We Asked an Expert: How to Beat the Weather Blues

The sun may be out but it’s spring, and it’s still cold. What do we do?

03.21.16
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Hello and welcome to spring. A few questions, though: WHY IS IT STILL COLD? WHEN WILL IT END? WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO WHEN IT’S RAINY?

A meteorologist or Al Roker may have the answers to the first two q’s. But when it comes to solutions for the third, we asked Dr. Silvia Bernardi, a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at Columbia University who specializes in mood disorders, to clear things up. Use her answers below to prep you for the next crappy day.

Cold, wet, gray weather makes me blue. It’s miserable, I’m miserable. What do I do?

Dr. Bernardi: There are several holistic remedies that you can adopt to prevent or fight seasonal blues if you know you are prone to it, for example:

1) Change your nutritional status. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. If you have a meat-based diet and you were my patient, I would ask that you eat less meat because it tends to produce more depressive states.

Craving carbohydrates is common if you’re experiencing the winter blues. There’s nothing bad about eating carbs; it may be good to reward yourself every once in a while. Also, foods high in carbohydrates, like pasta, are rich in tryptophan, the amino acid that is the building block of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which helps us relax and regulate our homeostasis.

What’s important is to not binge, or you will have a “sugar crash.”

2) Have your general practitioner check the following and prescribe supplements where you’re lacking:

-Your Vitamin D levels.
-Your chemical status in terms of minerals and salt in your blood.
-Your thyroid, which is very linked to mood
-Your sex hormones: FSH, LH, progesterone, which can also can be linked to your mood

3) Keep a log of your hourly variations in energy and mood. Log your sleep and food intake and look for patterns and effects of sleep and energy. I use a Fitbit bracelet to monitor my sleep quality and keep that log online without having to manually enter the hours. I also log my food intake through an app that allows me to scan my food and automatically upload the nutritional content. There are many, but I like My Fitness Pal.

4) Exercise. Establish when the best time for you to exercise is, which is based on your circadian rhythm. There’s actually a questionnaire online (which you can find here) that establishes your sleep metabolism and tells you when is best to go to sleep, what your recommended number of hours are and when is exercise better situated in regards to your “homeostatic” body schedule. It also tells you when light therapy is best for you. Speaking of…

5) Ask your doctor about light therapy. Thirty minutes of bright light therapy a day signals springtime to your nervous system, helping you to regulate your sleep phase, which will help your mood by regulating your hormonal status. A light therapy box is about $150 and you can buy online.

– Make sure the light is 10,000 lux of white light.

– Place the box at a 30 degree angle facing your eyes.

– Use it in the morning, not at night, or it will keep you up!

6) Sleep — I know you’ve heard this one before. Each person needs a specific number of hours to feel good. This is why observing your patterns is important. If you have problems sleeping, talk to your primary care physician who can recommend a melatonin supplement.

Melatonin is a hormone that gets produced naturally during sleep by your body. You can take it in mini-doses (< 1 mg) and simulate your body production of melatonin to help you go to sleep earlier, or you can take it in big doses (3 mg) to induce sleep right away. It’s over the counter, you don’t need a prescription, but it’s good to be monitored by a doctor.

What about Drinking? Avoid completely?

Dr. Bernardi: Drink only in moderation. There is some scientific evidence that a glass of red wine every three or four days can be good for you. It contains a high level of Resveratrol, which is an antioxidant that works on cellular and DNA levels.

Note: an excess of alcohol is never healthy, though.

When should you seek professional help?

Dr. Bernardi: Therapy is recommended if you don’t like what you are seeing or what you are doing or the way you are behaving. In that case, consult with someone and then look for recommendations. The answer will not be necessarily medications.

When it comes to depression, always consult a professional. Do not diagnose yourself. If you can’t get yourself to do the things you normally do, if you are not functioning, if your relationships are falling apart, if you are becoming increasingly irritable — those are all good reasons to go see a therapist or a doctor. If you are thinking of harming yourself, it is mandatory that you get help immediately.

If you want to consult a professional within your insurance network, call your insurance company’s customer service and ask them for a referral. Another great resource finding therapists and psychiatrists is PsychologyToday.com.

***If you feel like harming yourself or somebody else, if you feel suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention hotline, in service 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Dial: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) 

Dr. Bernardi is a graduate of the University of Florence, Italy. She completed her residency in psychiatry at Columbia University where she is currently and attending physician, conducting her research studies and teaching. She also has a private practice located in Manhattan’s Upper West Side where she can translate what she learns from science into practice and help people live a better life. You can visit her website here. 

Collage/illustration by Emily Zirimis. 

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  • I took the test. Apparently I should start morning light therapy at 6:15am and go to bed at 11:30pm. I can definitely tell that I am awake in bed for quite a bit of time before I actually fall asleep. However, if I got up at 6:15am I would miss my train and thus be late for work. Kind of sucks, but my work is forcing me to be a super early person 🙁

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  • I hate NYC winters more and more every year. I can’t stand the cold and I can never wear enough layers. The city is gray and dirty and I miss doing things outside.

    One thing I would recommend is running outside. (It helps if you already run on a treadmill or in warm weather.) Yes, it will really suck at first. Yes, your lungs will initially burn. Yes, you will be cold and hot the same time. But it’s also immensely rewarding afterward and helped me acclimate to the weather. People are also very impressed when you mention it during small talk.