If you’re feeling sluggish, tired, and more down-beat than usual, your mood change is not merely in your head. Numerous studies have documented an overall feeling of malaise this time of year, referred to as seasonal affective disorder—or most appropriately, “SAD.”
MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Tara Swart, who is also a neuroscientist, leadership coach, medical doctor, and executive advisor, says that SAD is thought to be caused by the way our bodies respond to daylight.
“Melatonin, the hormone that helps regulate our sleep, is released by the pineal gland in the brain into the bloodstream,” Swart writes in her recent blog post, “How to beat the winter blues and maintain peak performance,” published to www.wearethecity.com. “Because this gland is activated by darkness, in shorter daylight hours in the winter higher levels of melatonin are produced, causing lethargy and feelings of low energy.” Lack of sunlight can also decrease of production of serotonin, a hormone responsible for maintaining mood balance and appetite.
As someone who researches and speaks globally on the brain and business, Swart has an interest in to what extent our cognitive function and performance level are affected by winter. The research on this, however, varies. While some studies have shown that, during winter, our brains allocate fewer resources to maintaining attention, other research upholds that despite a decrease in brain activity, our performance levels remain the same. Perhaps our brains operate more efficiently in winter, consuming fewer resources for the same performance.
Despite what’s actually happening in our brains, it doesn’t change the fact that many of us feel lethargic and unproductive. “Understanding the science that keeps our brains performing well can combat this and help us get the best out of our brains at this notoriously busy time of year at work,” she writes.
In her post, Swart shares five practical suggestions for how you might improve your mental resilience in spite of the shorter days (and the record cold temperatures much of the U.S. experienced last week).
- Get a good night’s sleep. Seven to 9 hours of sleep will help you to combat feelings of sluggish-ness during the day. To improve your sleep quality, try turning off all digital media an hour before you go to bed. You can also explore waking to a light alarm clock, which can emulate natural light when it’s still dark in the mornings and signal to your pineal gland that it is time to wake up. Learn more about why sleep matters to your performance in this earlier post.
- Don’t waste your cognitive resources. Stick to a regular and simple morning routine, for example picking out your clothes the night before.
- Eat. The brain uses 20-30% of your daily energy intake, so eating is important to your brain function. Being properly fueled and hydrated can boost your executive functions such as emotional regulation, solving complex problems, and thinking flexibly. Try a higher protein diet, with brain-friendly foods like salmon and oily fish, eggs, coconut oil, and nuts and seeds.
- Get some fresh air and sunlight. Outdoor exercise provides us with an increased oxygen supply and Vitamin D, a mineral regulator which keeps bones and muscles healthy. Regular exercise in general can have the same effect on the brain as a low dose of anti-depressants. Capturing sufficient vitamin D is more challenging, as your limbs or torso need to be exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D supplements can help alleviate this problem.
- Don’t hibernate. There is a positive relationship between social engagement and your mood. The social bonding hormone oxytocin makes the region of the brain associated with social interaction become more active. Spend time with friends and family as much as you can.
So, while you might not be the only one feeling sluggish right now, don’t let SAD get the best of you. Try these tips for optimal winter performance.
Tara Swart teaches in the MIT Sloan Executive Education programs Applied Neuroscience: Unleashing Brain Power for You and Your People and Neuroscience for Leadership.