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Managing Your Mood: How to Work Through the Winter Blues


Women sitting on the floor in front of a window with her knees bent up to her face and her hands covering her face and head
Discover strategies to manage seasonal mood changes with our guide on overcoming winter blues and SAD. Learn about light therapy, healthy habits, and natural remedies to lift your spirits

As daylight savings draws to an end, the shorter days of fall and winter are upon us. For many individuals, this brings with it darker commutes and a retreat to the indoors as we search for warmth. While this new hibernation may feel cozy at first, as the season drags on some find themselves longing for longer and warmer days.

 

One challenge that many people face during our long winters is a drop in mood. As many as 15% of Canadians will experience what can be called the winter blues and about 2-3% will experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD). (1) Whether you find yourself feeling a little bit lower this year, or you know that the cold weather always brings about a period of depression, there are ways to help support your mind and body as it moves through these months.

 

In this post, we will clarify the difference between winter blues and an official SAD diagnosis and discuss various healthy habits and therapies that can help you navigate this season with greater ease.

 

Is it SAD or the winter blues?

 

Seasonal affective disorder is defined as a combination of mood and biological changes that have a seasonal pattern to their appearance. (2, 3) While SAD most commonly occurs in the fall and winter it can happen at any time of the year. (2) The key is that a formal diagnosis of depression can be made and that the episodes of depression occur at a similar time throughout the year for at least two years in a row. Some of the symptoms to look for are a low mood, feelings of guilt or hopelessness, reduced energy, changes in eating and sleeping habits, and a loss of pleasure.

 

If this definition does not reflect your experience but appears to be on the right track, then you may be experiencing the winter blues. With the winter blues, you will experience the same low mood and may feel reduced energy but won’t have all the symptoms that present with SAD.

 

In either case, there are ways to support yourself through the coming months and help to weather the winter.

 

Light Therapy

 

One of the more researched treatments for SAD is bright light therapy. A 2020 meta-analysis on the topic compiled the results of 19 different studies on bright light therapy and found that it could be used as an effective treatment for SAD. (4) The treatment requires a white, fluorescent light source with at least 1,000 lux, but some studies used sources of up to 10,000 lux. Patients then sit in front of this light source for at least 30 minutes a day. Some other tips for using bright light therapy:

  • Ensure you are seated around 12-18 inches away from the light source.

  • Results require you to keep your eyes open during the treatment, but you don’t have to look directly at the light.

  • Pair your bright light therapy with another daily task or activity to help incorporate it into your routine.

 

If getting a lightbox is a challenge, you can also work on increasing natural light in your life by ensuring blinds are open in your home, sitting closer to a window while working, or scheduling regular time outside during the day.

 

Healthy Habits

 

It can be easy to let your healthy habits and other routines fall away when your mood declines, however maintaining these activities or even starting a new health habit can be a vital part of helping you manage your winter blues.

 

Establish a Sleep Schedule

 

Many people with winter blues, or SAD, will feel more fatigued and may be inclined to take naps during the day or get more sleep at night, however, it is encouraged that you choose a sleep schedule and stick with it. If you regularly sleep more than nine hours at night you are more likely to continue feeling tired during the day and having the urge to take naps. (5) On average, adults require seven hours of sleep per night. Regularly achieving less than seven hours of sleep per night has been linked to depression, high blood pressure, diabetes, and more. (6) So determine a schedule that works for you and do your best to stick with it!

 

Eat Healthy

 

Ongoing research has shown that eating a Mediterranean-style diet can be protective against developing depression and other mood disorders. (7) By placing an emphasis on fruits and vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, and lean or plant-based proteins you’ll not only be helping your mood but also support the long-term health of your body.

 

Our incredible registered dietician, Mandy Megan, recently wrote a blog post on the Mediterranean Diet! It’s linked below, have a look:

 

Intentional Movement

 

It can be challenging to commit to a trip to the gym or a strenuous workout when your mood is low, but intentional movement is an important part of managing mental health. Regular exercise also helps to reduce stress, which you may be feeling if you’ve been battling a low mood for some time.

 

Instead of viewing exercise as a chore, try to reframe movement into an act of self-care. Here are five tips for including movement in your day:

  • Pick a movement buddy. Find someone who will engage in regular movement with you and keep you motivated.

  • Break up your movement into smaller pieces. If committing to thirty minutes of movement feels daunting, start with smaller but more regular periods of movement.

  • Embrace walking. A brisk walk is a wonderful way to increase your heart rate and get you moving.

  • Plan ahead. Identify times in your day when you have time for movement and schedule it to help you follow through.

  • Try a class. Classes are a great way to try new types of movement, get out of the house, and interact with other people.

 

Supplementation Support

 

While the habits we’ve covered play a foundational role in supporting you through the winter blues, there are supplemental options that can provide additional assistance. Before incorporating any supplements into your routine, it's important to consult a healthcare professional. They can guide you in selecting the right supplements, dosages, and combinations that align with your needs. Some supplements to consider include:

 

Vitamin D: Our bodies are able to make vitamin D on their own, but this requires levels of sun exposure that just aren’t possible during a Canadian winter. Research has shown that having adequate vitamin D levels can be important in regulating mood. (8) Therefore, supplementation can be an easy way to keep your vitamin D levels optimal.

 

Adaptogens: Plant adaptogens have been of increasing interest in recent years, and for good reason. Ongoing research on botanicals such as ginseng, rhodiola, ashwagandha, and more has shown that they can assist in managing ongoing stress and can also benefit the immune system. (9) Reducing stress has also been shown to help improve mood.

 

Saffron: While normally found on the spice rack, saffron is just one of many spices that also has a therapeutic use. Research on specific saffron extracts has been shown to reduce depression severity. (10)

 

Hopefully, this post has given you some ideas of how to support your mental well-being over the coming months. Please remember that this is not medical or treatment advice and no doctor-patient relationship is formed. Always speak with your primary care provider or a naturopathic doctor to establish a personalized treatment plan. Additionally, symptoms of SAD and winter blues could also be due to other conditions, so it is important to discuss your symptoms with a professional.


 

References

 

  1. Levitt AJ, Boyle MH, Joffe RT, Baumal Z. Estimated prevalence of the seasonal subtype of major depression in a Canadian community sample. Can J Psychiatry. 2000 Sep;45(7):650-4. doi: 10.1177/070674370004500708. PMID: 11056828.

  2. Galima SV, Vogel SR, Kowalski AW. Seasonal Affective Disorder: Common Questions and Answers. Am Fam Physician. 2020 Dec 1;102(11):668-672. PMID: 33252911.

  3. Kurlansik SL, Ibay AD. Seasonal affective disorder. Am Fam Physician. 2012 Dec 1;86(11):1037-41. PMID: 23198671.

  4. Pjrek E, Friedrich ME, Cambioli L, Dold M, Jäger F, Komorowski A, Lanzenberger R, Kasper S, Winkler D. The Efficacy of Light Therapy in the Treatment of Seasonal Affective Disorder: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Psychother Psychosom. 2020;89(1):17-24. doi: 10.1159/000502891. Epub 2019 Oct 1. PMID: 31574513.

  5. Consensus Conference Panel; Watson NF, Badr MS, Belenky G, Bliwise DL, Buxton OM, Buysse D, Dinges DF, Gangwisch J, Grandner MA, Kushida C, Malhotra RK, Martin JL, Patel SR, Quan SF, Tasali E; Non-Participating Observers; Twery M, Croft JB, Maher E; American Academy of Sleep Medicine Staff; Barrett JA, Thomas SM, Heald JL. Recommended Amount of Sleep for a Healthy Adult: A Joint Consensus Statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society. J Clin Sleep Med. 2015 Jun 15;11(6):591-2. doi: 10.5664/jcsm.4758. PMID: 25979105; PMCID: PMC4442216.

  6. Owen L, Corfe B. The role of diet and nutrition on mental health and wellbeing. Proc Nutr Soc. 2017 Nov;76(4):425-426. doi: 10.1017/S0029665117001057. Epub 2017 Jul 14. PMID: 28707609.

  7. Cheng YC, Huang YC, Huang WL. The effect of vitamin D supplement on negative emotions: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Depress Anxiety. 2020 Jun;37(6):549-564. doi: 10.1002/da.23025. Epub 2020 May 4. PMID: 32365423.

  8. Todorova V, Ivanov K, Delattre C, Nalbantova V, Karcheva-Bahchevanska D, Ivanova S. Plant Adaptogens-History and Future Perspectives. Nutrients. 2021 Aug 20;13(8):2861. doi: 10.3390/nu13082861. PMID: 34445021; PMCID: PMC8398443.

  9. Tóth B, Hegyi P, Lantos T, Szakács Z, Kerémi B, Varga G, Tenk J, Pétervári E, Balaskó M, Rumbus Z, Rakonczay Z, Bálint ER, Kiss T, Csupor D. The Efficacy of Saffron in the Treatment of Mild to Moderate Depression: A Meta-analysis. Planta Med. 2019 Jan;85(1):24-31. doi: 10.1055/a-0660-9565. Epub 2018 Jul 23. PMID: 30036891.

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