Two weeks of sunless skies is a typical Houston forecast, even in the dead of winter. Around this time of year, many people feel sluggish and stressed, unable to pinpoint why. Winter weather, and more specifically lack of exposure to natural light, might be the possible culprit.
There’s a scientific basis for feeling blue around this time of year. In a recent study, “Researchers from the Baker Heart Research Institute in Melbourne found that serotonin levels—a neurotransmitter that regulates appetite, sleep, memory, and mood—are lower during the winter than the summer.” Additionally, sunlight was the only weather-related factor to play a direct role in serotonin levels.
Lack of sunlight affects everyone differently, but even if you don’t have an overt sensitivity, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder, there are still measures you can take to boost your productivity at a time when biology battles business and calls us to hibernate.
Turn on your light
Normally, I keep my office lights off and opt for natural sunlight rather than an overhead light. During the summer, the sun provides more than enough light. But a few weeks ago, one of my colleagues walked past my office one afternoon and said, “I think you need to turn on your light.” At the time, I didn’t realize how dark my office had become, but it quickly became apparent as I flipped on my light and began to perk up. Lighting is essential, especially in winter when you aren’t receiving as many natural light cues. You may also want to invest in a light device. Light devices emit a certain spectrum of light shown to stimulate the same areas of your brain as natural sunlight. There are some effective portable light devices now that are discreet and easy to travel with. I own the Philips Blu Lite and keep it at my desk for daytime use. As an added bonus for executives who travel abroad, these lights can help you adjust from jet lag more quickly.
Sleep: Rebranding it for your brain
Ah sleep--that pesky necessity that steals so much of your time. We all know the correlation between the quality and quantity of sleep and job performance. And there are millions of articles swirling around on how lack of sleep negatively affects your health. Try changing how you view sleep. Consider a good night’s sleep as a business tool. Why not use every business tool possible to be successful?
Exercise: Every little bit helps
Days of continuous grey skies lead people to want to stay in rather than exercise, keeping you from the very thing that could free you from fatigue. If you’re not mindful, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a couch potato. Exercise is one of the best ways to beat the winter blues. For ambitious, goal-oriented business people, it can be helpful to set aside your expectations or goals and simply do as much as you can without measurement or punishment. Unless you plan on a full body transformation, free yourself from these mental constructs. A friend started running without measuring distance or time; she just listens to her body. She feels liberated from disappointment if she doesn’t have much time to put in one day.
Diet: The dreaded four-letter word
Diet has a huge impact on your mental state and energy level. One of the main energy-zapping culprits is sugar. It’s a natural response to reach for a sugar rush-inducing snack when your energy is drained, but in reality, you are only fueling a vicious cycle that keeps you fatigued. Sugar causes your body to release insulin, and oftentimes it overcompensates. This in turn causes you to crash and crave more sugar. As a good rule of thumb, avoid spiking your blood sugar levels by limiting indulgences to 5 or 6 grams of sugar in one sitting. What does 5 or 6 grams look like? About 1/5 of a regular Snickers bar. Replace the candy bar with dark chocolate; you’ll get a more satisfying serving size.
Supplementation: When nature isn’t cutting it
The most important mood enhancing vitamin that you need to supplement in winter is vitamin D. It’s particularly important in winter because your body produces it directly from exposure to sunlight. But even if you don’t spend much time outside, vitamin D may help boost your mood and energy levels year-round. Be open to adding additional supplements to your diet in the winter. Personally I have discovered a supplement that promotes a calm, stress-free mood, doesn’t make me drowsy, and has been shown to make morning coffee more effective. This supplement is L-Theanine and is found naturally in green tea, but for maximum benefits, get the supplement form.
None of these measures are drastic changes; they are either simple behavioral modifications or items you can order on Amazon or at a health food store. Remember that your body’s response to less light is biological, and you don’t have to have a medical condition to feel its effects.