The winter season means fewer hours of daylight as well as cold and chilly nights. It can leave even the most optimistic people feeling low and down.
This is a normal phenomenon. In medical terms, it is known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or commonly called winter depression or winter blues. It is a type of mood disorder in which people who have normal mental health most of the year experience depressive symptoms at the same time each year, usually in the winter months.
SAD most often occurs in women, adolescents and young adults.
Key symptoms of SAD are depression, sleep problems, lethargy, overeating, irritability, feeling down, unsociable, loss of interest in activities usually enjoyed, difficulty concentrating and even having frequent thoughts of death or suicide.
It is not possible to ignore the winter months, but there are many ways to lift your spirits and ease the mid-winter doldrums.
Here are the top 10 ways to beat the winter blues and avoid depression.
1. Get Regular Exercise
Exercise is very effective at beating the winter blues. It provides a natural boost to both your mood and physical health.
Besides lifting your mood, regular exercise offers many health benefits including regulating your blood pressure, protecting against heart disease and cancer, and boosting your self-esteem.
A 2009 study published in Biological Rhythm Research reviewed various clinical and physiological evidences and concluded that exercise intervention may facilitate effective treatment for SAD. Particular emphasis is given to circadian mechanisms that have been hypothesized to explain mood-enhancing effects of physical exercise.
Juts a daily walk can help prevent depression. Walking in the middle of the day, when possible, also provides the benefit of light therapy.
Experts recommend walking fast for about 35 minutes five times a week or 60 minutes three times a week to boost your mood. Along with walking, light aerobic exercises and yoga are also especially helpful in improving mood.
2. Enjoy Natural Light
No matter how much you wish to remain indoors in the comfort of your home, it is important to go outdoors in natural daylight as much as possible, especially at midday and on brighter days.
Lack of exposure to sunlight is one of the leading causes of seasonal affective disorder. Hence, it is recommended to get outside and enjoy some sunlight.
Sun exposure, especially first thing in the morning, helps increase the level of a natural antidepressant in the brain. In fact, the brain produces more of the mood-lifting chemical serotonin on bright and sunny days than on darker days.
During the winter, try to soak up as many rays as you can in a day. Open the blinds, pull the curtains back or walk outside for sometime in direct sunlight.
Even inside your home, try to choose pale colors that reflect light from outside, and sit near windows whenever you can.
3. Use a Light Box
If you live in a place with few windows or poor sun exposure, investing in a light box will be your best bet for preventing and treating depression symptoms.
Light therapy is effective in improving mood by regulating neurotransmitters in the brain, such as serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine.
In this type of therapy, your eyes are exposed to intense but safe amounts of light for a specific and regular length of time. Apart from regulating neurotransmitters, light therapy also helps correct any problem with the inner biological clock, called the circadian rhythm. It suppresses your levels of melatonin, the chemical hormone in your body that controls sleep.
For fighting seasonal depression, you need to sit in front of a light box for at least 30 minutes a day first thing in the morning to stimulate your brain and boost your energy.
There are different shapes and sizes of light boxes in the market. You can choose one that will be convenient for your daily use. However, white and blue light boxes are the most effective in beating winter blues.
4. Take a Vitamin D Supplement
Taking a vitamin D supplement is important if you reside in a place where you are not getting enough sunlight, which the body needs to produce vitamin D.
Vitamin D, known as the “sunshine vitamin”, plays a key role in improving your mood and preventing depression symptoms. This vitamin aids in the production of serotonin, the brain hormone associated with mood elevation and happiness.
A 2010 study published in Issues in Mental Health Nursing reports that effective detection and treatment of inadequate vitamin D levels in people with depression may be an easy and cost-effective therapy to improve health as well as their quality of life.
Taking vitamin D supplements after consulting a doctor may lead to improvement in various measures of mood.
Your body can also absorb vitamin D through food. Some good food sources of vitamin D include milk, egg yolks and fish that have bones.
5. Stock Up on Omega-3 Fatty Acids
During the winter season, it’s important to eat a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which have an important role in emotional health.
The two main types of omega-3 fatty acids are eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Both EPA and DHA play an important role in nerve function and mood regulation. In fact, people with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids were less likely to experience moderate or mild symptoms of depression.
A 2004 study published in Lipids in Health and Disease reports that there is enough epidemiological, laboratory and clinical evidence suggesting the positive role of omega-3 fatty acids in certain cases of depression.
Another study conducted in 2006 by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center reports that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids may influence mood, personality and behavior.
To get enough omega-3 fatty acids, include cold-water fish like salmon, tuna, sardines and anchovies in your diet.
In addition, you can eat more flaxseeds, walnuts and omega-3 fortified eggs. You can also take an omega-3 fatty acid supplement, after consulting your doctor.
6. Keep Warm
To fight an increased level of sadness during the winter months, it is important to stay warm. Cold weather tends to make you feel depressed as feeling cold makes you feel even more down.
To keep warm, enjoy hot beverages and eat warm foods. You can opt for healthy herbal teas instead of your regular coffee as it tends to be dehydrating.
Plus, make sure your home stays cozy, between 18 and 21 degrees Celsius (64 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit).
7. Avoid Coffee and Switch to Green Tea
Cold winter days are perfect for a warm cup of coffee. While 1 to 2 cups of coffee is not bad for you, drinking it in excess is not good for your physical or emotional health.
Too much caffeine interferes with your natural circadian rhythm, thus affecting your sleep. Sleep disturbance can lead to poor mood and depressive symptoms. In the long term, it can even lead to dehydration and fatigue.
Instead of your regular coffee, you can opt for green tea.
Loaded with antioxidants and amino acids, green tea can help you overcome depression in a natural way. In particular, the amino acid theanine found in green tea has psychoactive properties that reduce stress and increase dopamine levels in the brain.
A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reports that frequent intake of green tea is associated with a lower prevalence of depressive symptoms in the older population living in the community.
Enjoy 3 to 4 cups of green tea daily to help lift your mood and improve your overall health as well.
8. Do 10 Minutes of Meditation Daily
To beat winter blues, meditation is another useful weapon.
Meditation helps fight a negative mood and bring about calmness. With time, meditation increases positive emotions, which in turn increases happiness and reduces depressive symptoms.
Meditation effectively relaxes both the body and the mind, which in turn leads to increased activity in the parts of the brain associated with happiness and reduced activity in the parts of the brain associated with stress.
Meditation is even beneficial at reducing anxiety and preventing panic attacks.
There are different types of meditation that can prevent depression. Mindfulness is considered the most effective. In this type of meditation, you learn to pay deliberate and open-hearted attention to the moment-by-moment unfolding of the external and internal world.
Start doing mediation for a few minutes initially, then gradually increase the time to at least 10 minutes a day.
Also, just a short 10 minute session of deep breathing offers mood-boosting benefits and also restores you to a contemplative, restful and peaceful state. This helps you deal with the fluctuations that come with changing seasons in a much better way.
When you breathe deeply, it sends a message to your brain to calm down and relax. It also helps reduce the level of the hormone called cortisol, which is linked to a high stress level and depressive symptoms.
9. Snack on Dark Chocolate
Chocolate has always been a tasty and good way to boost your mood when you are feeling low.
Having a few bites of chocolate, especially dark chocolate, can significantly improve your mood. This is mainly due to its high antioxidant content.
Dark chocolate may increase serotonin levels in the body.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology reports that cocoa polyphenols enhance positive mood states but not cognitive performance.
To help improve mood and fight winter blues, satisfy your cravings with a sweet treat of 1 to 1½ ounces of dark chocolate a day.
10. Connect More with People
Relationships and happiness are connected, and vice versa. Hence, working on relationships is another good way to fight winter blues.
It has been found that people with strong and broad social relationships are happier and healthier.
As socializing is good for your mental health, make all efforts to keep in touch with people you care about.
Try to accept any invitations you get to social events, even if you only go for a little while. Always remember that socializing instills a feeling of self-worth and belonging.
- Try color therapy, which can help boost your mood and stimulate certain feelings during the dark and gray winter months.
- Bring a bit of cheer into your home with brilliant, vibrant colors and light.
- Aromatherapy can also provide solace and evoke pleasant memories.
- Keep an optimistic attitude toward life and think positive to melt away the winter blues.
- Listen to upbeat or cheery music to significantly improve your mood.
- Taking a vacation to a warmer climate with lots of sunshine has enormous benefits for your physical and mental well-being.
- No matter how much you want to sleep until noon, stick to your regular sleep schedule.
- Keeping your mind active with a new interest or hobby can also help ward off symptoms of SAD.
- If you are not able to overcome SAD, or your symptoms are more serious, you can opt for talking therapy such as counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Joining a support group and sharing your experience with others can also have a therapeutic effect on your condition.