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 overcast skies or chilly temps 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.
In winter, longer nights cause the brain to produce and release more melatonin — at the expense of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of well-being, explains integrative psychiatrist Henry Emmons, MD, author of The Chemistry of Joy. 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 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 psychologist Stephen Ilardi, PhD, author of The Depression Cure.
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
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. “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.
It’s also 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.”
Indeed, mindfulness can be the foundation upon which other SAD-busting strategies — light, nutrition, exercise, and sleep — are built. “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,” says Emmons.
This originally appeared in “Beating the Winter Blues” in the December 2013 issue of Experience Life.