If you’re anything like me, it can be really hard to maintain a sunny disposition when winter comes and darkness falls. A lot of us notice a decrease in our energy levels and a general mild melancholy in winter, particularly as the days grow darker. The “winter blues” are pretty mild and do not generally affect our day to day lives. In certain circumstances (genetics, untreated winter blues, life stressors), the symptoms of depressed mood and low energy that come with wintertime can worsen, affecting our daily lives and relationships and making us feel down, depressed, or hopeless nearly every day. This is called Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of Major Depressive Disorder. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) symptoms vary and can be relatively mild or more severe. If you think you have severe symptoms (feeling helpless or hopeless every day, thoughts of suicide or self harm), please seek professional medical help immediately. If your symptoms are mild, there are a handful of helpful things you can do to boost your mood and feel like yourself again. Here are some tips for combatting the winter blues in hopes of preventing Seasonal Depressive Disorder.
Exercise has been studied and shown to have a clear benefit in patients with depression. This can help prevent symptoms of winter blues from worsening and can help treat mild symptoms of SAD. Start low and slow if you are not used to exercising, working your way up to 30 or more minutes, 5 times a week of moderate intensity exercise to boost your mood. For some folks, this can be equivalent to a brisk walk.
2. Follow a nutrient-rich eating plan:
Aim for a whole-food, plant-based diet rich in many different colors of fruits and vegetables. This will help you to get the micronutrients you need to foster healthy neurotransmitter release, which helps to balance the mood. Small fish like mackerel and sardines are high in omega 3 fatty acids and low in toxic heavy metals, so eating those can also help to build or restore a healthy nervous system. Limiting fried foods, fast foods, and heavily processed, shelf-stable foods can also support a healthy gut, which is more and more clearly implicated in mood stability in recent studies. Even seemingly “healthy” grocery store and convenience foods can have lots of additives to ensure shelf stability and enhance flavor. Try to make your own food or buy local, small-batch foods with ingredients that are clearly listed and easy to understand.
3. Take a Vitamin D3 Supplement:
Low vitamin D levels have been linked to SAD. While treating low vitamin D to improve SAD symptoms has not really been studied, anecdotally, I have had a lot of success with significant mood improvements reported in patients who were deficient and treated. If you find yourself slipping into a seasonal depression, it would be prudent to have your levels checked. To prevent deficiency, taking 2000-5000 units of vitamin D3 (with K2 for best absorption) in autumn and winter months as sunlight becomes more scarce can help keep your levels in a normal range. True deficiency requires higher dosing and should be discussed with a health professional.
4. Light therapy:
It’s not currently known exactly what causes Seasonal Affective Disorder. Diminished daylight hours can dysregulate our circadian rhythm (sleep-wake cycle), which is thought to potentially contribute to the mood changes that come in the winter months. Light therapy with a 10,000 lux light box for 20-30 minutes within an hour of waking can help mitigate some of the symptoms of winter blues or SAD. Be sure you find a product that filters UV light to prevent eye injury while still treating seasonal mood changes. Walking or standing outside in morning and evening light can also help to re-regulate our circadian rhythms. Try to find the time to step outside for a few minutes each day to support your brain health. This list is not comprehensive, and there are other ways to treat winter blues and Seasonal Affective Disorder. Sometimes additional supplements, more specific dietary interventions, or even a short course of medication is necessary. If you regularly struggle with seasonal or even just general mood changes, call Aspen Integrative Medicine at 970-927-0308 or visit our website to make an appointment to develop an individualized plan and discuss the best interventions for you.