Using Your Breath to Beat the Winter Blues

By | January 12, 2022

Matthew Fellner, DACM, L.Ac.

Now that it’s January and winter is in full swing, most people begin to notice the doldrums of shorter days and cold, snowy weather.  For many people the winter blues are bad enough to cause SAD or seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression that is triggered by excessive darkness, inclement weather, or any factors that restrict activity and exposure to the outdoors.

Although there is no specific known cause for SAD, it appears to mainly to be related to 3 factors:

1Circadian Rhythm – The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
2. Serotonin Levels – A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
3. Melatonin Levels –  The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

What can be done to offset this natural response to the season? It is first important to realize that our bodies can only make energy 2 ways; through eating and breathing. Eating provides us with the building blocks necessary to do physical work, while breathing oxygenates the brain and stimulates the more subtle mental energy necessary for emotions and mood stabilization.  

Exercise does not give you energy, it merely circulates it. Remember, it takes energy to move energy. Sleep and meditation conserves energy so you don’t deplete what you already have.

So, how does this apply to SAD and the winter blues? In the winter we tend to be less active but we rarely adjust our eating habits. Although eating increases physical energy, we are reducing our need for that fuel. This causes metabolism to slow down leading to the inherent weight gain and feelings of lethargy. And since we are less physically active and spending more time indoors, we have a tendency to stimulate our brains more through reading, watching TV, browsing the internet, thus depleting our mental energy.  This combination of physical lethargy and mental fatigue can easily lead to depression.

But practicing a very simple breathing technique can really help offset some the natural imbalance that causes SAD. Our brain cells use anywhere from 15-20 times the amount of oxygen of any other cell in the body! Imagine how beneficial it could be for your mood and spirits if you spent a few minutes every day recharging your brain. It’s very easy and safe for anybody to try.

The Technique

This exercise is always most beneficial if it is done outside in a clean environment, preferably surrounded by trees or greenery. Obviously in the middle of winter that may not be possible, so you can do it inside but I highly recommend opening a window a crack for fresh air.

1. Sit comfortably or even lie down.

2. Inhale gently through the nose and imagine every part of your lungs filling with air. DO NOT strain. This needs to be relaxed. Imagine all of the surface area expanding and opening to the surface.

3. DO NOT hold your breath.

4. Gently exhale through the nose, keeping the breath as quiet as possible. The less sound you make the more relaxed you are.

5. When all the air is exhaled simply hold for a few seconds before inhaling again. This centers your mind and prevents hyperventilation.

6. Repeat 8-12 times. This can be done multiple times throughout the day but is most powerful at sunrise and sunset.

Try it for 2 weeks and you’ll feel more clarity mentally refreshed!

In addition, if you combine this regular breathing exercise with Acupuncture, it will become significantly more effective.  Acupuncture has been proven to regulate the levels of Serotonin and effect Circadian rhythms, 2 of the 3 most crucial factors in causing SAD.  The Eastern student clinic is the best place to begin your acupuncture journey, so make your appointment and start feeling better.

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