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It happens every year, the excitement of the holidays is gone, and the prospect of a long, cold winter looms large. Shorter daylight hours, chilly air, and a bit of post-holiday exhaustion are all that’s needed to bring on seasonal depression.
If you’re bracing yourself for your yearly bout of the dreaded “winter blues,” you’re not alone. A large number of Americans are right there with you. In fact, somewhere between 4% and 6% of the population suffers from seasonal depression, with another 10% to 20% experiencing milder symptoms.
But does it have to be that way? Of course not!
You can be just as bright and happy in the winter months as you are in the summer. It just might take a little winter self-care to get you there.
Let’s take a look at how to beat the winter blues, with some tried-and-true tips ranging from medical studies to grandma’s sound advice.
What Is Seasonal Depression?
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is the official name of the winter blues. It’s a major depressive disorder with a seasonal pattern that starts around the autumn season, when there’s less sunlight, and ends around the start of Daylight Savings in March. This mental health condition can occur any time of the year, but winter is the most likely season.
SAD usually begins in adulthood. Your risk increases as you get older, and women are more likely to be affected than men.
Symptoms of SAD
The signs of seasonal depression are similar to the classic signs of depression:
- Oversleeping, even during daytime hours
- Trouble sleeping at night (insomnia)
- Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy
- Social withdrawal
- Feeling guilty or hopeless
- Low energy levels
- Decreased sex drive
- Inability to focus or concentrate
- Changes in appetite, typically an increased appetite and cravings for carbohydrates and sweets resulting in overeating
- Sudden weight gain or weight loss
How to Deal with Seasonal Depression
Seasonal depression can range from a mild mood change to full-blown depression. If you’ve noticed any of the symptoms above, it’s time to take the reins of your mental health and beat the winter blues!
Let’s get into some ways you can support your mental health and break out of that SAD in a healthy way.
See a Medical Professional
If you feel like you’re developing seasonal depression, don’t try to tough it out or suffer in silence! Talk to a mental health professional for a diagnosis and treatment plan. They can monitor your symptoms to make sure that the steps you’re taking are treating you effectively.
A mental healthcare provider might also prescribe antidepressants to deal with SAD or to keep a milder case of “winter blues” from escalating.
Increase Your Vitamin D
For many, the most challenging part of the winter isn’t the cold, but the darkness. Think of it as a casual, involuntary form of hibernation.
If you want to keep moving despite the cold, it is essential to boost Vitamin D levels! First, it helps your body by supporting melatonin (the sleep hormone) and converting any excess into serotonin (the happy hormone).
Ideally, this would be your daily vitamin D intake:
- Children up to 12 months: 400 International Units (IU)
- Ages 1 to 70: 600 IU
- Over 70: 800 IU
However, anything between 1,000 and 2,000 IU is generally considered to be safe.
This can be accomplished by using sublingual (under the tongue) D3 supplements, which can be taken on their own or found in fish oil.
Another excellent way to up your vitamin D levels is through LightBox therapy (aka phototherapy), which involves remaining in front of a sunlight-mimicking full-spectrum UV light. This bright light therapy can help keep your circadian rhythm on track which will improve your mood and sleep.
Depending on the strength of the light and the severity of your seasonal depression, this can be for anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours per day. Experts recommend using tabletop light boxes of at least 10,000 lux.
Exercise is an effective treatment for all types of depression, including seasonal depression. It releases endorphins, your body’s “feel-good” hormones, which can greatly improve your mood and reduce your symptoms of depression.
Exercising can also improve your sleep at night, and a good night’s sleep will help you feel less exhausted and more active during the day, which can also lessen feelings of depression.
At first, your depression-caused fatigue might make it difficult for you to begin a new exercise habit. In that case, ease into it slowly. Opt for low-impact forms of exercise such as yoga, tai chi, or walking. Dancing is another great option, especially if you listen to happy, uplifting music.
And don’t stress out over time! Move your body for as long as you can, guilt-free. Remember, any exercise is better than none. Plus, if you take your workouts outdoors, you’ll double the benefits: exercise and vitamin D!
Choose the Right Foods
Believe it or not, what’s on your plate can also fight SAD! Nutrition is one of the keys to handling the winter blues.
One of the most effective ways to do that is by choosing foods that reduce or eliminate your body’s production of cortisol (the stress hormone). Lower cortisol levels = lower stress and anxiety levels!
When you’re at the grocery store, pick up these foods to reduce stress and anxiety:
Foods High in Vitamin B
These can help metabolize (and thus reduce) cortisol:
- Vitamin B-fortified cereal
- Organ meats
Foods High in Omega-3 Fatty Acids
These reduce inflammation—a form of physical stress that leads to the production of more cortisol:
- Fish: anchovies, herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines, tuna
- Olive oil
- Seeds: chia and flax
Foods High in Magnesium
Some of the best foods for reducing stress are house high in magnesium, which metabolizes cortisol, reduces stress, and relaxes both your mind and body:
- Dark chocolate
- Pumpkin seeds
As you will notice with SAD, all of the contributing factors work together to either help or hurt you. When you start improving one thing on this list, the other factors are likely going to improve, too!
Try Grandma’s Best Remedies
Beyond the science-backed ways to deal with winter SAD, there are some home remedies that can support you, too.
Our grandmothers knew a thing or two about how to make it through the cold season with their heads held high and in good health—and it’s more than chicken soup and warm sweaters! Modern medical science is now confirming that many of the recipes and remedies that have been passed down through the ages actually work.
1. Feed a Cold
The most important thing to do when you have a cold is EAT well. Like grandma said, “feed a cold.” Hearty foods such as soups, stews, roasts and stir-fries combine the benefits of numerous nutritious ingredients into an easy-to-digest dish.
Getting a cold is no fun at any time of the year. But paired with the cold air and long nights, physical ailments can add to the overall “blah” feeling that leads to SAD.
Our ancestors have been dealing with this condition for thousands of years, and many of the traditional preparations they created to mitigate colds and flus have been proven to be exceedingly effective.
2. Turn to Mother Nature
Our grandmothers knew that Mother Nature is a prime source of healing, and turned to their gardens whenever possible.
Here are some plants that can help pull you out of seasonal depression:
- Certain astringent plants, like Echinacea, Goldenseal, Spilanthes, and Osha can immediately calm inflammation in the throat and help to clear the sinuses when taken as teas, tinctures, or even raw.
- Other herbs are known for their warming (or ‘carminative’) properties—think Cinnamon, Cayenne, Cardamom and Cloves.
- Still others are known for their cooling, soothing, and demulcent effects—like Elecampane, Wild Cherry Bark, Slippery Elm, and Licorice.
Using plants from all three categories can optimize your health. And the results are even better when combined with proper nutrition and general tonifying herbs such as adaptogens and mineral-rich greens: dandelion and Nettles.
3. Try Fire Cider
One popular remedy combines some of the most powerful plants into a mixture known as Fire Cider. Here’s how to make it:
- 1 bottle organic Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV)
- 1 cup Raw Ginger Root, peeled
- ½ cup Fresh Turmeric Root, peeled
- 3 heads of Garlic, peeled
- 5 limes or lemons, peeled
- ½ cup Horseradish root, peeled
- 2 tablespoons cayenne powder OR 5 chili raw peppers (Jalapeno, Habanero or Bird)
- Fresh or Dried Basil, Oregano, Rosemary, Bay Leaf and Marjoram
- Optional ¼ cup Organic Honey, to taste
Combine all fresh ingredients in a blender or food processor with 1 cup distilled water. Blend until smooth consistency is achieved (around 1 minute). Move mixture to a dark glass jar; add the ACV and stir in dried herbs. Seal the jar, shake well, then let sit for two weeks in a cool, dark place to allow for fermentation, shaking every few days.
You can take 2 to 3 tablespoons of Fire Cider per day as soon as you feel the onset of cold symptoms.
4. Sniff Your Way Back to Happy
Aromatherapy is a valuable ally when it comes to brightening your day and fighting seasonal depression. A diffuser used with the right essential oils will not only boost your mood, it can also improve your sleep quality and reduce anxiety.
Some of the best scents for fighting seasonal depression include:
- Bergamot and sweet orange: fight stress and anxiety
- Lavender: relaxing and decreasing stress, anxiety, and depression. Also effective at improving sleep
- Rosemary, rose, and wild ginger: alleviate depression
- Ylang ylang: benefits your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing
- Grapefruit: alleviates mental exhaustion and fatigue
Leaving work when it’s already dark out, having to go out in the freezing cold, and having a higher chance of getting sick with a cold or the flu. Between all of these oh-so-fun factors it’s easy to see why SAD takes hold of 3 to 6 million Americans every year! But you don’t have to be one of them.
A little extra self-care during the winter months will help you avoid seasonal depression and keep you mentally and physically healthy. Try different combinations until you find the “secret sauce” that works best for you.
Just remember, if you think that your symptoms are more than you can handle, see a mental health professional for treatment options tailored to your needs.
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