12 Ways to Conquer the Winter Energy Slump

This is the year you will boycott the great American conk-out, that seasonal slump lasting days, weeks, even months. Signs it's happening: coworkers' heads bob at meetings, and long lines snake out of the local coffee place. But these tips will keep you going strong — dark, cold weather be damned.

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You've got a perfect storm approaching right about now: a frenzy to meet end-of-year deadlines, nonstop holiday must-dos, and an about-to-be-blown budget. Take a case of burnout, add a string of dark, frigid days, and you're looking at a personal energy crisis.

Lack of sunlight is a buzzkill for most of us. But for the small percentage of Americans who have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), it may cause fatigue so deep, getting out of bed is a challenge. The reason? The short days of winter play a role in your body's production of serotonin and melatonin in the brain, two factors that powerfully influence your mood and mojo. There's also a more common and less severe form of the condition called subsyndromal SAD (S-SAD). It's what we often refer to as the winter blues, says Kelly Rohan, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Vermont, where those blues hit hard. Those with S-SAD still function, but not with the ease and energy they have in other seasons. "You're sleeping more, you're craving more carbs, and you have less interest in keeping your body moving," she says.

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Wherever you fall on the seasonal-slump spectrum, "you can absolutely adjust your behavior to change your mood," says Rohan. Scroll through to see how she and other experts successfully manage their energy in some of the coldest, darkest cities on earth. No more deepening the butt imprint in your couch. More pep starts now:

1. Switch Your Script

Each fall, as the leaves change colors and the days get shorter, your mind may go into dread mode because you remember the previous year's gloom. "People with seasonal mood changes tend to have a lot of negative anticipatory thoughts before the season begins, as well as throughout," says Rohan. And if you expect to feel bad, chances are you will. To stop this habit of SFF (self-fulfilling funk), Rohan suggests telling yourself a more helpful story. If you tend to say "I hate winter," replace that mind loop. Make it positive but realistic:

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  • I can get through winter; I've done it before.
  • The weather affects my mood, but so do other factors, like what I do with my time.
  • During winter, I can focus on projects I tend to put off in warmer months, when I just want to be outside.

2. Do an Upper-Body Stretch

It gets circulation going, which can help you feel more alert. Stand in a doorway, palms on doorframe by shoulders. Lean forward and feel your torso release.

3. Do a Quick Cool-Off

After lathering up in a warm shower, do a 30-second blast of cold water. Once the initial shock wears off, you'll feel more invigorated as blood flows away from the surface of your body toward your core to try and conserve heat. One study found that it actually helps release endorphins, so your polar bear moment could have an antidepressant effect.

4. Rethink Comfort Food

Too sofa-bound to even go pick up dinner? Food deliveries tend to spike in colder months. Whether you've got the pad thai place on speed dial or your go-to dinner is mac and cheese, most typical comfort foods sap our energy. Simple carbohydrates, like the white flour in pasta and pizza, break down fast, so you feel a quick boost followed by an even quicker crash. Choose fiber-rich grains instead. "They feel indulgent while giving you steady, lasting energy," says Kristin Kirkpatrick, RD, of the Cleveland Clinic. Black bean soup, quinoa bowls, and oatmeal are some of her all-stars.

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5. Got Muscles? Use Them

If the slump is the ailment, movement is the cure. A study by the University of Georgia found that consistent low-intensity exercise decreased people's fatigue by 65 percent. A slow jog, jumping jacks — it all works.

6. Winterize Your Summer Fun

"Once you give in to the winter blues and start hibernating, it's difficult to dig yourself out," says Rohan. "Push hard to be more like your summer self." She suggests remixing your favorite warm-weather playtime. If you've got a a green thumb, start a windowsill herb garden. If you like water sports, try a stand-up paddleboarding class at the local pool (many YMCAs offer it). Love to hike? Consider indoor rock climbing. And explore activities that you may have ignored: "Living in Minnesota, I started working at a foundation that organizes a winter festival. Volunteers build ice pyramids and giant ice sculptures, and thousands of people ski, snowshoe, or walk around at night to admire their work. This is how I do winter now, and I love it."

7. Breathe Out Slowly

You may feel like taking a nap, but what you probably need are a few deep out breaths. "A lot of people think that when you breathe, you should focus on taking oxygen in, but it's during the exhale that oxygen is transferred into the bloodstream, decreasing stress, which is crucial on days when you need the most energy," says Emily Kilberd, a chiropractor and founder of the Urban Wellness Clinic in New York. Recipe for an energizing breath: Breathe in through your nose while counting to 4, and exhale through your mouth to a count of 4. Repeat 5 to 10 times.

8. Take 'Rise & Shine' Literally

Scientists have long known that lack of sunlight can make people depressed and lethargic. And morning light in particular matters — it helps set your body's internal clock and regulate hormones, says Arne Lowden, PhD, and associate professor at the Stress Research Institute at Stockholm University. His advice, coming from a city that gets only six hours of daylight in the winter months: Open the blinds and let the sun shine in when you first wake up in the morning, then have your coffee while facing a window instead of, say, the TV screen. If that flood of natural sunshine doesn't perk you up, it may be time to look into light therapy...

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9. Avoid Energy Vampires, Like...

  • Drinking tons of coffee. Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, says many of her patients who report feeling "slothlike," are often the ones with an extreme coffee habit. "I suggest cutting back and turning to caffeinated tea for more lasting energy." Studies show that coffee may have a more noticeable energy spike and dip (that's the crash you feel) than tea.
  • Tanning. "I can't tell you how many people I talk to [for SAD] who are addicted to indoor tanning," says Rohan. "It's likely the summerlike cures make them feel good, but it's a dangerous practice." Tanning beds may be responsible for up to 400,000 new cases of skin cancer annually. It also doesn't work as well as an energizer. Light has to pass through the eyes, not the skin, to trigger the right mood neurotransmitters.
  • Sleeping in on the weekends. If too little snoozing is causing your energy problem, then why is extra sleep on the weekends an ineffective solution? Getting up and going to bed at around the same time every day is essential, says Rachel Marie Salas, MD, a neurologist and sleep specialist. "Studies show that even if you get enough sleep, when you're not in line with your circadian rhythm, you can function like you're sleep deprived."
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10. Twist to Unwind

Muscle tension is a major energy suck. The fix? "I recommend yoga poses that lengthen overactive, tight muscles in the back, sides, and chest," says Dana Santas, a yoga expert to elite athletes. The next time you're feeling tense and strung out, try this pose: Lie flat on your back, then bring your right knee toward your chest. Next, take your left hand and out it on the outside of your right leg and start to rotate over to the left, pulling your leg in that direction, while reaching your right arms out. Hold for 5 breaths. Release and repeat on the other side.

11. Defy the Dark

Bundle up and go outside — yes, even if it's not light out. Research indicates that it could ease the chronic tiredness many people feel during winter. Erin Kirkland, of AKontheGo.com, a website based in Alaska, looks for ways to do that even though it's dark from about 3 pm to 9 am in December. "One of our favorite family activities is to snap on our skis after dinner and head to the neighborhood trails. Just 30 minutes outside goes a long way toward a good night's sleep and a better attitude from everyone in the morning."

12. Refill Your Water Bottle

People who suffer from even mild dehydration report noticeable dips in mood and concentration. H2O = the new energy drink.

The Facts About Light Therapy

What you need to know before you try the bright cure.

  • You're feeling wiped out even after a full night's sleep, and you can't seem to get pumped up about the stuff that usually energizes you. We get it: You'll try anything. While you don't need an Rx to buy a light therapy device, which has been used to treat those with SAD, it's best to check with a doc before tossing one into your Amazon.com shopping cart.
  • One good reason not to self-prescribe light therapy is that persistent low energy could be a sign of another medical or mental-health issue. Seeing a doctor can help rule this out, says Rohan. Another reason not to DIY: If a doctor thinks you'd benefit from the therapy, a psychologist or a psychiatrist can help you regulate the "light dosage," says Rohan. "How much light you expose yourself to — and when — matters."
  • If you're going ahead with a light therapy box, opt for one with cool, white fluorescent, not UV, light at 10,000 lux (the measure of light intensity). The FDA doesn't test or regulate the sale of light therapy boxes, so take care not to buy a low-power dud that isn't bright enough to make a difference. Ready to do? To use it, prop the device no farther than 2 feet from your face, or you'll miss the benefits.

This story originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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