As the days get shorter and temperatures drop, it’s not uncommon to fall into a seasonal slump. Similar to the role environmental cues play in controlling seasonal breeding and hibernation in animals, natural changes in our surroundings are also often biologically felt by humans. Appropriately nicknamed SAD, seasonal affective disorder can leave us feeling tired, anxious, and even depressed. While some of us may never be affected, millions of people suffer from varying degrees of the winter blues each year.
Fortunately, there are a lot of simple, yet effective, things we can do to help nurture a positive response to darker days and colder temps. Understanding the causes of SAD enables us to first and foremost recognize what our body is going through. This awareness gives us an opportunity to appropriately tweak our habits in a way that lessons the effects we’d otherwise feel bogged down by.
From foods that make you happy to lighting tricks, helpful supplements to healthy lifestyle choices, here’s how you can beat the winter blues.
What Causes the Winter Blues and SAD?
While the exact cause of this condition is unknown, one of the most scientifically supported theories suggests winter seasonal affective disorder is triggered by two major factors: decreased availability of sunlight, and a person’s unique vulnerability.
Our exposure to sunlight is most impacted by the changing seasons, with the biggest loss in fall and winter. Vulnerability, on the other hand, is measured both externally and internally, with geography, genetics, and individual brain chemistry being the biggest determinants as to how susceptible (if at all) we are to catching a bout of the winter blues.
There is a less common type of SAD, known as summer depression, that usually begins in the late spring or early summer. This article, however, will only focus on SAD associated with the fall and winter months.
How Common are the Winter Blues?
Approximately 10 to 20% of Americans are affected with a mild to moderate form of the winter blues. About half a million people in US suffer from a more intense condition, clinically diagnosed as SAD. It’s estimated that three-quarters of the sufferers are women.
There are also several known risk factors that increase an individual’s chance of developing SAD. These include people who live far north or south of the equator, as well as those with a family history of other types of depression. Females between the ages of 18 - 30 have also been linked to higher rates of SAD, with studies showing the condition to be four times more common in women than in men.
Symptoms of Winter Blues & SAD
Lack of sunlight, a primary trigger of winter SAD, causes a shift in our circadian rhythm (a.k.a. our internal body clock). This disruption negatively affects our mood and sleep quality by throwing hormone regulation out of whack in two major ways:
1. Increased melatonin levels
As the sun begins to set and darkness rolls in, your body naturally produces melatonin - a brain chemical that tells your body it’s time for sleep. During the winter months, when days get shorter and darker, the body can start producing more melatonin at inappropriate times. This can leave you feeling tired and lethargic during daytime hours, hindering mood and productivity.
2. Decreased serotonin levels
Vitamin D is believed to play a vital role in regulating serotonin levels. Much of the vitamin D we get is from the sun. Less sunlight can lead to a deficiency in vitamin D, causing serotonin levels to drop. Serotonin is the brain chemical associated with feeling happy - low levels have a direct impact on our mood, and can leave us feeling bummed out and even bring on symptoms of depression.
While not everybody exhibits the same symptoms, those most commonly associated with the winter blues include:
- A drop in energy level
- Tendency to oversleep
- Trouble falling asleep
- A heavy feeling in the arms or legs
- A change in appetite
- Feelings of sadness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Decreased desire to socialize
In more severe cases of SAD, symptoms will often appear with much more intensity.
How to Beat the Winter Blues
1. Brighten your Environment
Light is an excellent way to up your mood during the drabbier, darker months. Illuminate your house or apartment with bright decor, switch out dark bedding for white blankets and bedspreads, place light colored rugs over dull carpet or wood floors, and utilize wall mirrors to bounce light off throughout your living space. Swapping out your bulbs for ones with a higher wattage is another great winter habit. (While regular bulbs won’t provide the health benefits of those designed specifically for light therapy, they’ll still have a positive effect on your ambiance and mood.)
For those susceptible to more intense bouts of winter blues and SAD, light therapy has been shown to have wonderful results in boosting mood. Sunbox has a great line of winter depression light bulbs and lamps. Place them on your desk while you work, or at the kitchen table where you have your breakfast.
While upping light exposure during the daytime hours is important, it’s just as imperative that we’re conscious of our night time exposure - which mainly consists of blue light emitted from the screens on our phones and other electronics. Downloading a light filter to use in the evenings, such as f.lux, will help ensure your body produces the melatonin it needs to ease your body into a good night’s sleep.
2. Eat a Diet Rich in Omega 3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids have been praised for the positive effects they have on the body and brain. One of the most studied nutrients, research has found people who regularly consume omega-3s to be less likely to become depressed than those who don’t. One study even shows omega-3s to be as effective of a treatment for depression and anxiety as common antidepressant drugs.
Of the three types of omega-3 fatty acids, ALA, EPA and DHA, EPA is believed to be the best at fighting depression. Omega-3s can either be consumed in the foods we eat, or in the form of supplements. While fish oil is perhaps the most widely known omega-3 supplement, algal oil is a great vegetarian option that comes from algae.
Omega-3 rich foods for winter blues include:
- Chia seeds
- Perilla oil
- Soybean oil
- Kidney beans
- Brussel sprouts
- Hemp seed
3. Get Plenty of Vitamin D and Vitamin B12
We get most of our vitamin D in the form of UV-B light from the sun. During the winter, however, it’s not uncommon to leave for work before the sun rises, and return after the sun has already set. This drastic decrease in our interaction with sunlight leaves many of us deficient in vitamin D during and after the winter months. Vital for bone health, muscle function and keeping our immune system strong, deficiency symptoms can often go undetected. Incorporating a vitamin D3 supplement into your daily routine is a great way to proactively prevent your levels from dipping.
In general, it’s advisable to start supplementing vitamin D for winter blues in October, all the way through April. However, it’s always a good idea to consult your physician before introducing a new supplement into your regime. Also, keep in mind that vitamin D is fat soluble. Take your vitamin with a slice of avocado toast, a spoonful of peanut butter, or any snack or meal that contains healthy fats.
If you prefer to get your vitamin D from food sources, enrich your diet with these great, nutrient-dense options:
- Fortified soy milk and almond milk
- Fortified cereals
- Fortified orange juice
- Mushrooms (portobello, maitake, and chanterelle)
- Egg yolks
B-Complex vitamins play a vital role in helping the body convert proteins into serotonin and dopamine - the neurotransmitters responsible for boosting our mood and energy levels. These feel-good chemicals also help the body respond better to stress. While a change in season won’t necessarily have any direct affect on your levels, studies have shown B vitamins to be beneficial for treating mental health issues, with vitamin B6, B9 (folic acid) and B12 linked specifically to helping depression. Increasing your intake during the winter will help you beat the winter blues.
In general, natural sources of B12 are only found in animal products, such as meat, poultry, eggs and dairy. While plant and algae based foods, like miso, shoyu, seaweed, tempeh and certain types of mushrooms, do contain small traces of B vitamins - they are not reliable sources and are not absorbed by the body.
For vegetarians and vegans, B12 supplements and fortified foods are an excellent option. (In these sources, the vitamin B12 component is produced by bacteria and sourced from bacteria cultures, not animals.)
Recommended B-vitamin fortified foods include:
- Non-dairy milks
- Nutritional yeast
- Meat substitutes
4. Be Active
It’s easy to look out your window, catch a glimpse of the iced pavement, and lose all motivation to leave the comfort of your warm and cozy house. But staying active is a vital part of keeping those healthy dopamine juices flowing! While it might be too cold to walk, bike, or run outside - exercise is one of the most powerful mood boosters. Whether you’re doing intervals in your hallway or vinyasa flows in your living room, come up with some indoor exercises to keep you moving and happy.
5. Listen to Music
Add some tunes to your workout and you’ve got yourself an even stronger recipe for a healthy, happy mindset. Studies show listening to music is another healthy habit linked to dopamine production! Listen to music during your commute to work, while relaxing at home, or before you fall asleep for some healthy winter blues therapy.
6. Sip on Turmeric Tea
Used as a medicinal herb in India for over thousands of years, turmeric is one of those magical superfoods. Offering a plethora of benefits, this flowering plant of the ginger family contains a potent antioxidant called curcumin - the plant’s most beneficial component. It acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory, improves brain function and memory, lowers risk of heart disease, can prevent and treat Alzheimer’s disease, and boosts the activity of your body's own antioxidant enzymes. It also treats depression by boosting brain-derived neurotrophic factor levels. (Depression is linked to reduced levels of BDNF.) There’s even evidence of curcumin boosting the brain neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine - the ‘feel good’ chemicals.
A natural mood booster, turmeric tea is the perfect warm beverage to sip on during the winter months. It’s also great for promoting healthy sleep - so try working this beneficial beverage into your bedtime routine. While you can tweak the ingredients to suit your taste, you can use my favorite concoction as a starting point.
- 1 cup almond milk
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 1 teaspoon honey
** Consuming turmeric with black pepper enhances the absorption of curcumin by 2,000%!
Simply heat the almond milk in a small saucepan, adding the spices as soon as the milk begins to warm (before it’s hot). Once it’s simmered a bit and reached your desired temperature, pour in mug and add honey to taste.
7. Talk it Out
It’s never good to bottle up your emotions, especially during times when we’re more susceptible to falling in a slump. Don’t let the winter blues discourage you from being social, or cause you to retreat. Reach out to friends and family, have healthy conversations, and don’t be afraid to seek support from a professional when you’re feeling low. A solid heart to heart can do wonders when it comes to cheering up a melancholy mood. Plus, you never know - someone in your life may also be going through the winter lulls. Striking up conversations about SAD is great way to offer and receive support from your loved ones.