If you think you’re fighting the winter blues or seasonal affective disorder, here are seven holistic tips to feel better.
A lot of people are affected by the winter blues and seasonal affective disorder. Let’s talk about what it is and who is at risk.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
SAD is a type of depression, but is seasonal, meaning that it comes usually during fall and winter and goes away in spring and summer. While SAD is a type of depression, its symptoms are usually not as long-lasting as major depression. The winter blues is another condition related to SAD, but its symptoms are usually less intense than true cases of seasonal affective disorder.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
Symptoms can vary from person to person, but may include:
- Having low energy
- Feeling sad and crying a lot
- Hypersomnia, meaning sleeping more than 9 hours a day
- Weight gain
- Craving for carbohydrates
- Social withdrawal (feel like “hibernating”)
Risk factors for SAD
Being female or having a family history of SAD gives you a higher risk factor of having it. Women are four times more likely to have the winter blues than men. Other risk factors include:
- living further north or south of the equator
- having been diagnosed previously with depression or bipolar disorder
- being younger than 30
What Causes Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Researchers aren’t 100% sure what causes SAD, but there is strong evidence that it’s related to lower amounts of light during the fall and winter months. The lower light levels might lead to too much melatonin being produced or a lack of vitamin D in people who have it.
Other studies show that people with SAD might have lower levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin.
It’s important not to underestimate the pain and suffering that both depression and seasonal affective disorder can cause. The most important thing to do if you’re suffering is to ask for help.
While most people turn to their doctors for input, most doctors are going to prescribe an anti-depressant. Doctors are trained to give out prescription medication, after all, not lifestyle intervention.
There is a lot of research that shows that lifestyle intervention can be just as effective as drug therapy, though, especially in cases of the winter blues. These holistic practices usually have no negative side effects, either.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to shame anyone who’s is currently taking or considering taking an anti-depressant, but I’m just trying to make sure that information about holistic treatments gets considered.
Note: you should always consult your healthcare provider if you’re dealing with a serious health issue. Everyone is different and it’s best to find someone who can create an individual plan for you. Re-Find Health.org or the Institute for Functional Medicine are great resources for finding a functional health professional (I have no affiliation with these organizations).
Natural & Holistic Tips to Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder
Now let’s get into the tips for treating the winter blues or SAD. Each of these tips has science that backs up its effectiveness, but, again, it’s important to work with someone who can help make sure you’re improving and getting the help you need.
1. Try Light Therapy
Since the causes of SAD or the winter blues are thought to be related to lower levels of light during the fall and winter months, it makes sense that using artificial sunlight might help. And studies show that it does!
If you are going to try light therapy, then be sure to buy a light that mimics the level of real sunlight. I have a light box on my desk similar to this one. The recommendation is to use the light for at least 20 minutes first thing in the morning.
2. Use Cognitive Therapy
Cognitive therapy, or talk therapy, involves seeing a qualified therapist who will talk with you and offer coping strategies for what you’re going through. You might even find that your health insurance will pay for some of your treatment.
To find a good therapist, it’s wise to ask around or get a referral from someone you trust. There are tons of online resources to find therapists in your area.
3. Take Herbal & Vitamin Supplements
The supplements 5-HTP and St. John’s Wort have evidence showing their effectiveness in preventing and treating prevention. It’s a good idea to discuss any new supplement with your healthcare provider to make sure it’s right for you.
4. Increase Your Vitamin D Supplementation
Most Americans are deficient in Vitamin D throughout the year, but it gets even worse in the winter when sunlight is low. You can ask your doctor to order a vitamin D blood test for you, or you can just make sure you’re taking at least 2,000 I.U. a day.
You might need a lot more than that, though, so I really advise you to have your levels checked at least a couple of times a year.
Yoga in particular has evidence that shows it can fight depression, but any activity will likely help. Some people benefit from cardiovascular exercise and the endorphins that it produces, but even a gentle, 20-minute walk (outside, if possible) can do wonders.
6. Eat A Real Food Diet
You’ve heard it before, but you are what you eat. I can’t think of a better reason to eat real, whole foods than because they make you feel good. Dr. Mercola has a great article with the top foods to fight depression. If you’re eating a clean eating diet, then you’re probably already eating most of these foods.
7. Functional Medicine Lab Testing
You wouldn’t believe the amazing tests that are available in functional medicine these days. You can test everything from your neurotransmitters to the integrity of your gut lining, both of which can impact your mental health.
The point is that it’s much easier for qualified functional health professionals to identify the root cause of what might be causing you to feel depressed. Identifying the cause makes it much easier to fix the problem instead of just addressing the symptom.
My Experience With the Winter Blues
I have a lot of empathy for people who have the winter blues, because I know first-hand how hard it is to shake the bad feelings. I experienced the winter blues a couple of years ago after losing a beloved pet in early December, 2016. I just couldn’t shake the sadness and it only got worse as the days got shorter.
I finally talked about it with my doctor who helped me find the supplements to start feeling better. I also practiced the other tips in this article and the blues went away fairly quickly. I’ve continued to take the right supplements and practice these lifestyle techniques to prevent getting the winter blues in subsequent years.
I hope you found these tips helpful. If you’re suffering, then there’s no better time to make a change so you can feel better soon.
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Here are some resources on fighting the winter blues that might be helpful (some affiliate links included):
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255
- Desktop lamp for light therapy (like the one I have)
- 5-HTP 100 mg
- St. John’s Wort (check with your healthcare professional first)
- Link to Beverly Meyer’s great podcast episode and blog post on vitamin D
- About SAD: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/seasonal-affective-disorder/index.shtml
- Light Therapy: Nussbaumer B, Kaminski-Hartenthaler A, Forneris CA, Morgan LC, Sonis JH, Gaynes BN, Greenblatt A, Wipplinger J, Lux LJ, Winkler D, Van Noord MG, Hofmann J, Gartlehner G. Light therapy for preventing seasonal affective disorder. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015 Nov 8;(11):CD011269. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD011269.pub2. Review. PubMed PMID: 26558494.
- Vitamin D: Kerr DC, Zava DT, Piper WT, Saturn SR, Frei B, Gombart AF. Associations between vitamin D levels and depressive symptoms in healthy young adult women. Psychiatry Res. 2015 May 30;227(1):46-51. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2015.02.016. Epub 2015 Mar 5. PubMed PMID: 25791903; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4420707.
- St. John’s Wort: https://nccih.nih.gov/health/stjohnswort/sjw-and-depression.htm#science
- 5-htp and SAD: http://www.lifeextension.com/Protocols/Emotional-Health/Seasonal-Affective-Disorder/Page-04
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