3 ways to naturally beat the winter blues

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by Lisa Byrne

Lisa is the bestselling author of Replenish and founder of WellGrounded Life. She's got a big-hearted vision of a world where moms are fully equipped to live calm, healthy, and vibrant lives. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, three kids, and 110 pound yellow lab.

I notice the changes each year as the days get shorter.  I feel more tired and sluggish during the day, my patience wears a bit more thin, irritability intensifies, and there is a distinct lull and lethargy about my moods.

I know now that I am simply feeling the impact of a mild form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which can be termed as the “winter blues.”

There are simple, natural ways to help alleviate the symptoms of SAD.

Though the symptoms of SAD may feel like other forms of depression, this mood disorder specifically descends for weeks or months at a time during the times of the year that are naturally darker with less sunlight, and then lifts as the hours of sunlight increase with the shifting of seasons.

And similar to postpartum depression, SAD varies greatly in it’s severity — ranging from the mild “winter blues” to a severe form that can truly be debilitating.

An important note: Whenever you feel like you’re experiencing more severe or longer-than-normal stretches of depression, low moods, anxiety, or losing touch with your “normal” self, it is always a good idea to seek out trusted professional support.

For those of us who experience a more mild form of this seasonal depression, there are simple, natural ways of lifting the lull and lackluster feelings as we move into the darker, colder months of winter.

1.  Exercise

It doesn’t help our winter blues when we stop our normal routines of exercise as the days get shorter and colder.

Exercise is beneficial on so many levels.

Not only does aerobic exercise improve mood, but it also reduces stress, which often exacerbates feelings of depression brought on by the winter blues.

Studies show that one hour of aerobic exercise outside, even with cloudy skies overhead, significantly reduce the symptoms of SAD. Aerobic exercise combats depressed moods by increasing serotonin levels (which are our happy-feeling neurotransmitters) as well as oxygenating our cells.

The great news is that many things count as aerobic exercise. Short brisk walks, playing with your kids outside, raking the leaves, shoveling the snow, sledding or making a snow man all can help suffers feel better.

Experts suggest that exercising first thing in the morning helps tremendously, energizing the body as it helps banish the winter blues.

2.  Healthy, Balanced Diet

There is simply no getting around that eating a healthy, whole-foods based diet goes a long way in keeping your body and mind healthy.

Winter blues sufferers often reach for the typical comfort foods which are high in refined sugars and refined white flour.  These lead to a quick high followed by a nasty crash, making you even more vulnerable to depression.

Beyond the general advice to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and quality proteins, the following key nutrients also help if you’re susceptible to low moods in the winter time:

An important note: Please talk with a trusted health care provider to determine whether added supplements is appropriate for you.

1. Omega 3 fatty acids

These are primarily found in fatty fishes like salmon, herring and mackerel, in pastured eggs or free-roaming, grass fed organic animal meats.  Chia seeds or ground flax seeds are also vegetarian source of omega 3s.

These fatty acids can also be taken in supplement form.  Be sure to seek out micro-filtered fish oil or cod liver oil capsules that are certified free of mercury.

2. Vitamin B complex

This is essential for healthy energy levels and mood balance.  Food like whole grains, legumes, eggs, green leafy vegetables, and berries are high in these vitamins.

3. Vitamin D

This vitamin is typically manufactured in our own body from cholesterol with the aid of sunlight.  There are not many food sources high in vitamin D.  Fish and egg yolks (from chickens with time spent outdoors and are free-roaming) are probably the best sources.

You can ask your doctor for a simple blood test to see if your vitamin D levels are deficient, and to decide if a supplement if right for you (and how much would be necessary).


Photo by RowdyKittens

3.  Light Therapy

Finally, one of the best therapies for reducing the symptoms of SAD has been with light.

Based on the theory that changes in daylight are at the root cause of SAD, Dr. Michael Terman and Dr. Jiuan Su Terman of the New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia University suggest using a “dawn simulator.” This device gradually turns on a bedroom light every morning while you are still asleep, helping ease SAD symptoms by making the body think that it is experiencing the early sunrises of summer.

Other studies have found that a majority of SAD sufferers experienced relief from the regular use of light boxes. These emit high intensities of light of 2,500 to 10,000 lux (A normal light fixture emits 250 to 500 lux.) and produce effects similar to the sun’s natural rays.  It appears that the high intensities of light, whether from natural or artificial sources, improve the mood of those suffering from the winter blues by lowering secretion of melatonin in the brain.

If you find yourself experiencing symptoms of the winter blues, consider shifting your exercise habits, diet or access to light to see if you can alleviate and lift your moods.

Do you experience any level of winter blues as the days get shorter and colder?  What has helped lift your moods during the winter months?

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Comments

  1. I do not envy having winter blues….living here in So. Cal. that is something we don’t ever have to deal with. We are able to walk outside every morning all year round….great tips, though, to keep me focused on staying in shape all through this season.

  2. Get a sauna :) . Seriously. Some of the sauna cabins are as small as 90x90cms in size (3×3 foot) and works magic. Toxins goes away from your body while sweating. It also a cool relaxation therapy.

  3. Very interesting – I had not heard of light therapy before. I’m just glad that I live in an area that doesn’t usually see too much of the winter time weather. Although last year we did have record snow fall (20+ inches) so maybe I am speaking too soon. :)

  4. Very timely post for me – have been feeling tired and low-energy big time recently with the shorter days and neverending snow we’ve been seeing the past week. Thought maybe it’s because I have been busy with the holiday season but I haven’t been that busy. Bet that SAD is the core problem and now I know better ways to combat it. Thanks!

  5. I believe that light therapy is huge. My sister lives up in Portland where it is cloudy for about 80% of the winter months. They always plan a sunny getaway sometime around January to break up the monotony of winter – this seems to help.

  6. Lisa,
    Light therapy is a natural remedy that I discovered this year. I’m glad to see you recommending it too. I’m in Texas, so winter blues is not a major issue for me. But I have noticed that I’m more inclined to feel off during the winter season.

  7. There is a great book about SAD written by two researchers at the University of Washington called When Your Body Gets The Blues. I need to dust it off and start following their plan which is much like yours. It’s good to be reminded that the droopy feelings this time of year could be more that just the Holiday running around. Thanks!

  8. Light really does seem to help. I’ve used light boxes before, but I’ve also found that keeping your lights on at home and using full spectrum light bulbs can be a poor man’s substitute for a light box. At first, your house feels like a terrarium, but then your eyes adjust to the light and it’s really quite pleasant. It feels like you get to turn on the sun when you get up in the morning. Which is great here, near the canadian border, where the sun is just now rising as I write this and will be gone by 4:30 pm.

  9. Great tips, thanks so much!
    Blessings,
    Catherine :)

  10. I cannot imagine living where the sun is only up for a few hours a day! Just a very different way of life. I HAVE struggled with depression, and I beleive one of the biggest things is just being aware. Aware of your body and how you feel. Realize it may not just be the holiday stress. Do your best to get outside, like Tsh says, even if it is cloudy.
    Praying for sunshine for my friends!
    Bernice

  11. After having lived in Fairbanks, Alaska for a few years (where hours of light dwindles to only around 4 hours a day at this time of the year) and otherwise living in northern New England, I can recommend not only exercise, but getting OUTSIDE to exercise. No matter what the temperature or conditions, the “happiest” people I know who live in such climes with low light in the winter make sure that they get outside for their exercise.

  12. Great post! This is some good info and I am glad you mentioned a couple good sources of omega-3. I’m vegetarian and so are a lot of my friends and family so finding a vegetarian source of omega-3 is super important. My favorite source is by far chia seeds because they have the highest content of omega-3 of any natural source. It even has 5 times more omega-3 per serving than salmon! Anyway, sorry I won’t keep rambling but if you do want to learn more about the health benefits of chia seeds, a great website to check out is thechiaseed.com

  13. great tips! Do you have a favorite vitamin to recommend?

  14. Well-researched article, Lisa. We did one on the winter blues as well. Feel free to check it out for even more tips.

  15. I moved my desk next to a south facing window last year and for the first time ever, our Minnesota winter didn’t get to me. I really think sitting next to the natural light during the day really helped me.

  16. This being my first winter in Minnesota, this was an awesome article to read! Thank you so much!

  17. on oprah – just your kinds thing..
    http://www.oprah.com/home/Conquering-Clutter/2

    and on this subject – yes get sunlight in your eyes, yes get exercise and yes get vitamin D and yes eat well… but as a food-coach and somewhat a specialist on dietary problems/food and health – always..always.. make sure you are getting enough sleep! Most of my clients with weight and depression problems have very poor sleep. Most people who sleep well, do not have or get depression. So make a good nights sleep your focus, your number one goal.
    I do know that is much much easier said than done.. but it’s the frame-work upon which you can build..
    If you need help – just ask me.. happy to help!

  18. Great article for this time of year. My suggestion( which I guess encapsulates exercise) is just to get out! If its raining where a rain jacket! Cold? Layer up! Just get outside and walk, get fresh air and live!

  19. Hi Love your website! I have been looking into this area for some time and I’m trying to develop a website to help Mums to be frugal and happy! Got lot’s of ideas. Well done!

  20. Thank you so mach for this text. I think I have this problem. Today, for example, I’m so tired and sad too, and I know that is for the winter, I live in NJ. I didn’t know something that I read here and it was very informative for me. Thanks for your help.

  21. I had read about those 3 things to beat the stress of chronic illness. Cancer and stress go hand in hand. Everything you wrote about is a benefit to a Cancer patient. I reach out for the sun in winter to warm me emotionally and physically.

  22. Started taking regular exercise for the past few days and I am starting to feel much better! I’m less tired and cranky as a result! I’m still feeling a bit down cause it’s so dark all the time and the weather is so cold and depressing! But will try supplements next! Keep good advice coming! X

  23. I live in the Phoenix Valley a.k.a. “Valley of the Sun” and winter is when we get OUTside!! :) Summer is when we all hibernate inside. So it’s kind of funny. I actually have felt a little “off” since having my son 18 months ago and just in the last month have felt like my usual self–partly, I believe, because I’ve been outside more, running around with my sons, sitting on my porch swing, etc.
    I just have to watch it on the holidays treats to avoid blood sugar issues.
    I think initially, postpartum in June, July and August, I stayed inside all day, nursing my new baby and staying cool….so if I have another summer baby, I’d consider getting the light transmittor you mentioned!!
    Great tips! :)

  24. I totally agree that sunlight plays a role in this disorder. I’ve known most of my life that I need to have enough windows in my house to allow plenty of sunlight in. Otherwise I feel cooped up. However, trying to weigh each bit of advice against what God created and gave us, is using a light box going to cause some other type of problem? Days are shorter in the winter for a reason, and maybe we don’t fully understand that yet.

    Tab-I grew up in Scottsdale and can totally understand what you’re saying, though as a kid the heat wasn’t an issue.

  25. I work at a desk all day, the sun is just barely up when I drop my husband off at work and sets before I get in the car to go home. We have complete days of not seeing the sun, just a grey blanket for the sky. Since moving here this has made winter *miserable* for me. I have found that any regular exercise (since I can’t get outside during the day) is very helpful! Outside is ideal but even just getting your heart rate up at the gym will make a difference. (I also use a light box most morning)
    One thing not mentioned here that I believe has helped me manage my SAD has been regular, scheduled time with a girlfriend to just chat. Knowing someone is there for me and cares for me who doesn’t live with me helps me remember that daily life is not worthless, also having a place to vent and feel heard is important.

  26. I get in a deep depression every winter, especially since I spent my early years in the Caribbean and I now call Canada home. This year I’ve finally started to use my gym membership and the 4-5 times a week I exercise puts me in a better state of mind and body.

  27. Wow…now I know why I’ve been feeling so crabby! I’m typically at home all day cleaning and working on the house… And we are smack dab in the middle of the Continental Divide. Perhaps that is the deep subconscious reason why I don’t love the winter time. Thank you for the tips and the article! It put a lot of things in perspective.

  28. This sounds exactly how I’ve been feeling. Tired, irritable, and craving sugar and pasta! It’s funny how the things we crave are sometimes the opposite of what we need. I’ve been eating way more sugar than usual, and I haven’t exercised in weeks because I’ve been so tired. I can’t wait for the days to get longer!

  29. Exercise does it for me. I HAVE to get out of the house periodically. The winter blues are the number one reason I may move back to the southwest when the kids are grown..but that’s not anytime soon. ;)

  30. This is such a very insightful post, all the information you’ve given are just right on. I agree with you when you said that exercise can absolutely be a great help for us to cope us with such season.

  31. avatar
    Anita Winningham says:

    I have the severe form of SAD. My doctor has my take B12 1000mg and
    D3 5000mg(usually behind the counter and you have to ask for it). I do this along with diet and exercise. It really works for me.

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