You have probably heard the term “seasonal blues” or “winter depression” used in reference to the decreased energy and increased fatigue that many experience during the cold winter months. As daylight gets shorter, the weather colder, and having watched the holidays pass by, you may find yourself feeling a little “blue”. Is it normal to have these mood changes during the fall and winter months when we tend to get less natural sunlight? Why does it happen and what can we do about it?
Medically they call it “SAD”. No, not the emotion (although it can make us feel that way), it stands for Seasonal Affective Disorder – a subtype of depression which comes and goes in a pattern based on the seasons. As with most forms of depression SAD can lead to a gloomy outlook, feeling hopeless and irritable. People experiencing SAD tend to be withdrawn, less motivated, and can have problems with sleep and weight gain. In most cases, SAD symptoms appear during late fall or early winter and go away during the sunnier days of spring and summer. Fortunately, feeling the “seasonal blues” does not mean you have Seasonal Affective Disorder which is diagnosed only when symptoms interfere with daily functioning. For the most part however, the symptoms and causes will be the same.
Most people know that during exposure to sunlight, UVB rays enter the skin and are converted to vitamin D. Exposure to sunlight also causes something to happen to specific chemicals in your brain. Just like during exercise, exposure to sunlight causes the release of important neurotransmitters called serotonin and melatonin. Reduced sunlight exposure can cause a drop in these brain chemicals, both having a significant role in regulating your mood and sleep patterns (circadian rhythm).
So what can we do to help balance these important brain chemicals and combat the winter blues? Here are some simple tips that anyone can do, and will help make you feel more like you, and less down in the dumps. These tips will compensate for and prevent the imbalances caused by light deprivation.
1. Get More Sunlight
Of course the best way to do this is to spend some time outside. If weather permits take a brief walk, eat lunch at a nearby park, or simply sit on a bench and soak up some sun. Even on colder cloudy days the outdoor light can help. Do what you can to get more natural sunlight in your home and office. Open the blinds, trim tree branches, and sit closer to the window.
Exercise isn't only for maintaining your weight and staying healthy. Physical activity helps relieve stress and anxiety, both of which can increase SAD symptoms. The effects of a little exercise can last for several hours. You’ll have more energy throughout the day, and your metabolism will stay elevated too. Exercise also helps release the neurotransmitters that improve your mood.
3. Eat Smart
What and when you eat can affect your mood and energy levels. Replace refined and processed foods (like white breads, rice, and sugars) with more complex carbohydrates (whole wheat breads, brown rice, veggies, fruit). Drink 8 cups of water a day, and avoid excessive alcohol which is a depressant, and rather than improving your mood, only makes it worse.
4. Act on your Resolutions
A recent study from the CDC showed a strong link between healthy behaviors and depression. Individuals who exhibited healthy behaviors (like exercising, not smoking, etc.) had less sad and depressed days than those whose behaviors were less than healthy. You may even want to read last month’s post on the stages of change and Rehabilitating Your New Year’s Resolutions. In case you are off to a rough start – this article will help you learn why.
5. Rest and De-stress
Stress is one factor that can enhance and
aggravate feelings associated with the winter blues. Quality and adequate sleep
can help to relieve stress and restore energy levels. If you would like more information on sleep
and resting then the upcoming Rest and De-stress program is for you! In
this 3 week program (January 20th - February 8th), we will
explore how improving your sleep quality can lower your stress levels! Each
week we will focus on several areas that impact sleep quality. Click here to register for the program.
Now that you know what “seasonal blues” really mean, you will be better prepared to handle it. By identifying the cause as a lack of exposure to sunlight we can make changes to prevent and reduce the imbalance of brain chemicals this winter season. When it comes to kicking the blues, your recipe to a brighter outlook will include sunlight, exercise, eating well, reaching your goals, and by participating in the Healthy Lifestyles Rest and De-stress program!
American Accreditation HealthCare Commission. (2014, February 24). Retrieved January 5, 2015, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002499/
Nichols, N. (2013). 10 Cool Ways to Beat the Winter Blues. Retrieved January 5, 2015, from http://www.sparkpeople.com/resource/wellness_articles.asp?id=341
National Institutes of Health. (2013, January 1). Beat the Winter Blues: Shedding Light on Seasonal Sadness. Retrieved January 5, 2015, from http://newsinhealth.nih.gov/issue/jan2013/feature1
Information on the latest vitamin D news and research. (2013, June 1). Retrieved January 5, 2015, from https://www.vitamindcouncil.org/health-conditions/depression/