Beating the Winter Blues

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Seasonal affective disorder can make a stressful time of year even harder. Here’s how to offset the symptoms of SAD.

This was Callie’s fourth bout of depression in a decade. Though she had been making progress, that heavy feeling was back. Her psychologist, Stephen Ilardi, PhD, was flummoxed — until he considered the unseasonably cool and gloomy autumn, and how much time Callie normally spends outdoors.

Ilardi reviewed his notes: four episodes of depression, all beginning in fall or early winter. He excused himself from their session and returned with a light box, a therapeutic fixture that emits rays as bright as a summer day. Callie sat in front of the box for 30 minutes, then borrowed it for the weekend. She called Ilardi’s office Monday, excited to report that she was starting to feel like herself again — and that her own light box was arriving soon by mail.

Like Callie, up to a third of people in the United States experience a decrease in mood and energy during winter, says Ilardi, who is also associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kansas and author of The Depression Cure (Da Capo Lifelong, 2010).

Whether you endure a mild case of winter blues or clinical winter-onset depression, known as seasonal affective disorder or SAD, it’s not just the cold, snow, or overcast skies that do you in. For bodies originally designed to rise with the sun and retreat to caves at nightfall, the loss of daylight hours can throw internal rhythms out of whack.

The body’s internal clock is largely controlled by the release of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep and wake cycles. Melatonin is made from the same molecule that produces serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of well-being. Melatonin levels typically rise in the evening, remain elevated all night, and decrease at dawn.

In winter, longer nights cause the brain to produce and release more melatonin — at the expense of serotonin, explains integrative psychiatrist Henry Emmons, MD, author of The Chemistry of Joy (Fireside, 2006). Meanwhile, the reduced production of serotonin from less daylight triggers mood-depleting feelings and behaviors. But there are things you can do to brighten these dark days.

Let There Be Light

Shortened days present a bigger problem in northern latitudes; one study demonstrated SAD rates in New England were three times higher than in Florida. But even Floridians who spend winter months indoors may not receive sufficient natural light to keep spirits aloft.

One solution is to use a light box to mimic sunlight and reset the body’s clock. A light box emitting full-spectrum light of 10,000 lux can decrease the duration of melatonin secretion in the brain while increasing positivity-boosting serotonin and other neurotransmitters. This restores the body’s regular rhythm of waking and sleeping, typically within a week.

“Bright light therapy is the fastest known established treatment for seasonal depression,” says Ilardi, noting that it also shows great promise as a treatment for all forms of major depression.

Beginning in early fall, try 20 to 30 minutes of light therapy between 6 and 9 a.m. and another 15 to 20 minutes between 5 and 7 p.m. Too much afternoon light can disrupt sleep, so experiment to find the right balance.

Avoid Sweet Deception

It’s dark, it’s cold: Of course cookies sound good right about now. The penchant for sweet foods in winter may actually represent a depression-busting instinct. Simple carbohydrates trigger an insulin surge, leading to increased serotonin production in the brain. This creates a rush of good feelings — but they don’t last.

“It feels good for a little while, but eating sugary foods erodes your resilience,” warns Emmons, who notes that simple carbohydrates spike blood sugar and lead to energy crashes. By contrast, complex carbohydrates like beans, legumes, and root vegetables help keep blood sugar stable. Emmons also recommends that during winter, SAD sufferers should favor more of what the body wants in summer — lean proteins and light, digestible vegetables.

Supplement Your Efforts

Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and walnuts, help the brain use serotonin more efficiently. This produces a potent antidepressant effect, says Ilardi. Foods high in omega-6 fats, however — like fried foods and grain-fed meats — are inflammatory, causing the brain to ramp up its stress response.

Both Ilardi and Emmons recommend a daily 1,000 mg omega-3 supplement to keep the brain in balance. And 2,000 IU or more of vitamin D3 (which the body produces less of in sun-starved winter) can reduce inflammation and help elevate mood. Emmons also recommends a vitamin B complex, which many studies have shown to be helpful for treating depression.

Stay in Motion

Hitting the gym is a hard sell when temperatures plummet, but a good workout is a great defense against winter depression. Exercise increases the energizing neurotransmitter dopamine and aids in clear thinking. A 1999 Duke University study demonstrated that 30 minutes of brisk exercise three times a week is just as effective as drug therapy in relieving depression.

“If you can find a way to embrace being outside, that’s killing several birds with one stone,” adds Ilardi. An energetic trek through the park, perhaps on snowshoes or skis, gets the blood pumping, provides much-needed daylight, and offers a healthy connection to nature — all of which help break the grip of a heavy mood.

Sleep Soundly

Hypersomnia, or excessive sleeping, is a hallmark of SAD, thanks to the higher melatonin levels that accompany dwindling daylight. When the sun sets at 5 p.m. in midwinter, explains Emmons, the body says it’s time for bed around 7 p.m.

For the chronically underslept, it might be wise to give in to this natural impulse and bank some extra sleep hours. “There’s nothing wrong with sleeping nine hours a night,” Ilardi says, noting that it’s natural to sleep more in winter.

Sleep quality counts as much as quantity. SAD sufferers often don’t spend enough time in “slow-wave,” or restorative, sleep, says Ilardi, and consequently don’t feel rested —
even if they’ve spent nine hours in bed. But bright light exposure and exercise promote slow-wave sleep. And anecdotal evidence suggests that omega-3s may also promote deeper sleep.

In all cases, it’s important to keep in sync with nature’s rhythms, says Emmons, who recommends getting up at the same time every day, ideally between 6 and 8 a.m. This way you’ll have more chance to enjoy the sunlight that is available during the darker months.

Mind Your Mind

Practices like yoga and mindfulness training can be powerful antidepression tools.

“You can chemically change your brain through mindfulness,” states Emmons. “You have some say in what pathways you reinforce, what neural connections you’re firing and wiring.”

Energizing yoga practices can help increase mental clarity during dark days, says Minneapolis-based yoga teacher Jean Fraser. “Through yoga, you engage your body to help your mind,” she explains. “You can acknowledge your low energy and ask yourself, ‘How can I help myself through this?’”

Indeed, mindfulness can be the foundation upon which other SAD-busting strategies — light, nutrition, exercise, and sleep — are built.

Emmons says, “If you learn to pay attention to your body — how it’s starting to change and react to the season — you can listen to what [it] needs and respond.”

Jill Metzler Patton is a Minnesota-based writer and yoga teacher.

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