Endorphins 101: Sunlight, Sex and Exercise

If you are one of the 4-6% of Americans who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or one of the 10-20% with mild S.A.D. (American Academy of Family Physicians), you already know that October can be a scary time.

Whether or not you’ve ever received a diagnosis of S.A.D., chances are you’ve felt a touch of the “winter blues” before and are aware of some changes in your mood and energy. As the hours of sunlight decrease and temperatures drop, many people begin to experience some malaise, sleepiness, carbohydrate cravings and other symptoms of depression. For those who live in Northern latitudes, rates of S.A.D. are significantly higher (Rosen et. al., Psychiatry Research, Vol 31, Iss 2, February 1990).

As I write this from the Philadelphia suburbs on the precipice of true fall weather, a mild sense of dread overcomes me. I already miss days in the ocean, paddle boarding at Marsh Creek, and cooking out with friends. Winter changes our lifestyle, and those feel-good pursuits seem so far away once we’ve packed up the flip-flops for the season.

The good news is, while our lifestyle may change for the winter months, we still have plenty of opportunities to generate those summer feelings year-round.

Endorphins- a group of hormones that act as neurotransmitters, sending signals in the brain- are a key factor in maintaining feelings of happiness and calm. The body is complex, as is the psyche, and there is no “magic bullet” for happiness. But if you create a winter routine that incorporates endorphin-boosting activities, and pair that with solid nutrition and good rest, you will fare much better.

The best part? Endorphins are free, don’t require a prescription, and you don’t even need health insurance to access them.

Below are three ways to boost your endorphins this winter:

  1. Sunlight. While the optimal amount of sun exposure varies by region, skin type and other factors, research points to many benefits of daily sunlight, including decreased susceptibility to disease and stronger bones (Mead, Environ Health Perspectives. 2008 Apr; 116(4): A160–A167). Hours of daily winter sunlight are minimal in our region. It becomes more difficult- and more critical- to get some daily exposure to the sun. A mid-day walk is probably your best bet if you work, because the sun may not even be out before you go to work or when you get home. On the weekends, consider a hike, some gardening or winter yard work, a nature walk with friends, or a stroll around the neighborhood with your dog. Light therapy lamps are another option, and have shown significant impact on symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, but please discuss with your physician first. Light therapy lamps can be dangerous for people with bipolar disorder and people taking certain medications, and may have contraindications.
  2. Sex. Consensual sex in a safe context can trigger a flood of endorphins and other internal chemicals that create feelings of calm, happiness and bliss. Truth, though: Mid-winter, most people feel less than sexy. It can be tough to work up “the mood” when you’re cold, run-down and sleepy. I propose that you consider sex (or self-love  ) an integral part of your self-care plan, and commit to it with the discipline you’d apply to your work out schedule, your bill-paying routine or your grocery shopping. No one wants to feel like sex is a chore, but like so many things that are good for us, sometimes we just have to plan for it to make it happen. Have you ever felt like you were “not in the mood” to workout, but worked out anyway? And did you ever regret that you did?
  3. Exercise. Exercise can reduce stress, improve sleep, and increase immune function, much of which can be attributed to endorphins. If you get winter aches and pains, exercise is one of your best bets to combat them, as the benefits of increased mobility paired with the pain-relieving properties of endorphins can make you feel like a new person. You might be rolling your eyes right now, as so many sources spout exercise as a panacea for what ails you, and you’re still trying to figure out, “When can I fit it in?!” I have to be honest: I struggle with that daily. We get a lot of advice to create a routine, to get to bed earlier, to schedule it in as a commitment, but when life happens (and when that life happens to include a child and a full-time job), it is quite literally not the most urgent priority. What works for me right now is wearing a FitBit and aiming for more than 10,000 steps daily. This means lots of funny-looking bursts of walking in circles around my office during the day, and it means walking to the bank at my lunch break, or going downstairs to talk to a coworker. It is hard to fit it in. But I feel the difference, and I have to encourage you to try your hardest to make a plan that works for you. Because exercise is just that good for us. (*Caveat: There is such thing as too much of a good thing, and as a former eating disorder professional I can attest to the dangers of over-exercise. How do you know when enough is enough? If you’re in regular pain from exercise, if you prioritize exercise over work or family commitments, if loved ones have expressed concern or if you “freak out” when your exercise routine is interrupted or derailed, it may be time to talk to a professional. Please be safe.)

If you want to incorporate more mood-boosting habits, you might also consider meditation, massage, hearty laughter, sniffing vanilla and savoring a piece of dark chocolate.

You’re welcome.

 

 

Me Time: Self Care Beyond the Bubble Bath

Recently, in a desperate craving for some semblance of peace and normalcy amidst a particularly chaotic September,  I signed up for a “self-care” email series.

When the first email arrived, suggesting readers take more bubble baths with scented epsom salt, my jaw dropped, and my heart did a bit, too.

Scented epsom salt baths are lovely, as a form of relaxation and pampering.

But for a self-care proponent to suggest, as a first level intervention, something as simplistic as a warm bath seems almost irresponsible. Allow me to explain.

For generations, women’s magazines and self-help books have presented bubble baths as the epitome of home-based self-care. A “mini spa retreat” with scented products and 20 minutes of peace and quiet is proposed as an, “easy and inexpensive!” way to practice self care.

In reality, this type of pampering or relaxation barely scratches the surface of a truly effective self care approach. A full-blown spa day barely scratches the surface.

Pampering and relaxation are a component of self-care, but I would argue that they are the least important parts. Pampering may be the icing on the cake of a self-care approach, but no amount of pampering in the world will make someone who is stressed and dissatisfied with life feel content.

In psychological research, self-care is often researched from the lens of preventing provider burnout- “healer heal thyself.” Doctoral students and clinicians are reminded to incorporate practices that keep them feeling stable and healthy while providing care to others. These suggestions often include some of the relaxation and pampering interventions I mentioned, but they go beyond that. The suggestions for clinicians include setting boundaries, managing one’s own health, disconnecting from work and other holistic interventions that go beyond the bubble bath.

There are implications for this truly integrated, systemic form of self care that everyone should understand.

Self-care, to me, is about being a steward of the life you were given. It means respecting and caring for your body, mind and soul, as if you were your own loving parent. Self-care includes building habits that create a life that makes you feel blessed.

Self-care to me, is:

-Choosing your own priorities

-Standing up for yourself

-Maintaining boundaries

-Hydrating

-Eating nutritious foods

-Keeping your body active (active enough; but not over-exerting your body on a regular basis)

-Saying “no” when you mean no

-Aligning your resources with your values- spending your time, money and energy on the things that truly matter to you (so many “self-care” articles will urge you to buy things to “treat yourself.” This backfires in a big way if debt or financial instability are a concern for you.)

-Living within your means

-Speaking your truth and

-Maintaining your privacy

-Doing work you love

-Going to therapy

-Incorporating a spiritual practice

-Creating regularly

-Taking care of your living things (be they children, pets or plants)

-Resting. As often as you need to.

-Unplugging

-Unapologetically claiming your life as your own, without the pressure of trying to please everyone

Please don’t read this and create a giant “to do” list for yourself. Instead, see it as a way to incorporate sustainable changes in your approach to how you care for yourself. From the suggestions above, if you were to select 2-3 to really commit to and focus on, you’d find yourself experiencing life in a different way.

Adult Children of Alcoholics, a 12-step program for adults who were raised in dysfunctional families, urges members to, “become your own loving parent.”

To me, that’s the crux of self-care.

Regard yourself as you regard those you love, and set your own health and wellness as a non-negotiable priority. Throw in a bubble bath here and there, and then come back and report on what’s working and where you’re stuck.

Thanks for reading!