Simple, healthy choices can decrease the risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
The shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, is a marker that the darkest days are behind us and the sun is going to be shining longer each of the coming days as we end one year to begin another. Unfortunately, by the time that we reach this milestone and a promise of a less distant Spring, your body may still be suffering ill effects from the recent weeks of decreasing periods of sunlight as well as exhaustion from all of the pre-holiday preparations that so many of us allow to suck up too much of our time.
Staying “Merry and Bright” Takes a Lot of Energy
It makes sense that the human response to the naturally increasing darkness is to fill it with light and activities to combat the gloominess of the late autumn and early winter days. In November, when we really notice that daylight is shifting its balance with the night sky, we are beginning the preparations for family gatherings and keeping the oven humming and the sideboard groaning with rich and decadent foods. We’re eating more simple carbohydrates, often increasing alcohol intake, and spending less time engaged in outdoor activities. Workout regimens also may be more frequently disrupted by lack of motivation or schedule conflicts. Many find it easier to expend calories baking or reaching for another treat than to show up at the gym. And once motivation starts falling, it can take a lot more energy to build it back up than if it had been maintained all along.
The Winter Doldrums Are a Real Thing
The onset of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is ushered in as the level of natural sunlight available each day decreases. Many species in the animal world adapt to this change with hibernation periods. In the US, many humans adapt to this change by spending winters as far south as they can to avoid the bitter cold and the darker days.
Essential Cycle: Sunlight to Serotonin to Melatonin to Sleep to Peace and Contentment
The shortening of our daylight hours can wreak havoc on our Circadian rhythms. Exposure to sunlight positively influences our brain’s production of neurochemicals that keep our moods balanced. Sunlight cues our bodies to produce Vitamin D, which is often found to be deficient in individuals who suffer from depression (Cuomo, Giordano, Goracci, & Fagiolini, 2017). Serotonin production is helped along by natural light exposure and serotonin leads to melatonin production, which helps ensure our sleep-wake cycle stays organized. When there’s less light, there’s less serotonin, which leads to less melatonin, which leads to less sleep, which can lead to feeling tired, cranky, and depressed. Our brains are amazing machines that do their best to keep up with the rapidly changing world, but when we try to force our brain chemistry to respond to unnatural, controlled environments such as work schedules that don’t shift with the seasons, exposure to non-stop electronic entertainment/bombardment, and other treats/risks of modern life, we can end up having to “treat” problems that might not occur if we were able to follow the natural order of things.
Finding the Right Balance/Light Balance
While sunlight encourages the production of serotonin, it’s also tangentially increasing the production of melatonin, the chemical that regulates healthy sleep. One way to handle SAD is to integrate light therapy (bright natural light; lightboxes; high quality, non-flickering fluorescent light bulbs; sunlight-mimicking bulbs) at the start of your morning. This jumpstarts the brain into producing the feel-good, do-good neurochemical serotonin.
While serotonin production is ramping up through light exposure, the production of natural melatonin is kick-started, too. At the end of the day, when you are preparing for sleep, you can take a melatonin supplement to help re-regulate your Circadian rhythm. As the brain’s chemistry is getting back on schedule, your mood will also reflect the balance and symptoms of depression should ease up.
Eat Healthy to Decrease Depression
Avoid simple carbohydrates, processed foods, and sugar. All of these can upset your brain’s delicate neurochemical symphony. Stick to complex carbohydrates that provide better “fuel economy” to your body than junk food can. In fact, a healthy diet has been linked to stronger feelings of optimism (Kargakou, Sachlas, Lyrakos, et al., 2017). Avoiding preservatives and choosing fresh foods will be better for your body and your attitude. Depression is marked by feelings of hopelessness; this suggests that the optimism borne of a healthy diet is worth the effort.
Keep Hydrated with Water, Not Lubricated with Alcohol, or Hopped Up on Caffeine
Dehydration can mimic symptoms of depression, so make sure that you’re taking in an adequate supply of water (Pross, Demazieres, Girard, et al., 2014). Avoid or limit caffeine, alcohol, and other high-sugar or artificially sweetened beverages. These beverages affect sleep, too, which affects mood. No component of our amazing body works independently of any other system – simply being alive is the production of a symphony made up of many players and many well-calibrated movements of every cell.
Out-Run, Out-Stretch, and Outsmart the Winter Doldrums
Physical activity, rather than couch-potato sitting, will help you get through the darkest winter day with as bright a mood possible. Aerobic exercise is especially helpful in getting your brain on track with the production of serotonin and endorphins (Munuswamy, Preetha, & Priya, 2018). Walk the dog, park far away from the grocery store or after-holiday sales, or get on the treadmill. All of these can help stimulate the body’s natural mood-balancing techniques.
Meditation and Yoga balance Moods
Aside from the heavy-duty physical work-outs, you can also exercise your mind and body through more gentle means that can lead to a balanced mood state (Travis, Valosek, Konrad, et al., 2018). Mediation has been proven to enhance well-being and bring calm even in times of catastrophic illness and stress (Lemanne & Maizes, 2018). When your brain is in a meditative state, you’re actually quieting the regions of the brain associated with stress and worry while providing greater opportunities for the work of the regions associated with healthy psychological and physical functioning. Tai Chi is another gentle method for combatting feelings of depression (Zou et al., 2018). Activities that bring a balance between mind and body are highly effective in bringing balance to all aspects of your life.
Hopefulness about the Future
The frenzy of the winter holidays can lead to an overall post-holiday, gloomy January funk for many. Comparing the “blah” of January with the “bling” of December is not a pleasing thought. Add in a couple of quickly failed New Year’s resolutions and the days seem even more depressing. Recognize that what you’re feeling is a normal reaction to what’s going on around you. Also, recognize that you have the tools needed to ensure that you don’t fall too far into a bout of SAD. For protection against SAD, eat right, drink plenty of healthy fluids, and get active. If you are suffering from seasonal depression, research shows that light therapy is as effective as psychotherapy such as CBT might be (Meyerhoff, Young, & Rohan, 2018). Not only that, light therapy provides more rapid relief to symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety, hypersomnia, and social withdrawal. Make healthy choices, keep your body moving, and find the light and you’ll be well prepared to tackle the winter blues.
Feeling hopeful about the future is key to feeling better about the now.
Cuomo, A., Giordano, N., Goracci, A., & Fagiolini, A. (2017). Depression and Vitamin D deficiency: Causality, assessment, and clinical practice implications. Neuropsychiatry, 7(5), 606-614.
Kargakou A., Sachlas A., Lyrakos G., Zyga S., Tsironi M., Rojas Gil A.P. (2017) Does Health Perception, Dietary Habits and Lifestyle Effect Optimism? A Quantitative and Qualitative Study. In: Vlamos P. (eds) GeNeDis 2016. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, 988. Springer, Cham.
Lemanne, D., & Maizes, V. (2018). Advising Women Undergoing Treatment for Breast Cancer: A Narrative Review. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 24(9/10), 902–909. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2018.0150
Meyerhoff, J., Young M. A., & Rohan K. J. Patterns of depressive symptom remission during the treatment of seasonal affective disorder with cognitive‐behavioral therapy or light therapy. Depress Anxiety. 2018;35:457–467. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.22739
Munuswamy, S., Preetha, S., & Priya, J. (2018). A study on the effects of aerobics on depression. Drug Invention Today, 10(11), 2169–2171. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=132173465&site=ehost-live&scope=site
Pross, N., Demazières, A., Girard, N., Barnouin, R., Metzger, D., Klein, A., Perrier, E., … Guelinckx, I. (2014). Effects of changes in water intake on mood of high and low drinkers. PloS one, 9(4), e94754. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0094754
Travis, F., Valosek, L., Konrad, A., Link, J., Salerno, J., Scheller, R., … Konrad, A. 4th. (2018). Effect of meditation on psychological distress and brain functioning: A randomized controlled study. Brain & Cognition, 125, 100–105. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bandc.2018.03.011
Zou, L., Yeung, A., Li, C., Wei, G.-X., Chen, K. W., Kinser, P. A., … Ren, Z. (2018). Effects of Meditative Movements on Major Depressive Disorder: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 7(8), N.PAG. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm7080195
How Can You Cope With Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Does winter bring you down every year? We give you some tips on how to manage seasonal affective disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes with the four seasons, typically manifesting during the cold autumn and winter months, when the days are shorter, darker, and chillier.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the main risk factors for SAD are age, sex, distance from the equator (since regions farther to the north and south tend to have shorter days and less sunlight in winter), and a history of depression or other mood disorders.
Studies have shown that “young adults and women are most likely to experience SAD with the reported gender difference ranging from 2:1 to 9:1.”
People with SAD can experience a range of symptoms, but some of the most commonly reported ones include a sense of fatigue paired with oversleeping, chronically low moods, and strong cravings for carbohydrates, which can lead to excessive weight gain.
SAD can seriously impact productivity and day-to-day lifestyle, as the symptoms — if severe — can prevent individuals from going out, seeing other people, and engaging in some of the normal activities that they would otherwise pursue.
So what can you do if the winter months are getting you down? How can you cope with the lack of motivation, feelings of hopelessness, and debilitating fatigue? Here, we give you some tips on how to tackle SAD head-on.
Hunt down that light
Lack of exposure to natural light is one of the apparent reasons behind winter SAD, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that light therapy — also known as “phototherapy” — would be beneficial in keeping the symptoms at bay.
light box for phototherapy
Many studies have indicated that light therapy is usually helpful in treating this seasonal disorder, and for this purpose, you can use one of the many dedicated light boxes that are now available on the market.
But to be effective, you should make sure that the light box generates at least 10,000 lux — 100 times stronger than a normal lightbulb, meaning that a regular desk lamp won’t do — and that it has white or blue (not yellow) light.
Also, check that the light box was especially made to treat SAD, depression, and other mood disorders, and that it’s not made for a different purpose (such as treating psoriasis or other skin conditions).
Light boxes for skin treatments are another kettle of fish altogether, as they emit ultraviolet (UV) B, which is not safe for the retina. Instead, dedicated SAD treatment light boxes filter out UVs, so they’re safe to use.
Dr. Norman Ronsenthal — who first described SAD’s symptoms and pushed for it to be recognized as a valid disorder — offers some advice on how to use light therapy in his book, Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder. He writes:
- Obtain a suitable light box.
- Set the light box up in a convenient place at home or at work, or both.
- Sit in front of the light box […] between 20 and 90 minutes each day.
- Try to get as much of your light therapy as early in the morning as possible.
- Be sure to sit in such a way that the correct amount of light falls on your eyes. [Dr. Marlynn Wei says it should be placed at eye level or higher, 2 feet away from you.]
- Repeat this procedure each day throughout the season of risk.
At the same time, you can add to the beneficial effects of light therapy by making a little extra effort to “hunt down” natural daylight, if possible, and take advantage of it as much as you can.
You could do this by waking up earlier in the morning and going outside where the sunshine is, for as long as it lasts, to allow yourself to feel as though you’re soaking in the light and taking advantage of the whole day.
Eat well, and watch out for the carbs
Research has shown that individuals with SAD tend to eat more carbohydrate-rich foods, especially sweets and starchy foods. They also have a tendency to overeat during these periods of “seasonal lows,” so it’s important that they look after their diets in order to feel more energized.
vegan suitable food
Over the winter months, as we get less and less sunlight, vitamin D is insufficiently produced in our bodies. Research has also suggested that ensuring we get enough vitamin D may help to prevent and manage depression.
To make sure that you’re getting enough vitamin D during autumn and winter, you could take dietary supplements. Vitamin D is also found in a range of foods that you can easily incorporate into your daily meals.
Salmon, for instance, is naturally rich in D-3, though some studies suggest that wild-caught salmon contains much larger amounts of the vitamin than farmed salmon.
Eggs are a good source of the vitamins D-2 and D-3, and mushrooms also have a high D-2 content, though research suggests that we should stick to wild mushrooms rather than cultivated ones.
Some studies also suggest that people with mood disorders may have an omega-3 fatty acid deficit, and so supplementation of this nutrient may help to keep symptoms in check.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), some good food sources of omega-3 include various types of fish (salmon, herring trout, and mackerel), chia seeds, flaxseed, and soybean.
Also, research published last year in the American Journal of Public Health points to fruit and vegetables as the foods of choice when it comes to increasing happiness and well-being.
“Eating fruit and vegetables apparently boosts our happiness far more quickly than it improves human [physical] health,” notes study co-author Prof. Andrew Oswald.
The psychological benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption were confirmed by a recent study, from February this year, which focused on the positive effect of a “green” diet on young adults — one of the groups most at risk of SAD.
Make an effort to stay active
Precisely because some of the main symptoms of SAD are fatigue and lethargy, specialists advise that making an effort to stay physically active can offer a boost of energy and improve mood.
A review of existing studies surrounding SAD and the effects of exercise on this disorder suggests that the low moods and other symptoms involved in it may be caused by disruptions to the body’s circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm regulates our sleep, eating, and activity patterns according to day-night cycles.
Review author Benny Peiser — from the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences at Liverpool John Moore University in the United Kingdom — explains that taking part in regular physical exercise during the autumn and winter months can help to maintain an appropriate circadian rhythm, thereby keeping SAD symptoms at bay.
A study recently covered by Medical News Today also demonstrates that even low-intensity exercise done for as little as 1 hour per week can effectively counteract depression.
Don’t give in to reclusiveness
On those dark, cold days, you may be sorely tempted to just stay inside and hide from the weather and world alike. If you have more severe SAD symptoms, going out may seem unachievable, but if you want to keep the low moods and lethargy at bay, then you should do your best to resist these solitary tendencies.
Try not to give up on seeing people and doing things.
Much the same as light exercise, studies show that a leisurely walk in the great outdoors can improve your mood and well-being.
Just taking one moment every day to notice a detail in your natural surroundings, and asking yourself what feelings it elicits, can make you feel happier and more sociable, according to research from the University of British Columbia in Canada.
The American Psychological Association advise that you keep in touch with friends and family, go out with them, and speak to trusted people about what you’re experiencing. Enlisting someone else’s help in keeping you active, and helping you get out of your shell during the cold months, may make it easier to cope with the effects of SAD.
Advice regarding how best to cope with SAD from Johns Hopkins Medicine also includes finding a winter-appropriate hobby that will both keep you busy and give you pleasure, such as a DIY project or a winter sport.
Moreover, don’t forget that there is help available for people who experience SAD. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been proven to be effective in the treatment of this disorder, and a specialist will be able to recommend antidepressants if you find yourself struggling.
Well with the forecast in mind, snow, wind, and all the things associated with it, I have to ask: Are you ready for winter?
The ten foot snow banks, the blizzards, the -38 C wind chills, the bad roads and everything else that I’d rather not even think about right now?
Hold on a second.
You might have assumed I was talking about the physical requirements to get through yet another Winnipeg winter, but I wasn’t. We all go through it every year right? Winter clothes are in good shape? Check. The furnace is in good working order? Check. Got the winter tires on? Check.
Sure all those things are necessary to get by in the six month Manitoba deep freeze, but what about mental preparation?
I never used to think about that very much because you just dealt with it, you handled it. You knew what to expect and you managed it accordingly.
However I’ve had a pretty serious bout with mental health fairly recently so I’ve developed a different perspective from the psychological side of things.
Winter can be a daunting foe and if you’re not prepared to get through it mentally, it could lead to some fairly serious issues like depression. I mean really, how uplifting is it to hear the high today is -33 C with the wind chill right?
When you hear the word depression you might think, “well, toughen up buttercup,” but sometimes it’s just not that easy and it could go much deeper than you or anyone else thinks.
Aside from the obvious drawbacks of the long winter season there could be other factors in play for the person (perhaps you or a person close to you) affected, whatever they happen to be.
Job loss, ongoing anxiety issues, relationship break up, death in the family, financial issues etc. they can all enter into it and with one more factor like winter coming into the mix, things could go from bad to worse pretty quickly.
So how can a person mentally prepare for a season?
Well here’s a guy. Richard Wurtman, M.D., is the Cecil H. Green Distinguished Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a Professor of Neuroscience in MIT’s Department of Brain & Cognitive Sciences, and of Neuropharmacology in the Harvard – MIT Division of Health Sciences & Technology. (Enough for you?)
Here’s what he says about your winter mood:
“The long hours of darkness and short hours of light affect serotonin, the brain chemical that keeps us in a good mood and turns off our appetite. Serotonin is the body’s natural mood booster, and levels plunge (along with mood) as it gets dark.”
Ok, so what do we do about it?
Well, a Canadian research group headed by Dr. Robert Levitan senior scientist at the Campbell Family mental health research institute in Toronto have discovered that 30 minutes of light therapy daily during the winter months worked just as well as Prozak to ease depression and the symptoms associated with it. Not only that, they found the light therapy started to work faster than the drug regimen, one week vs two to four weeks.
I have a friend who uses one of those “sun lamps” every day in the winter. It just sits on her desk, she turns it on for however long and she claims her mood (along with her office) is much brighter than it’s been in recent years. She swears by it. I was of course skeptical so I started looking into it and yep, she was right.
After all, who am I to dispute the claims of doctors and researchers who’ve worked for years to finally be able to publish results like this?
Experts also suggest, and I know this going to sound cliché, to eat well, exercise, get the proper amount of sleep, do things that make you happy and develop an outlet, whatever it happens to be. Playing a musical instrument, writing in a journal, learning a new language, whatever you can put energy into and get positive results out of.
I will also always say, especially considering recent events in my life, you should always consult with a medical professional if you’re experiencing dark moods and strange changes in behavior. Just getting the reassurance you need about whatever it may be will most likely start to make you feel better.
PS: those sun therapy lamps I was talking about? You can pretty much get them anywhere. Wal-mart, Costco, Bed Bath and Beyond etc or just order one online. They range in price from about $50 to $300 CAD.
It seems that no matter how well I plan to take it easy during the holidays, I still end up feeling exhausted when they’re over. Even though I try to avoid malls and holiday traffic all together, it seems that even the cooking and laughing and staying up late are enough to leave me feeling drained.
The cold temperatures and lack of sunshine that occur during the winter have a considerable impact on our well-being, particularly since Jack Frost brings unwanted presents with him: the flu and dampened moods.
But winter doesn’t have to zap your energy or pit you against this season’s new hard-to-beat bug. Stay well all winter long by following the action points below, suggested by health and well-being blogger, Alicia Benjamin.
Thankfully, for those of us who feel like we’ll never have the motivation to get back to our normal routine, these small actions only take a few minutes, or seconds, to do.
1. Eat one dark green vegetable every day. Dark green veggies contain minerals like iron and vitamins like A, C, K, and folate that your body needs to stay healthy. Instead of sticking with spinach, try something different like sautéed dandelion greens added to a stir-fry, or kale or Swiss chard added to a favorite stew or soup recipe.
2. Call a friend. Instead of hunkering down with Love Actually again during a snowstorm, give someone you haven’t seen in a while a call. Hearing a friend’s voice can boost your mood and socializing helps you feel connected to the people who matter most to you.
3. Take five. To combat feeling overwhelmed and rundown during the busy holiday season, take five minutes to close your eyes. Clear your mind of your to-do list (it can wait) and, instead, focus solely on your breathing. Rest your hands over your heart. Repeat in your mind or aloud a calming word, like “blue” or “ocean,” to help ease tension throughout your body. Try picturing yourself on a sunny beach; listen to the waves crash upon shore. Even though it’s not an actual vacation or a real respite from the freezing temps, visualization exercises can be very effective in promoting relaxation and boosting your mood.
4. Hide the remote. When the cold weather sets in, you may be tempted to curl up with a blanket and watch television. Instead, hide the remote so you’re forced to get up to change channels or adjust the volume. You can also challenge yourself by doing jumping jacks during commercial breaks. Little bursts of movement during your down time will ensure you’re getting much-needed activity during the hibernation months.
5. Bake your fruit. Chances are you won’t be craving watermelon when temps drop. So instead, bake fruit for a healthy after-dinner dessert or oatmeal topping for breakfast. Put apple slices and cranberries in the oven for 20 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit, and add a sprinkle of cinnamon—a powerful antioxidant—on top to add both health benefits and flavor.
6. Go green. It’s tempting to reach for soda or coffee when we’re feeling sleepy during the winter. Instead, enjoy a cup of green tea. It’s loaded with antioxidants. Plus, green tea extract may also boost metabolism and help burn fat—an added bonus during a time in which we usually indulge. Want the benefits of other hues? Wear yellow or red during the bleakest of winter days to help boost your mood and energy level, or choose green or blue to bring a sense of calm to your busy holiday-planning days.
7. Get more D. We’re often bundled up inside during the winter months, which means we don’t get as much vitamin D as in summer months. There are lots of ways to get vegan and animal sources of vitamin D; supplement your diet with cod liver oil high in EPA/DHA; and add Sockeye salmon, sardines, shrimp, and tuna to your cold-weather menu. Vitamin D can help build strong bones (as it helps the body use calcium) and boost our immune systems for the flu season ahead. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends 400 to 800 IU of vitamin D daily for adults younger than 50, and 800 to 1,000 IU for adults 50 and older.
8. Disinfect your desk and phone. Your phone receiver and desk surface at work can harbor germs that are spreading around the office. Wipe down your space at least once a week with an antibacterial spray. Method and Seventh Generation make great ones. Also, slip a hand sanitizer in your purse to kill bacteria wherever you go.
9. Keep your bedroom at no more than 68-72 degrees F. Holding the heat will help promote a sound sleep to ensure you’re feeling well rested and refreshed to take on the winter days. Also, aim to get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep each night. Want to fall asleep more quickly? Wear socks to bed.
10. Get moving. Temps in the teens make it rather hard to pull yourself out from underneath a pile of blankets. But during the cold weather, nudge yourself to get moving because exercise helps boosts mood and your immune system. Not a fan of outdoor activities like snow shoeing? Hit the mall to walk laps; keep an eye out for gyms offering free trials or classes; look into the costs of joining a local community center like the YMCA; or simply add a few at-home exercises like squats, lunges, and wall push-ups to your daily routine.
A health and well-being blogger, Alicia Benjamin is currently enrolled at the Institute of Integrative Nutrition to become a certified health counselor. Alicia works as the Social Media Manager at MeYou Health, a Boston-based social well-being company that provides web and mobile apps to promote healthy living. Alicia tweets about well-being at @AliciaGetsFit and is a regular contributor to the MeYou Health blog.
Jason Fitzpatrick 11/05/10
Everyone is familiar with the benefits of winterizing things—car tires, window panes, sprinkler systems—but we often overlook ourselves. This winter, consider winterizing your body to stay fit and healthy, both mentally and physically.
Every year winter comes and every year people act as if the cold, the bouts of sickness, and the winter blahs are somehow new and unexpected. This year we want to help you prepare for winter and keep the winter blues and sniffles at bay. Whether you’re sitting in the Great White North or the Sun Belt, here’s how to winterize your body.
Note: While these tips are helpful for anyone, if you experience extreme mood swings, depression, or lethargy during the winter season that extends beyond the general “Man, I wish it were warm out!” sentiment, please see your healthcare provider. Seasonal Affective Disorder is serious business and affects many people in the same way as a major depressive episode—serious health risks included.
The Physical Self: Vitamins, Lighting, and the Great Outdoors
Winter is a different beast than summer. The days are shorter, the fresh food less abundant, and the opportunities for outdoor activities decreased. A significant part of winterizing your body is accounting for the things winter takes away and compensating for them accordingly. Photo by M. Pincus.
Don’t underestimate the power of sunshine. Our circadian rhythm is largely governed by light exposure, and the shift in available sunlight in the United States is dramatic. In June there are 15 hours of sunlight, but in December there are only 9. Further complicating things, those hours of December daylight are nearly all burned up during the working day, leaving evenings cold and dark.
Knowing that your access to natural light will be restricted, there are a few things you can do to compensate. Dawn simulators are a great way to help your body deal with the shifting of sunrise over the year and have been shown to be more convenient and effective than other kinds of light therapy in treating seasonal affective disorder. I personally use the inexpensive ($40) Lighten Up! #308 Dawn Simulator. You plug a bright lamp into it, plug the simulator into the wall, program the “sunrise” time, and it will gradually brighten the room. One of the most effective ways to use the device is to set it to simulate the earliest sunrise time in your locale—check the sunrise tables at the US Naval Observatory to help find the best time. In my case, setting my dawn simulator to being slowly brightening the room at 5:15AM mimics the longest days of summer. (A nice side effect of using the dawn simulator: I haven’t used an alarm clock in ages.)
Take your vitamins. Nordic countries, despite experiencing the same cold and darkness as other extremely northern locales, have a significantly lower rate of seasonal affective disorder. Researchers believe the key is the volume of fish they eat (nearly 5 times more than US or Canadian citizens). The enormous reserve of vitamin D and vitamin A found in the fatty tissue of fish protects the Norse from the deficiency experienced by the non-fish eaters in other colder climates. Nothing against fish, but if you want to skip the fish-eating part, consider stopping by your local health food store to pick up fish oil caplets, which could do the trick just as well. Additionally, taking a multivitamin can’t hurt given the decrease in fresh fruits and vegetables consumption most people experience in the winter months.
Stay hydrated. Hydration is another key element to winterizing your body. People tend to drink a lot of water and fluids in the summer. Winter can be just as dehydrating, however, as the lower humidity dries your skin and the mucus membranes of your nose, throat, and lungs—winter time breathing in many locales is the same as breathing the bone-dry air you experience in an airplane cabin. Be mindful of how much water you drink. In addition, putting a humidifier in your bedroom (or activating your whole-house humidifier if you have one) will keep your mucus membranes moisturized and decrease the chances of you getting an airborne illnesses.
Get outside and stay active. It’s easy to get out of the house in the summer—nearly everything fun is happening outside. Between walks in the park, trips to the beach, and downtown festivals, all the fun events of spring and summer are almost always outside. Readers in sunny southern states might not fully relate to this, but Northerners will understand: Come wintertime, the world seems to close shop and go to sleep for a few months. Fight the urge to hole up for the winter and seek out equivalent activities for your favorite summer ones. If you hiked a local nature preserve all summer, cross country ski it. If you went rock climbing at the local cliffs, join a rock climbing gym. Try to find some activity that will take you outside and get you active, preferably during a time where you can get some sun on your face. Don’t forget how powerful sunshine is and what role it plays in regulating your body’s internal clock.
The Mental Self: Well Being, Social Calls, and Long Decembers
Caring for your physical self will go a long way towards making winter more bearable. Good sleep, vitamin supplements, light exposure, and fresh air are excellent mood boosters. Getting some sun on your face and fresh air alone won’t fully take care of the mental and social elements of the winter blues, however. Let’s take a look at what you can do to bolster your mental well-being.
Be mindful of your mood and mental health. Winter can increase the incidence of depression and other disorders in many people. Pay close attention to your state of mind in the darker and colder months. If you start getting into a funk, don’t brush it off as a simple case of the winter blues. As noted above, seasonal affective disorders are serious business, and whether you have a history of them or not you should be extra mindful of your mood.
Stay social. For those of us who live in areas where it can feel like you never see your neighbors between November and March and the snow drifts high enough to form a privacy fence, focusing on social interactions is important. During the summer in my neighborhood, for example, people are out in their front yards and it’s not uncommon to have daily conversations with people up and down the street. Winter is a different story. It hits this area so hard that when the spring thaw comes people emerge with babies you didn’t even know had been born.
Preserving (preferably in-real-life) social networks and avoiding “cabin fever” during the winter is an art form. If you have social groups (neighbors, golf buddies, softball team you coach) that you see during the warmer months but not during the colder ones, make an effort to plan things with them during the winter. Sure, winter has its share of holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years to bring people together, but a few big bashes over a span of months isn’t the same as routinely seeing and connecting with people on a daily and weekly basis. Even something as simple as a rotating bring-your-own-beer and potluck dinner among a circle of friends offers a great opportunity to get together and complain about the snow.
Evaluate your winter pitfalls to guard against them. Get out a legal pad or fire up your favorite text editor. Brainstorming about winter and what makes it a great, not so great, or wretched season for you will go a long way towards helping you extend the advice in this guide to winterizing your body and tailoring it for a custom fit.
- What is your favorite thing about the winter season?
- What is your least favorite thing about the winter season?
- How does the decrease in daylight hours make you feel?
- How do the holidays make you feel? If sad or stressed, why?
- Do you feel shut in or socially isolated?
- Do you feel lethargic or like you don’t get enough exercise in the winter months?
The answers to the questions will help point you in the direction of helpful solutions. For example, if you dislike the holidays because of the stress and financial burden of buying gifts, you could then opt to discuss gift-giving tradition and exchanges with your family or use our holiday gift-tracking template to keep a better handle on how much you’re spending and what you’re giving to whom. Alternatively, if the thing you hate about winter is how hard it is to peel yourself out of bed in the dark mornings, you might consider looking into the dawn simulator suggested earlier in the article. Self reflection goes a long way towards helping you effectively winterize your body and stay healthy and happy until spring comes.
While each person handles winter differently, following a few of the guidelines above and probing into the way you relate to and react to the darker days of winter will help you form a plan of attack and make this the best winter you’ve weathered yet. If you’re a person hit especially hard by the winter and have found a great technique for dealing with the winter blues, we want to hear all about it in the comments. Share your tips and tricks to help your fellow readers build their own plan of attack on winter.