How to Avoid the Winter Blues

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Cold weather and shorter days are not for everyone. In fact some people are downright depressed about it.

It’s not uncommon to feel down this time of year over stressful holidays or absent loved ones. This is what’s known as the “winter blues.” But some may experience more severe mood changes that last throughout the fall and winter. These more pronounced feelings of sadness and depression is called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

An estimated 20% of Americans will be affected by SAD during winter.

A key characteristic of SAD is that it takes on a regular pattern, appearing each year during fall or winter and easing up when spring and summer come along.

SAD is more prevalent in the northern parts of the United States, where winter darkness blankets the sky for longer periods than compared to territories further south.

Why does this cyclical disorder occur?

Shorter days seem to trigger the symptoms of SAD. With reduced sunlight during the fall and winter, the body’s circadian rhythm, or your inner clock, is disrupted. This 24-hour master clock takes clues from light and darkness to dictate brain activity. During daylight hours the brain sends signals throughout the body to keep you awake and alert (serotonin). And during the hours of darkness the brain tells the body to rest (melatonin). The shortened daylight hours in winter can throw off the body’s natural rhythm and lead to SAD in some people.

Like other forms of depression, people experiencing SAD may feel hopeless or worthless, tend to be withdrawn, have low energy, and oversleep. Other symptoms can include difficulty concentrating and seasonal weight gain.

How do you turn that the inner frown upside down?

While some healthcare professions may prescribe antidepressants to combat SAD, there are non-medicated solutions to try.

Light up – Light therapy is meant to be an artificial substitute for daylight hours lost during the winter. Patients sit in front of a light box that shines brighter than ordinary indoor light. Another option is the use of a light-emitting visor.

Talk it out – Light therapy is often the first line of treatment for SAD, but it doesn’t work for everyone. Mounting evidence suggests that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may also help. This type of talk therapy helps patients identify negative self-defeating thoughts and tries to teach people new pleasurable behaviors to engage in when feeling down.

Exercise – Getting regular exercise helps to elevate your mood. If you can’t get outside due to less than favorable weather, pop in a workout DVD, try a routine with resistance bands, work up a sweat on stationary fitness machines, or even old fashion calisthenics will help to break up the mental clouds.

Up your omega-3 intake – Omega-3 fatty acids have been linked to better emotional health. Eating oily fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, and anchovies are excellent sources of EPA and DHA omega-3s. Or invest in a quality omega-3 supplement.

Go to sleep early – The body’s natural rhythm was made to coincide with the rising and setting of the sun. If you deviate from this pattern too much, you’re likely to disrupt the body’s hormonal cycles (the release of serotonin and melatonin). In the winter, try to go to bed earlier than you would during the summer.

Go easy on the carbs – While foods rich in simple carbohydrates (processed sugars and flour) may be comforting when you’re feeling down, try not to indulge heavily. Those carbs my offer a temporary burst of energy from the sugar high that you’re on, but that wears off when blood sugar levels plummet. And you’re bound to feel blue again, and possibly even guilty over what you ate. The quick rise and fall of blood sugar is never a good thing, no matter the season. And the extra calories and stored excess sugar could lead to weight gain.

Go with your gut – The microflora in your gut has profound significance on your overall health, including mood and behavior. Make sure to keep the probiotic populations thriving all year long with fermented foods or a probiotic supplement.

Don’t forget the Vitamin D – If you live in a locale that experiences a significant loss of daylight hours during the winter, your body’s vitamin D production takes a nose dive. Exposing the skin to sunlight triggers the production of vitamin D, which is critical for maintaining good health and supporting disease prevention. It’s also linked to higher levels of the awakening hormone serotonin. But if your vitamin D levels are low because you’re not getting enough sun exposure, make sure to meet your needs with vitamin D fortified foods or a high quality vitamin D supplement.

If you go the supplement route, get your vitamin D levels tested before you start and talk to a healthcare professional about a proper dose to avoid getting toxic levels.

You don’t have to wait until spring to thaw out your less than cheery disposition. 

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