For some winter is a time to catch up on reading, sip hot tea by the fire, or enjoy winter sports like skiing or ice-skating. For others, winter can trigger a months-long sadness and lethargy.
In Chinese medicine winter is considered more yin than the other seasons and is characterized by cold, dark, damp, and a turning inward. It’s a time to be still and take inventory of your inner world.
Yet this season is full of yang activities like parties, shopping, and overindulgences in food and drink. Once the holidays have passed and winter has truly set in, it’s common for many people to feel a dip in their mood—we call this the winter blues.
“Winter blues is a general term, not a medical diagnosis,” says Matthew Rudorfer, MD, a mental health expert at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). “It’s fairly common, and it’s more mild than serious. It usually clears up on its own in a fairly short amount of time.”
But if your winter blues come early and overstay their welcome, you may have a more serious condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a clinical diagnosis of depression brought on by winter.
The NIH has been studying winter blues and SAD for more than 30 years. They have found that in Southern states like Florida, only about 1 percent of the population are likely to suffer from SAD, whereas in northern states like Alaska, about 10 percent of the population is affected.
The winter blues are typically linked to the post-holiday slump or a few weeks of unusually cold temperatures in January or February. SAD follows a more regular pattern—it typically sets in when the seasons change and the days darken and lifts in the spring or summer as the sunlight and warmth increase.
“SAD can look like a kind of hibernation,” Rudorfer said. “People with SAD tend to be withdrawn, have low energy, oversleep, and put on weight.”
Harvard research confirms that SAD symptoms include loss of energy, feelings of worthlessness, trouble concentrating, and uncontrollable urges to eat sugar and high-carbohydrate foods.
SAD “can be a nudge from Mother Nature that something in your life isn’t quite right,” says physician Christiane Northrup.
According to Northrup, the body needs a minimum of 30 minutes of sunlight each day. The ideal amount is about two hours. Cloudy winter days can block us from that light, which can result in a decrease in our energy and mood. Our bodies also make more melatonin in the winter, Northrup says, which makes us naturally want to sleep more, which can exacerbate SAD.
Whether you suffer from a mild case of winter blues or SAD, here are five things you can do to care for yourself and lift your mood.
1. Turn on the Lights
Light therapy is the most widely used and effective treatment for SAD. It involves sitting in front of a light box for a set amount of time each day, typically in the early morning, depending on your doctor's recommendation. The light from a light box is much brighter than indoor lighting and has been shown to relieve symptoms for about 70 percent of patients in just a few weeks. You can also supplement your time in front of the light box by sitting near a window when you can or by spending time outside, especially on sunny winter days.
2. Choose Snacks Wisely
Craving carbohydrates is quite normal in the winter as foods like bread, cookies, and crackers can increase serotonin levels and make us feel happier. But Northrup warns that while processed carbohydrates can offer a quick pick-me-up, these foods eventually make your mood swing back down and they deplete your body’s natural stores of vitamins and minerals. Instead, choose complex carbohydrates, vegetables, and protein-based snacks like nuts.
3. Stretch Back to Health
Yoga is a great way to get some exercise, raise your serotonin level, and release emotions being stored in the body.
“Just as changing thought patterns can influence the body, changing the position of the body can influence the mind and facilitate emotional release,” says Deepak Chopra. “As you stretch your muscles and expand your range of motion, you shift the bodily patterns that trap emotional pain.”
Many people struggle to get out of bed in colder weather. Rodney Yee recommends you roll right out of bed and into downward facing dog to help alleviate stiffness in the body. Or he suggests you start a yoga session with a pose you really love to help coax you into a longer practice.
Inversions are thought to help soothe the nervous system and restore balance in the body—just be sure to practice inversions appropriate to your level of experience. “Turning upside down...stimulates and nourishes the endocrine glands, especially the pituitary and pineal glands, which when stimulated by the pressure created in inversions release hormones that regulate cellular metabolism, bringing health, balance, clarity, vitality and optimism to the whole body/mind system,” says Sharon Gannon, cocreator of Jivamukti Yoga.
4. Try Some Meditation
A 1989 study found that SAD may be connected to a disturbance in the pineal gland, which is a photosensitive organ connected to our body’s sleep patterns. Meditation is one way to stimulate the pineal gland and is an effective treatment for sleep disorders, including those caused by winter disruptions in our natural sleep cycle.
5. Add Supplemental Support
Herbs have been used since ancient times to help our bodies heal, and many people turn to herbal remedies during the winter to help relieve mild to moderate depression. If you are not familiar with herbal remedies, consider consulting your doctor or an herbalist for more information.
St. John’s wort is one of the most commonly used herbs in the United States. Research shows it helps improve mood in people dealing with SAD and that it works even better in combination with light therapy. It is available as a capsule, tincture, or a tea.
Aromatherapy is another tool for your self-care toolbox. Essential oils can enhance your mood—whether you need stress relief (try lavender or frankincense) or are looking for some energy (try grapefruit, peppermint, or basil). Add a few drops to a bath or make your own spritzer. Fragrant teas with some of the same scents are also an option.
© 2015 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies