read More: The Best Adaptogens For Every Wellness Need
5. Walk it out daily
Besides food and supplements, you can naturally improve your energy and mood with light exercise—a quick 30-minute walk outside can up your dopamine and serotonin levels, Bishara says.
It doesn’t need to be intense exercise, but it’s important to get enough movement, especially during the winter months. Your total goal per week should be 150 minutes (2.5 hours), says Patterson. “Exercise also increases your circulation of oxygen throughout the body, physical endurance, and allows your heart to work more efficiently,” she adds.
6. Try a morning meditation
Starting, or ending, each day with some form of meditation can benefit your mind and lower the body’s physical stressors. “As with walking, even 5 minutes a day of daily practice has shown changes in individuals’ brains within two months. It increases your ability to make better decisions and have better control of emotions, decreases anxiety, and produces overall calmness; this is essential in keeping sustained energy throughout the day,” says Patterson, who’s also a certified meditation instructor.
Don’t worry if you’re not a meditation pro yet. You can start with guided meditations on apps like Simple Habit, Calm, or Headspace, and eventually you can graduate to other forms of mindful meditation on your own.
It can be tricky when thoughts arise in the middle of your mindfulness activity. Simply focus on your breathing, Patterson advises. Then, scan your body to notice what sensations arise. Any form of mindfulness is going to be beneficial to your mind, even if it doesn’t feel that way at first.
7. Pump up the music
Listening to tunes you enjoy can help the brain increase production of the neurotransmitter dopamine, Bishara says. Other studies have proven that music has additional therapeutic effects, including lowering stress when necessary.
While faster, pump-up jams might help improve your energy and mood in certain moments, University of Nevada, Reno research reports that slower music, below 60 beats per minute, can help your brain waves slow down and synchronize with the calming beat. That’s all the more reason to wind down at night with light jazz, classical, meditation music, or even nature soundscapes.
8. Go toward the light
Sun lamps or sunrise alarms can help regulate your body’s melatonin and cortisol production, aiding in keeping your circadian rhythm on track, and thereby potentially improve your energy and mood, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Seeing that bright light early in the morning may increase the serotonin in your body. This, in turn, can always help with a mood boost. If you have symptoms of SAD, you may get a lift from keeping one in your room as well.