As we move into winter in many parts of the world, the weather gets colder, the dark descends earlier, and we move inside to hibernate. For many, the colder months bring on the winter blues, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a type of seasonal depression that often begins in the fall and early winter and wanes in the spring and summer. While SAD can vary in severity depending on who it affects, common symptoms are
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day; feeling hopeless or worthless
- Lost interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Low energy; feeling sluggish or agitated
- Sleep problems
- Changes in your appetite or weight
- Difficulty concentrating
- Having thoughts of death or suicide.
Fall & Winter SAD
Symptoms specific to winter-onset SAD, sometimes called winter depression, may include
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Tiredness or low energy.
Spring & Summer SAD
Symptoms specific to summer-onset seasonal affective disorder, sometimes called summer depression, may include
- Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
- Poor appetite
- Weight loss
- Agitation or anxiety.
For people living in areas of the world that receive extremely low amounts of sunlight in the winter months (or even year-round, such as northern Norway or Alaska), SAD can be a common occurrence.
Whether you experience SAD or a mild case of the blues, the lack of sunlight and less time spent outdoors during the winter months can make anyone feel down. Luckily, there are many natural ways to remedy feelings of low energy if you are prone to the wintertime blues, consider arming your mood with these tips.
Exercise. While the cold that comes with winter weather can leave us feeling lethargic and stiff, it is important to get regular exercise. Exercise is one of the best ways to elevate mood, as exercise provides a natural rush of serotonin and endorphins, which are often lacking in the winter due to a lack of sunlight and time outdoors.
Exercise also increases blood flow in the body, making tolerating cold temperatures easier. Summoning the initial motivation to exercise can be the biggest challenge, so find yourself an exercise buddy to hold you accountable and remind you of the importance of exercise. Exercise is nature’s antidepressant!
Get outside. Going outside in the cold is one of the last things most people want to do in the winter (unless you love to ski!). However, getting outside can provide an instant lift in spirits, even if the sun is not out. Fresh air and natural light are essential for mental health.
If possible, schedule time for walking outdoors every day. Not only will walking increase your energy and exposure to the healthy benefits of fresh air, but routinely getting outside will help you stay connected to nature and will help you grow to appreciate the changing seasons.
Increase your vitamin D. Low vitamin D levels are common for people living in areas with low sun exposure, especially in the wintertime. Ask your doctor to test your D levels to find out whether supplementing with the vitamin is a healthy idea for you.
Meditate. Like exercise, meditation produces antidepressant effects, especially when practiced regularly over time. Meditation releases calming hormones, suppresses stress hormones, and stimulates the pineal gland. Meditation also stimulates the parts of the brain that increase feelings of happiness and decreases activity in the parts of the brain associated with stress—making meditation an excellent antidote for SAD.
Light Therapy. Light therapy, often in the form of light boxes and “SAD lamps,” is commonly used to treat seasonal depression. Light therapy provides much-needed light and partially replicates the effects of natural sunlight, balancing the body’s circadian rhythm, boosting mood, and enhancing sleep. If possible, set up a lightbox in your home or at work!
When to see a Doctor
It’s normal to have some days when you feel down. But if you feel down for days at a time and you can’t get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, see your healthcare provider. This is especially important if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed, you turn to alcohol for comfort or relaxation, or you feel hopeless or think about suicide.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the US is 800-273-8255 and is available 24 hours a day for anyone in need. Remember to call 911 in any emergency situation.