Winters in the north aren’t just about combating bad roads, ski trips, snuggly fires, and yummy soups. It can also be a war zone for those who are impacted by the shorter days, early shadows, cloudy skies and mood swings – ultimately gearing up for inevitable bouts of depression also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or the winter blues.
SAD can be debilitating and is described by the National Institute of Mental Health as a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons. Usually starting in the late fall and early winter and typically going away in the spring and summer (although SAD has been reported during the spring and summer months as well). It’s important to note that SAD is not a separate disorder. It is in fact a form of depression, but in order to be diagnosed with this condition, full criteria for major depression that coincides with the seasons for at least two years must be met. Symptoms of Winter Pattern SAD include: low energy, overeating, weight gain, craving for carbohydrates, and social withdrawal. Interestingly, women are four times more likely to be diagnosed than men.
However, one does not need to be diagnosed with depression or SAD to feel moody, down, unmotivated, and/or irritable in the fall and winter months and there are many mindful interventions that someone could incorporate into their daily lifestyle to boost their mood.
We are going to dive into 5 ways you can take matters into your own hands this winter season by using effective, natural approaches to managing the winter blues.
Cook with seasonal foods Personally, once cooler weather rolls around I have a hard time eating a salad when, in the warmer months, my body would crave it. My body shifts into grounding mode where squashes, apples, and potatoes literally take up every square inch of my kitchen counters. I can’t wait to make soups and stews and roasted veggies and herbal teas. But there’s a reason for this. Eating locally grown, seasonal foods will help you live in harmony with yourself, your body and the earth. As the colder months, and shorter days, approach we want to look for ways to ground our bodies, to make them more sturdy and like the animals, feel like we are insulating ourselves. We won’t get that from salads, summer foods, cooling fruits or light leafy greens. We need to intentionally seek out what’s in season where we live (which can sometimes be a challenge when shopping in a grocery store!).
Here is a rough guide for what’s in season in the fall and winter months where I live in Pennsylvania:Apples
Celeriac/ Celery Root
(acorn, butternut, delicata, hubbard, kabocha, etc.)
Now for a moment, I want you to observe and notice where many of the food items on that list grow. For example all the squashes and pumpkin, etc., grow pretty much level with the ground. Root vegetables, grow into the ground and absorb the nutrients from the soil. These vegetables, when eaten, give us a certain energy and can impact our food-mood connection. Squash and gourds help to balance mood and energy and root vegetables are great for grounding us when we feel overstimulated or anxious.
On a side note, eating a little protein at each meal will help to stabilize blood sugar, which will ultimately help you balance out mood swings and fatigue. Whole foods and protein also build up the molecules needed for your body to create brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, which affect how we think and feel.
If eaten daily, the foods listed above could help to improve your mood over the coming months whether you’ve been diagnosed with depression or SAD or not, simply because you’d be supporting your mood with “brain nutrients” needed for proper production of those neurotransmitters mentioned earlier. Without adequate levels of these brain chemicals, dips in mood and energy will most likely appear.
Here’s a link to my favorite food blogging site where you can search by season! It’s brilliant and Jeanine’s recipes are some of the best out there!
This might seem like a no brainer, but regular exercise is very effective at helping to stabilize moods and combat depression. However, this is a long term game instead of a quick fix. Exercise does help to increase endorphins in the brain, which increases mood and outlook, something you may have felt yourself, but the real value comes in a longer term relationship with exercise and its impact on depression. SAD should start to lift after a few weeks of consistent exercise for those with mild to moderate depression, so starting and maintaining a regular routine prior to winter hitting is the key. To begin, just start with something you love doing so that you’ll keep doing it. Personally, I have found that 20 minutes of yoga early in the morning with something a bit higher intensity (brisk walking, water rowing, biking) in the afternoon is the cocktail that really works for me. You’ll find what works for you once you get started, but aim for at least 30 minutes of movement per day.
Get more light
Ask most people and they’ll tell you they feel a little bit more alive during the spring and summer months. Longer daylight hours, warmer weather, and the ability to get outside more makes a big difference. It makes sense then that exposure to more light in the winter may help combat the winter blues, which numerous studies (*completed at various times throughout the year, not just winter months) have supported.
- Take advantage of natural sunlight and go on walks outside, if possible
- Give light therapy a try. Most effective doses are light lamps emitting at 10,000 lux units of light for about 30 minutes in the morning and has been shown to be as effective as taking antidepressants (without long term side effects). *Although some short term side effects (usually gone within two days of starting treatment) were noted such as headaches, nausea, and agitation. There are many options available online.
Get in your Omega-3 essential fats
Omega-3 fatty acid deficiency can lead to depression (as can many other things like anemia, B12 deficiency and thyroid imbalances, so make sure those are taken into consideration before chalking any symptoms up to ONLY an Omega-3 deficiency) and the most common place to get it is fish. If you are eating fish regularly, then you probably have no real concern for a deficiency, but most people I know don’t like fish or eat it sparingly. So if you suffer from mild depression and don’t eat fish regularly, you may want to consider a fish oil supplement that contains both EPA and specifically, DHA. Different formulas have different ratios of EPA and DHA so it’s important to know the purpose behind why you are taking it. EPA has been shown to be more effective in lowering systemic inflammation whereas DHA has been highlighted for neurological issues and inflammation (such as ADD/ADHD, dementia, depression) so choosing an option with a DHA
heavy dose would make sense here. Research shows that for healthy adults with no major health concerns can benefit greatly from 1000 mg/day of Omega-3 fats (FYI: be sure the label reads 1000mg of Omega-3s and not just 1000mg of fish oil or you may be buying a diluted product).
Address any Vitamin D deficiencies
When mixed with the cholesterol in our bare skin, radiant sun will help our body produce up to 20,000 IU of Vitamin D every 20 minutes. However, in Pennsylvania, the sun is only this effective a few months out of the year!
Which means from fall until late spring, we most likely need to be supplementing in order to maintain optimal health and to help prevent depression during the colder months when access to radiant sun isn’t an option.
The best way to know what your Vitamin D levels are is to ask your doctor to test them. You’ll want to ask for the 25(OH)D or 25-hydroxy vitamin D to get an accurate measurement of the active form of the hormone. Please do not blindly take Vitamin D or you could make certain symptoms worse.
Read this article prior to supplementation.
Make this winter the best one yet by following a few or all of these practices! Natural care goes a long way in helping to overcome or prevent SAD and year-round depression so get started and do what you can!