Non-SAD

I am a little too prone to use black humor to distance myself from the depressing effects of the long, cold darkness of winter, which sometimes leaves people worrying about me unnecessarily. So I thought I’d mention that despite a bit of anxiety over the inevitable turn of the seasons, my mood is currently pretty great.

Beyond just feeling good right now, I’m hopeful. Over the past decade I’ve been handling winters better and better.

The biggest factor, I think, is that I no longer have a job to lose, so I no longer get into the spiral where seasonal depression makes me less productive, making me anxious about losing my job, making me more depressed, making me even less productivity. Sadly, advising others to take advantage of this strategy is not very useful (although I do and will continue to support and advocate for either a citizen wage or a guaranteed job).

Putting early retirement aside as impractical for most people, I thought I’d briefly summarize my other current practices—mostly ordinary coping strategies—both as a reference for myself any time I start to feel my brain chemicals coming on, and perhaps as a resource for other people. Here’s what’s working for me:

  • Taking delight in things. In particular, I take delight in the opportunity to wear seasonally appropriate woollies. I also like to spend time in the Conservatory, go to art galleries or museums, listen to live music, and generally go on artist’s dates.
  • Getting plenty of exercise. Last winter I managed to get out for a run almost every week. As fall approaches I’m getting back to my lifting. (Here’s a great resource on the current science on using exercise to treat and prevent depression.)
  • Spending time in nature. I do that all summer, and it may be part of the reason that my mood is generally great in the summer. But I can do it in the winter too. (I don’t seem to have a post on this topic. I’ll be sure to write one this winter. In the meantime you can find various mentions by clicking on the vitamin N tag over on the sidebar.)
  • Light therapy. I’ve used my HappyLight™ for years, and it does seem to help. Getting outdoors anytime in the first couple of hours after dawn is probably even better—another thing I find easy to do in the summer that would probably help just as much in the winter.
  • Taking Vitamin D through the winter. The evidence for any benefit is scant, but even if it only helps through the placebo effect, it is at least a safe, cheap placebo. (There’s good evidence that people with high levels of vitamin D are healthier, but very little evidence that supplementing vitamin D makes people healthier. It could easily be purely associational—maybe more time spent outdoors both boosts vitamin D levels and makes people healthier and happier.)
  • Anything that boosts neurogenesis. That’s most of the things listed above, but lots of other things too, such as engaging in creative work. Also on the list are calorie restriction and adequate consumption of omega-3 fatty acids.

I have a few new possibilities up my sleeve:

  • There’s recent evidence that sauna bathing is dramatically effective at treating depression, probably through many mechanisms including the activation of heat-shock proteins. (One thing on my to-do list is finding a local fitness center or spa with a sauna and investigating the cost of a three or four month membership.)
  • Related to heat exposure is cold exposure, which activates many of the same protective proteins that heat exposure does. Cold exposure, of course, is trivially easy to achieve in the winter—just wear a coat or jacket one notch less warm than would be most comfortable.
  • Obviously sleep is very important, and with my Oura ring I’m tracking my own sleep carefully. This has already been helpful, and I’m hoping to be able to do more to improve my sleep (and thereby my mood) in the winter as well.

That’s what I’ve got at the moment, but I’m always on the lookout for things to alleviate seasonal depression.

2019-08-13 10:52

Went for a longish run at a nice easy pace. Felt good all the way through—good enough that I was going to add another half mile or so (by running around Dohme Park), only to have my knees abruptly say, “Nope. You have run the correct amount.” So I just stopped right there and came home. As I have started doing lately, I did this run in a fasted state (mumble mumble autophagy, mitophagy).

Doing hard things

I occasionally choose to do hard things.

In the book Own the Day, Own Your Life Aubry Marcus suggests making your brain chemistry work for you by creating small successes, especially early in the day: Decide that you’re going to do something, and then do it. Even a small thing—deciding to mediate for 5 minutes and then doing so—gives you a little dopamine hit. That makes you feel better immediately, and possibly for the rest of the day. More to the point, repeatedly achieving small successes like this gradually boosts your capability: You can decide to do harder things (get in your workout, go for a run, write 5 pages of your novel) and then do them.

In an episode of her Move Your DNA podcast, Katy Bowman juxtaposes the feeling of satisfaction that you get when you set yourself to do something that you know will be hard and then carry through all the way to completion, with the feeling of being comfortable, saying:

What we’re trying to create through comfort is like the synthetic version of what you get when you pass through those hoops.

Katy Bowman

I think there’s a lot of truth to that. It’s very satisfying to decide to do something that’s hard and then do that thing. It feels good. I’m not sure it feels good in the same way that sitting in a comfy chair feels good, but I think there is a connection. Sitting down feels really good after a long run when your legs are tired; sitting in a really comfy chair kinda feels like that, without the need to go for the long run first.

I occasionally do physically hard things. I’ve run several footraces, at distances up to 7.1 miles. I did a century bicycle ride. Jackie and I day-hiked the 33.4-mile Kal-Haven trail. And it’s very true: choosing to do a hard thing knowing that it will be hard, and then doing the whole thing even though it is hard, is very satisfying.

However, there’s another entirely legitimate perspective:

A sentence I read today in an outdoors magazine: “You are in danger of living a life so comfortable and soft that you will die without ever realizing your true potential.” Danger? Like, that’s my life goal. 😬First world folk are… interesting.

zeynep tufekci (@zeynep) January 13, 2019

She says that—but she also apparently reads outdoor magazines, so I suspect even she sees the value in doing hard things.

Oura ring warned me

For a week now, the forecast has been that yesterday would be the first really nice day of the season, and I had decided a week ago that I’d go for a long run.

I tried to set everything up for good readiness, with a medium run back on Monday (so it wouldn’t be too long between runs), and then ordinary amounts of walking on Tuesday through Friday.

However, it wasn’t to be. I felt weak and sluggish right from the start, and found that even just maintaining a slow pace required that I ramp up my heart rate as the run went along:

(All that stuff in the yellow is too high, which is basically the whole run. I kept it almost in the green for the first mile, but after that it was way too high the whole time. The tiny bit where it spiked up into the red at the end was when I was sprinting to the button to get a walk signal.)

I have to say that my Oura ring warned me that my readiness was only so-so yesterday:

The main negative contributors, from the Oura ring’s perspective, were a mediocre night’s sleep, and a slightly elevated resting heart rate—and in particular, a resting heart rate that took most of the night even to settle down to that slightly elevated level (the “recovery index” part):

Last night my sleep was much better:

But it didn’t lead to a much higher readiness today, because yesterday’s run, even though it was a pretty feeble effort, was enough to mean that today I should at least somewhat take it easy:

As it happens, I was pretty happy to do that. I got a reasonable amount of movement today, while nevertheless taking it pretty easy. Included in the day’s movement was the first bit of barefoot walking of the season. I also spent just a few minutes punching the heavy bag, mainly to get some photos for an Esperanto blog post on one aspect of my summer training plans.

Achievement unlocked: Winter running habit

Every year I try and fail to establish a winter running habit. This year I managed, and learned a bit about why I usually fail.

In my imagination, the key has always been to keep running through the fall. As it gradually gets chilly and then cold I’ll gradually adapt.

That never works.

The main reason it never works is that seasons don’t work like that. One gets frequent warm days in early fall, then infrequent warm days in late fall, and then at some point—identifiable only in retrospect—there’s a last warm day, which is then followed by months of winter weather.

But it’s even worse than that, perhaps especially so for people like me who don’t have a regular job. Since I have pretty complete control over my schedule, I’m able to get out for my runs whenever the weather is optimal. In the summer I can run in the morning or evening when it’s not too hot. In the fall I can gradually shift my runs toward mid-afternoon when it’s not too cold.

The upshot of that is that I’m never confronted by gradually cooler temperatures when I go out for my runs. Rather, I get to run when the conditions are perfect right up to the last day of perfect conditions. Of course, there are days when conditions are imperfect all day, but I can adapt by just shifting my run to the next day or the day after—a strategy which works fine right up until late fall, when all of a sudden conditions are imperfect every day.

This fall as usual I failed to establish a running habit. I ran into mid-September, and then quit running for two months. But somehow I managed to get started again in mid-November, and proceeded to get in 24 runs from then until April Fools Day. Why this year and not other years? The answer comes out of looking at the reasons why I don’t run in the winter: Cold, dark, and ice.

For ice I have to chalk this success up largely to luck. We had an ordinary amount of snow this year, but the size of each snowstorm and the timing of warm and sunny bits after snowstorms meant that it was rarely more than a week or so before the sidewalks were clear enough that I could get out for a run. (In my running log I only spot five weeks with no running, and only one spot where two of those weeks are consecutive.)

For dark the credit goes back to my not having a regular job. There’s no boss expecting me to spend my daylight hours sitting at a desk. I can run whenever I want.

So it comes down largely to cold.

I have always been of the opinion that dealing with cold is just a matter of having the right gear, and I had some of it—a pair of very warm tights, a half-zip capilene top, some sweat pants, some mock-Ts, some sweatshirts, a silk baselayer, and a bright-red buff with reflecty bits.

To this I gradually added a machine-washable merino wool hat in high-viz yellow, a pair of high-viz yellow gloves, and a pair of lighter-weight tights suitable for wearing in moderate cold.

That little burst of consumerism turned out to be highly effective. First, it meant that I had the right clothes for the conditions, from pretty cold up to just barely too cold for shorts and a t-shirt. Second, because I wanted to give my new gear a try, I got out for at least three (probably more like six) runs that I’d otherwise have skipped, just because I wanted to wear my new tights or my new hat.

And so, for the first time since 2004 I have come into spring with a running base that prepares me for serious training right off the bat. I can comfortably run 10k, so I could compete in any 5k or 10k race this spring. I could easily be in shape for the 7.1-mile Lake Mingo Trail Race in early June. I’m probably within striking distance of being in shape for a half-marathon (although not the Illinois Marathon half-marathon in less than three weeks).

Mainly though, I’m in shape to just keep running on through the spring and summer. And maybe, just maybe, next fall.

Behold a gallery of running-related images from the winter, most of which were shared to my twitter feed sometime along the way:

Hang out with healthy biomes

Everybody knows that you come to be like the people you hang out with, and most people understand that you can take advantage of this to improve your life. If you want to be more productive, hang out with productive people. If you want to be an intellectual, hang out with intellectuals. If you want to be healthy, hang out with healthy people.

I rather suspect this last is something hardwired in our brains, probably explaining part of the stigma faced by people who are disabled or disfigured. Probably strongly selected for in circumstances where infectious disease is a major cause of mortality.

I have always assumed that this is primarily mediated by lifestyle, with the shift largely produced by adopting pieces of the lifestyles of the people you hang out with. Hanging out with people who read a lot normalizes reading a lot. Hanging out with runners normalizes taking up running.

It should have been obvious—maybe it is obvious to everybody else—but it only recently occurred to me that a large part of this may well be mediated by microbiomes.

Your microbiome will shift to converge with the microbiome of people you hang out with. (Of course, theirs will also shift to converge with yours.) If you share meals with someone, your intestinal microbiome with shift toward theirs—probably more so and more quickly if you share a kitchen, utensils, or food prep tasks, and probably more so yet if you share a bathroom. If you share a touch with someone, your skin microbiome will shift—again, more so and more quickly if you share a bed with them.

Actually, an anecdote on this last: When I met Jackie she had a fungal infection of the skin that she’d picked up in India, and that had persisted for years. She treated it with tolnaftate, which worked adequately to knock it down when it became annoying, but had not cleared it up, either in India or after she came home. However, a few years after we got married I noticed that it seemed to be gone. With no evidence whatsoever, I’m inclined to take credit for this, figuring that my skin microbiome contributed useful organisms that her skin microbiome integrated in a way that eventually let it displace the fungal organisms.

So far, all the efforts to find an “optimal” microbiome have foundered, probably because the problem is intractably complex, being inextricably connected with the genes of the host, multi-generational epigenetic history, the immune system (and its lifetime history of chemical and biological insults), along with all the obvious factors—what organisms initially seeded the microbiome, history of antibiotic use, diet, etc.

Because of that, I’m much less interested now in interventions such as probiotics. More and more I’m inclined to prefer what used to be pretty obvious: Trust your immune system to cultivate a healthy microbiome (and hang out with healthy people to give it a little extra to work with).

Sleeping with my Oura ring: Body temperature

As a big ol’ data geek, I’m by default interested in any metrics that I can get, especially ones related to me.

One of the metrics tracked by the Oura ring is body temperature, which is a metric don’t normally pay much attention to unless I think I might be sick, and I haven’t wanted to get sick just to explore this feature of the Oura ring. But a couple of days ago I did something much better: I got my shingles vaccination.

(I’ve been trying to get my shingles vaccination for months now, since they changed the recommended age from 60 to 50 and my insurance company started covering it for young folks like me. But with all the younger boomers thinking the same thing, the vaccine became scarce. Jackie and I finally tracked down shots last week.)

My immune system viewed the shot as something of a stern challenge, and sure enough my body temperature became elevated. In the graph below observe the last three data points, which show a spike to 0.7℉ above my baseline, followed by a 0.6℉ elevation the second night. Last night was only 0.3℉ above the baseline and back down in the normal range. (Near the middle you can see another spike to 0.7℉ above baseline followed by a negative deviation of a similar amount. That excursion was, I think, related to life stress.)

Graph of body temp, ending with a sharp spike gradually returning toward normal
My average nighttime body temperature deviation from baseline for February 10 to March 16 2019.

Observing that I was under some stress, the ring has been advising me to take it easy for the past couple of days. Knowing that the stress in question was a healthy one, I didn’t take the warning too seriously. The weather was nice the day after the shot, so I went out for a run, despite my ring’s advice.

Despite disregarding that particular day’s advice, I’ve actually been paying rather close attention to the ring’s indications as to my readiness. For example yesterday, when my body temperature and other factors suggested that I was still not recovered, I did take it easy—and I have been rewarded with an excellent night’s sleep and a moderately high readiness score for today:

Sleep panel from Oura ring dashboard.

Perhaps today will be a good day for a long walk. By the middle of the week we’ll have some more excellent running weather, and hopefully I’ll be ready for it.

Movement in 2018

This year’s review of my movement practice will be a bit less detail-oriented than last year’s, when I included a long list of exercises, and a long list of non-exercise movement that I’d engaged in over the year. This year I exercised a bit less and moved a bit more, and came to a balance that I’m pretty happy with—that I don’t feel much urge to analyze.

I continued the winter exercise regimen that I described a year ago for the rest of the winter, but then let most of it go in favor of less-structured movement. As I say, I’m pretty happy with what I ended up doing, although the result was a decline in some of the strength increases I’d made.

Summer included a lot of solo walking (mostly in natural areas very close to home) and a lot of walking with Jackie (in a wide range of environments, including natural areas somewhat further afield).

One major piece of our walking was our big trip to Utah, where we got in plenty of hikes in Bryce Canyon, Zion Canyon, and Arches. (See image at top.) The length of any particular hike was nothing to write home about (although we did write home a bit), but the ruggedness—and especially the steepness—made the hikes very different from anything we manage at home.

Basically, summer was great—lots of time spent in the sun, lots of walking, lots of time spent with my sweetie, lots of time spent alone.

As summer transitioned to fall, I had the same problems I usually do, perhaps slightly worse this year than average because the transition seemed more abrupt, with early fall being unusually cold. Happily, late fall was no worse than early fall, and what was unusually cold for early fall is actually rather mild for early winter.

One thing I have done this fall is get back to running. In the past I’ve always meant to establish a running habit that I can carry forward into the cold months, and I have nearly always failed. This year, so far, I’m doing okay, getting in a couple of runs a week, with long runs of 5 miles or more. With just a little luck (not too icy, not too much bitter cold) I’ll be able to carry a lot more aerobic fitness into the spring than I usually manage. That would make it possible to do a spring running event, if I want.

I’ve had very good luck this year on the injury front, managing to stay healthy though the whole year.

I still teach taiji, both the beginners class and a class for continuing students, and it remains rewarding it all the ways it has been—physically (I get my own taiji in), mentally/emotionally (I get my meditation in), socially (I gather with a group of friends several times a week), and financially (admittedly in a small way).

Looking ahead, I’m rather inclined to stick with a movement focus, spending more time doing stuff (moving) and less time preparing to do stuff (exercising).