Fighting the Coming Winter Blues

flower in vase

Fall is a good time for many of us, since we associate the season with holidays (such as Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Advent), chilly nights at football games, campfires, and good food. However, for others, the beginning of fall signals the coming winter, and with it, the winter blues, given the name “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” appropriately abbreviated SAD.

There are ways to fight back. I have suffered from mild SAD in the past, and I am more likely to get “down” in the winter. Since I have become very active in the summers, I have generally dreaded winters. However, last winter was a notable exception, and it was a long, cold, winter to boot, so I was doing something right. One of the things I was doing was getting sunshine whenever possible. Every morning at school, I would go to window of my room, and just “take in” the strong sunlight for a few minutes.  I also made sure I got outside if possible. Usually we get some freak warm days in the winter months, and you can bet I am outside, and the windows of the house are open to air it out (again, if it’s possible). Using this strategy (among others, which I’ll share in the future), I avoided any trace of the “winter blues.”

Science backs me up on this. I came across a study that connected serotonin levels in the brain to sunlight. Sunlight raises serotonin levels, while lack of it lowers serotonin levels. This could explain why a) people get more down in the winter, and b) why people who spend a lot of time indoors, even in the summer, often suffer from depression.

It’s not winter yet; heck, it’s not even autumn, but now is a good time to start thinking about strategies to deal with the coming winter blues and blahs.

The Importance of Vitamin D and Pregnancy

sunny day

Preeclampsia. Diabetes. Autism. Schizophrenia. And more. The solution to these problems, affecting both mothers and children, may be Vitamin D. Read on.

The newest newsletter from the Vitamin D Council has been released and it is loaded with research related to Vitamin D and pregnancy. Please allow me to summarize the newsletter’s content (which is free of copyright), but be sure to check out the actual newsletter. All of this is based on actual research. Keep in mind that when I speak of Vitamin D blood levels, I am actually speaking of blood calcidiol, 25(OH)D, levels. Calcidiol is a pre-hormone produced by the liver after Vitamin D is metabolized. Many experts believe this is the only reliable test of blood Vitamin D levels.

Research shows that pregnant women are very vitamin D deficient. In the three studies cited, 95% of pregnant women, yes 95%, did not have optimal levels of Vitamin D in their bloodstream. Pre-natal vitamins, which usually contain only 400 IU of Vitamin D (the body manufactures 5 times this on your average sun exposure), had little effect on raising Vitamin D levels.

So what are the consequences of sub-optimal Vitamin D levels for the pregnant mother? Well, see for yourself:

– One study showed that those with low Vitamin D levels were much more likely to have Caesarian sections. The number of C-sections has dramatically increased since 1970, from 5% of pregnancies then, to 30% today. Guess what? Those women who had optimal Vitamin D levels in this study had C-section rates identical to the 1970 rate: 5%.

– One study demonstrated that low vitamin D blood levels result in a 5-fold increase in the risk of preeclampsia.

– Another study found that those with low vitamin D levels (virtually every pregnant woman) were at a 3-fold risk of developing diabetes during pregnancy

Now, what about children? How does low Vitamin D during pregnancy affect a mother’s child?

– A paper published recently connects low Vitamin D levels during pregnancy with Schizophrenia, on account of inappropriate fetal brain development.

– There is much speculation about Vitamin D and Autism, and the role sunshine and Vitamin D play in its development. I wrote on this previously.

– One study (which is considered racially charged, because it shows some races may have more mentally retarded individuals) suggests that Vitamin D may have a role in preventing mental retardation.

– Women with the lowest Vitamin D levels during pregnancy were much more likely to have their newborns in Intensive Care Units because of Lower Respiratory Tract Infections.

– Low levels of Vitamin D during pregnancy are associated with lower birth weight.

– Cod Liver Oil (a source of Vitamin D) given during pregnancy is associated with a 3-fold decrease in the rate of juvenile diabetes later.

– Vitamin D may prevent idiopathic infant heart failure.

– Researchers have discovered that children with very serious brain tumors (astrocytomas and ependymomas) were more likely to be born in the winter, when Vitamin D levels are low.

– Epileptics are also more likely to be born in the winter.

– Craniotabes (softening of the skull in infants) is likely a Vitamin D deficiency, and not “normal.”

– Cavities are more common in children whose mothers had low Vitamin D levels.

So what are pregnant mothers deficient in Vitamin D to do?

Well, first and foremost, I am not a doctor, and you should consult with a doctor before taking any supplement during pregnancy. I can say that Drs. Scholl and Chen, of the Department of Obstetrics at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, have suggested that pregnant women need 6000 IU of Vitamin D per day. A study I linked to a few months ago, suggested the same thing of lactating women, that they need 6,000 IU per day to have adequate levels. A little sun would easily supply this amount.

Struggling to Lose Weight: Winter

frosted window

Winter is a rough time for me all around. As I get older, I hate winter more and more. Growing up, winter was almost magical: Christmas (and all associated content, including lights), snow days, warm fires, and so forth, stoked my imagination. Even though this past winter was cold and dreary to a large degree, the “greeting card” winter of my nostalgia still shapes my view of winter. These days, outside of Christmas, I can do without the winter. Seriously, the less winter, the better. I often joke that I wish the cold and snow would end at Christmas: I would like a cold and snowy Christmas, and by the middle of January, the days can warm up to the 60s as far as I’m concerned. Let me say that I can appreciate the winter on certain levels, and I will always love the “four seasons,” but winter is just too limiting.

In high school, I usually lost weight in the winter, not because winter provides any kind of real advantage (it actually may provide a disadvantage to weight loss because it drives our body into a kind of “hibernation”), but because, as I have mentioned in previous posts, winter is when my social life, which began in the fall, was revving up. I had already begun losing weight in the fall, and this continued, and even increased, in the winter. This, and the new year, provided a strong motivation to get the Y, and eat right.

These days, winter doesn’t cause me too many weight-related problems. I sometimes struggle with infections and mild mood issues, but this doesn’t directly relate to my weight. During winter, my main issue is that I have to make my exercise interesting. This is always the struggle for me in the winter. Usually, there is one effective solution to this problem: music. In high school, I had a cassette walkman. I discovered “oldies” during this time, so I would make mix tapes of oldies I got off the radio and various CDs, non-creatively titled “The Exercise Collection” 1-2. I upgraded to a discman around 2000, and in 2008, I finally got a MP3 player. Right now, I am listening to The Airborne Toxic Event, which is upbeat enough to make exercise easier. Basically, to lose weight in the winter I need to:

– Make effective use of music, to keep exercise interesting

– Vary my exercise routine enough to keep interested

– Not let winter blahs negatively affect my weight loss

– Get out on the few good days that the winter offers

Image of a kind-of-nostalgic looking photo taken by me

Bring on February!

spring day

To me, February is kind of like the middle day of football two-a-days, there is still a lot of work left, but you know you are almost done with them! This is how I view February and its relationship to the winter. It is kind of ironic I am using a summer football example, because the temperature was often in the 90s in Ohio during the summer two-a-days. Even though I hated the heat then, I could really use some of that heat right now!

At any rate, I have mentioned on here before I am not a huge fan of winter. This year hasn’t been too bad, even though it has been much colder than last year. I noticed on the forecast that this weekend is supposed to be “warm,” yes, in the 30s and even 40s, so that is pretty cool. I am ready for February, which is to say, I ready to be that much closer to spring!

Above is a photo of a nice, warm, spring day. As Fr. Wagner always reminds me, your mind doesn’t know the difference between reality, and what you think is reality, so just imagine you are there, walking and enjoying the fresh warm day, with a slightly cool breeze blowing.

More on “The Little Things”

Jonathan recently posted about the “little things” in his life, and I thought I would copy his idea. During the winter months, the little things matter more to me, because I am not a huge fan of the winter. My winters are generally not too bad, but I often struggle with them, because I like being outdoors.

About 5 years ago, I was going through a lot of stress, and that was probably my worst winter ever. One day I walked out of the house and the cloudy sky just made me feel trapped, a sort of claustrophobia caused by the dreary winter. I vowed to never have a winter like that again! So for me, it always helps to focus on the little things during winter. Note that these are little things that I am focusing on; I am not necessarily elaborating upon the big things like family, belief in God, etc, things that are foundational to my life.

Coffee – Like my brother, I enjoy the winter trips to Duncan Donuts for hot, creamy, coffee, but I don’t have one in my area, so usually I usually go to Tim Horton’s, which I like just as well. Most Fridays at work, we make a “Tim Horton’s run” where ones of us “buys” and the other “flies.” Jennifer and I also have gourmet Starbucks coffee that we got for Christmas that we brew at home, so I get a lot of good coffee. In the summer, I get more excited about iced coffee.

Work – I like my work. I live about a 1 minute drive from work, and work from about 7:30 until 3:00. This gives me time in the late afternoon to schedule appointments, take care of business, spend more time with family and friends, and go to the Y before dinner time. I am friends with my co-workers, and I have a good group of students.

Prayer – I enjoy my daily prayer. I often pray the Liturgy of the Hours, which is the daily, liturgical, prayer of the Catholic Church. I try to pray morning prayer and night prayer with my wife. It helps orient and structure my day.

Sauna and Hot Tub – Lately I have taken a more relaxing view about the Y. I do my full workout every other day if I can, but afterward I usually sit in the hot tub and then spend a little time in the sauna (steam or regular, depending on my mood). Recently, I have been going to the Y some on my “off days” just to walk a little and relax, because the weather prevents us from walking around our neighborhood like we do in the spring, summer, and fall. Afterward I hit the hot tub and sauna, and it is just what the doctor ordered this time of year!

Facebook – I am not on Facebook all that much, but I do enjoy keeping up with old friends and new ones. Outside of Facebook, I just have no way of meaningfully knowing that much about what my friends, old and new, are up to. Facebook provides that connection.

Working Out – I am finally seeing the kind of gains I have wanted for years. By this, I mean things like defined abs, low body fat percentage, etc. I am not always motivated to go the the Y, but once I am there, and run about a mile, I am ready to give myself a great workout.

Fitday – I have gone from Fitday being a necessary chore to an enjoyable habit. I have a naturally inquisitive mind, and I like having a record of my diet and exercise handy so I can track changes in mood, weight, etc, and see how my diet and exercise contribute to this.

Farmer’s Almanac: Cold Winter on the Way

According to the Farmer’s Almanac, a cold winter is coming for most of the U.S. With many families struggling with energy costs this could be problematic. Over the next few months, we’ll be sharing some of the ways we reduce energy consumption in the home (yes, our families are used to hearing “put on a sweater” in the winter!). I also have to admit that I dislike winter more and more each year, especially after Christmas is over. The colder the winter, the worse it is, it seems. We’ll try to address ways to survive the winter blahs as well. Keep posted.

It’s Back-to-School Time

Schools in my county go back to school this week. My first day is tomorrow, and the students come on Wednesday. I am glad to be back in the routine again. I tend to get  more things done when I have a full work day than when I have a day open (it’s easy to push things back when you know you can do then later). Of course, going back to school is also symbolic of the summer being over, even though technically it runs until the end of September, but most students and teachers tend to base their “summer” on the time out of school.

While I am looking forward to going back to work, I admit that the summer nearly ending is usually kind of depressing for me. Part of it is because it seems like with every advancing year I dislike the winter more and more. I love fall (it is probably my favorite season), and I actually enjoy the winter all the way up to mid-January. Why? Because I associate cold and snow with Christmas, and usually for the first two weeks of January, I am excited about the new year. However, the last two weeks of January, and the month of February are always hard on me. I think it is because in the last few years I have become very active, and very much outdoor oriented. During the warm months I run outside, golf, walk during the evenings, swim, travel, go to pick-your-own-fruit farms, attend festivals, etc. The winter weather seriously curtails this, and I am just not into being inside all the time. I am sure this winter I will be writing posts about how to overcome the winter blahs. I guess until then I should focus on the positives: a month left of actual summer, football season is starting (Go Bucks! Go Browns!), autumn will be here soon, Halloween is coming, Advent and Christmas are approaching, and so is my wedding anniversary. So hey, what’s not to like??

Above is a nice autumn photo to get us all thinking about that season