Five Simple Strategies to Beat Winter Blues

by Dr. Rob & Dr. Kirti Carter
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Depression impacts the lives of 10-25{44c8773cfc5435cd81ad20e0c4d9124b8149e87e023df21bb722cbe5a8d7cc51} of the adult population of the United States. Mood disorders like depression have a significant impact on virtually all aspects of well being and even increase risks of heart disease, stroke, and cancer. Shockingly the World Health Authority declared that by 2030 depression will be the leading cause of disease burden in the world.

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is the medical name for a specific type of depression which seems to correlate with reduced daylight hours. The seasonal depressive symptoms affect about 5{44c8773cfc5435cd81ad20e0c4d9124b8149e87e023df21bb722cbe5a8d7cc51} of Americans and are more common in younger people and women.  Symptoms include sadness, tiredness, loss of energy, lack of interest in life and social activities, weight gain and increased appetite all occurring during the winter months.
The exact cause of SAD is unknown, but, the condition is less common near the equator and symptoms are reduced with light therapy and Vitamin D, the ‘sunlight’ vitamin. While sunlight is a key component, the winter season also includes several holidays noted for excessive eating, alcohol consumption, late-night partying and family stress. Financial pressures are also added at this time of year, and strained bank accounts and elevated stress contribute to the 5{44c8773cfc5435cd81ad20e0c4d9124b8149e87e023df21bb722cbe5a8d7cc51} increased risk of heart attacks on Christmas and New Year’s Day. Societal pressure to have a ‘good time’ over the festive season also increases feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and helplessness dubbed the ‘Christmas effect.’
Blue Monday (the 3rd Monday in January – in 2019 it will be the 21st) has been calculated as the most depressing day of the year!
The formula used to calculate the most miserable of Mondays includes weather, debt, income, time since Christmas, time to break resolutions, motivational levels and the desire to take action: [W + (D-d)] x Tq ÷ [M x Na]. Knowing that this day is pre-destined to be depressing allows you to plan to be different and take preventative measures to lift your mood naturally and take charge of your emotional wellbeing.

#1 Good Mood Food

Nutrition and mental health are intricately linked, and the rapidly expanding science of nutritional psychology is revealing exactly how our mood is driven by the food we eat. Your brain needs food as ‘fuel’ to perform effectively, and it also needs raw materials to make and use the all-important ‘happy’ chemicals, mainly serotonin – 95{44c8773cfc5435cd81ad20e0c4d9124b8149e87e023df21bb722cbe5a8d7cc51} of which is produced in your gut by bacteria!
Nutritional prescriptions are the next frontier in wellness: the evidence is clear that nutrition is a critical component of mental health.  A few relatively minor nutritional adaptions can dramatically and rapidly add up to significant and prolonged improvements in mood and mental wellbeing.
Dietary Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and minerals are essential to wellbeing even though we only need to consume small amounts. The ‘B’ Vitamins are associated with energy production and mood, and Vitamin B6 is required to produce the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.
Although clinical deficiency is rare, reduced Vitamin B6 levels, often associated with other B vitamin deficiencies are more common in people taking oral contraceptives or hormone replacement therapies. Studies have shown significant and continuous improvements in depressive and anxiety symptoms when we get enough B vitamins. Good dietary sources of B6 include protein (fish, tofu), vegetables (sweet potatoes, potatoes, avocados) and nuts or seeds (pistachios).
Magnesium is a critical mineral needed for serotonin production and also quality sleep. Magnesium is one of the most essential minerals in the body and is depleted by stress and bacterial imbalance. Nuts and seeds (almonds, cashew and pumpkin seeds) are good sources of this vital mineral as is dark chocolate which is also rich in other feel-good chemicals which naturally boost your mood and protect your brain.
Many people, therefore, choose to take supplements to ensure they are getting sufficient essential vitamins and minerals.
St. John’s Wort is an ancient herbal remedy used to treat mood disorders. The plant itself has sunshine yellow flowers and perforated leaves which allow light to shine through, so by the “Doctrine of Signatures,” the plant brings sunshine and brightness to your mood (in the same way that walnuts look like brains and are suitable for your mind!). This natural remedy is effective at treating mild-depression and ‘takes the edge off’ the anxiety, stress and overwhelms which often accompany depression.
Standardized extracts are virtually as effective as pharmaceutical medications and typically have fewer if any, side-effects. Seek advice from your healthcare professional if you intend to start taking St John’s Wort and are taking any other drugs as there are known interactions with numerous medications.
Gut Health
Gut health and the bacterial biome (specifically the friendly bacteria in the intestines) have a crucial role in helping us digest food and absorb critical nutrition. Unfortunately many of our daily habits damage or neglect the good bacteria we need to promote our own happiness and instead feed the harmful bacteria. Antibiotics kill off essential bacteria, and Western diets are typically devoid in the whole plant-based foods needed to feed the good bacteria.
To nourish the biome, and keep your gut healthy, eat a diet rich in:
  • Vegetables to provide the fiber needed to keep the gut moving.
  • Fruit providing health inducing and polyphenols (red wine has these too!)
  • Herbs and spices, like parsley and turmeric, rich in immune-boosting compounds
  • Fermented foods, like sauerkraut and kefir, providing good bacteria to colonize your colon.
  • Probiotic supplements provide good bacteria, but you get more from eating fermented foods.
Reduce and Refrain
During the winter many people find themselves ‘carb-loading’ with pints of ice-cream and pounds of cake. When you are feeling miserable, a sugar-hit will temporarily boost your mood, but after the high comes a crash. Refined sugars act like narcotics on the brain and in the long run reduce your ability to maintain your spirit naturally. Consumption of sugar, sugar-laden drinks and refined sugars in processed foods is strongly linked to anxiety and depression.
Caffeine and alcohol are also known to dampen your mood and worsen mood swings, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. While they provide temporary relaxation and relief, in the long run they do more harm than good when it comes to mood maintenance. Cutting out or cutting back on sugar, alcohol, and caffeine may seem like a big undertaking, but the benefits are rapid and significant.
Super Seasonal Snacking
Eating nutritious foods that naturally help boost your mood will dramatically impact your ability to stay sane this winter. Feast on fresh fruits including potassium-rich bananas, seasonal veggies (like squash), whole grains and nuts. Don’t shy away from organic poultry, fish, milk or eggs and they are rich in tryptophan and Vitamin B-12, both crucial players in the production of serotonin.
Bone and vegetable broths laced with herbs and spices nourish the gut and immune system keeping you healthy  – which is why chicken soup is an effective traditional immune and mood-boosting remedy. Sugar-free (inulin sweetened) dark chocolate or hot chocolate drinks provide the ultimate seasonally appropriate tasty mood-boosting treat.

#2 Beautiful Smells

Another natural mood-boosting option is plant-essential essential oils. Many plants can alter our mood and lift our spirits and distilling the volatile essences into potent extracts has become big business. The growing market for essential oils means you need to be careful about the quality and effects of the oils you choose to work with. Research into risks, benefits, and effectiveness is still in its infancy, but there are a few essential oils which you can turn to either as a quick mood-boosting sniff or a luxurious full body massage.

Lavender is calming, relaxing and soothing and research suggests it reduces anxiety; lessons stress; aids relaxation; encourages sleep; boosts mood and reduces symptoms of depression. Lavender has been clinically shown to reduce depression in post-partum women, elderly populations and people with SAD. The potent pharmacological effects of lavender are attributed to its modulation of both the immune and neuroendocrine systems.
Wild Ginger
Culinary ginger is excellent for adding a zing to both savory and sweet dishes, and at the same time, it reduces inflammation with potent anti-oxidants and rich photochemistry which also have anti-cancer effects. Wild Ginger, also known as Thai Ginger, is not the same species as the common ginger root we would use in cooking, but it shares many health promoting properties. Animal studies suggest just inhaling the potent fragrance of wild ginger reduces the symptoms of depression in mice.
Another classical mood-boosting herb now available in concentrated essential oil format is Bergamot. The essential oil is a mild sedative and reduces anxiety as much as medications like diazepam. The citrus-like aroma makes this a favorite massage oil and the combined effect of smell and therapeutic touch enhance the anti-depressant effects.
Classical a female fragrance this potent oil reduces blood pressure and increases skin temperature while creating feelings of relaxation and calmness. Stress is often associated with high blood pressure, and we naturally feel calmer when the body is natural calm, and blood pressure is lower. Ylang ylang also appears to increase self-esteem which helps people take action and actively seek ways to improve mental wellbeing.
A cup of chamomile tea is calming, and sleep-inducing and the essential oil was shown to have a potent anti-depressant effect when inhaled by rats. The known calming effects which reduce anxiety are combined with anti-depressant action making this ideal to help you get restful and restorative sleep.
Oil Blends
Making your own blend of oils with fragrances you enjoy can increase the effects, demonstrated by a study of terminal cancer patients who reduced depression and pain using a combination of frankincense, lavender, and bergamot. Never use oils directly on your skin, always dilute with a carrier oil and start with tiny amounts in case of allergic reactions. Inhalation is an excellent way to get the scent into your system and can be used for rapid mood boosts.

#3 Mindful Movement

We all know exercise is good for us, but do you know why? Our bodies were designed to have a ‘regular’ operating mode a ‘rapid’ action mode and a ‘restful’ mode. Unfortunately, our busy, hectic lives, media intrusions, fear-laden news and more keep us in the ‘rapid’ action and alert mode. We call this stress: this is the body preparing for a problem. Gearing up for a fight, preparing to run away, to chase, to act very quickly. This stress state gives us an extra ‘spurt’ of energy when we need it drawing on ‘reserves’ and switching off unnecessary systems.
The body is expecting an action, after which you can calm down. Exercise provides that action. Hitting, running, movement of any kind uses up the stress hormones, they do their job, then you can calm down afterward. This is one of the many reasons exercise boosts your mood, immune system and reduces the risk of disease and is a mood-boosting ‘lifestyle prescription’ without side-effects.
Experiment with new activities alone or in groups. Join clubs, try out something different. The aim is to enjoy it and just get moving. Exercise is a viable treatment for depression and the physical, mental and emotional benefits are dramatic and rapid with just a few minutes per day.

#4 Stress Management

Learning how to manage your levels of stress is a critical component of mood mastery and also long-term wellbeing. Our bodies are running outdated biological-programming which isn’t equipped to cope with the day to day events and overstimulation of modern life. We need to reprogram the mind to stay calm and actively manage our own physiology with various stress reduction techniques.
The simplest method is to control your breathing. The speed and depth of your breath create a feedback loop informing the body what is going on. If you are rapidly panting it sends the signal ‘something is wrong!’ if you take calm, deep breaths it sends the signal ‘all is well.’ Choosing to breathe more fully and slowly (e.g., when in a stressful situation like an argument) will prevent the cascade of stress signals. Regular deep breathing (for 90 minutes a week) reduces stress levels significantly.
Rapidly increasing in popularity, there are many ancient or modern techniques to still the mind. Think of the brain like a muscle and meditation is a gym. There are lots of different pieces of equipment in the meditation gym! From guided visualization to active movement meditation, breathing meditation, and even tantric meditation.
There is a mediation style to suit everybody you don’t need to be sat cross-legged chanting OM. Extensive scientific research has repeatedly proven meditation helps you improve all aspects of physical, emotional and mental health. Meditation has been shown actually to change regions of the brain associated with depression. Meditation can increase self-esteem and personal discipline while reducing day to day stress, work-related stress, and feelings of anxiety. It’s free to do. You can do it alone or in a group, and it is immensely powerful. Try it.
Often overlooked yet critical to the health and implicated in depression, we all need to sleep more. Artificial light, bedroom devices, late night TV, midnight snacks and of course stress all reduce our ability to sleep. We need sleep to rejuvenate the body, replenish brain chemicals, process emotions and take a rest to be ready to do it all again tomorrow.
Sleep is not a luxury it is a critical component of health. Improving bedroom hygiene (getting rid of screens and lights) and blue-light filters can all help guide our body to calm down. Regular bedtime routines and chill-out time before bed are also necessary – you can’t watch a horror film and expect to be able to sleep easily after.
Increasing quality sleep reduces stress and depression, sleepless nights worrying or watching films increases both stress and depression. There is a vicious cycle with stress, sleep, anxiety, and depression and to break it you need to plan to sleep well. Set a regular bedtime, stop watching screens and gadgets 30 minutes before you want to sleep and calm down with relaxing music, a real book or gentle walk before hitting the sack.

#5 Light it Up!

Since SAD is associated with reduced daylight hours light therapy can be an effective treatment to reduce depressive symptoms and prevent SAD. Although evidence to support light therapy is somewhat limited, it can be effective as part of a consistent strategy of lifestyle changes to enhance mood and reduce symptoms.
Daily administration of light treatments (using specialized devices) over several weeks showed reductions in depression and SAD with just 20 to 40 minutes of 10,000 lux of white cool fluorescent light.  Increasing exposure to natural sunlight is a cheaper approach and maybe more effective. Cognitive function has been shown to increase proportional to sun exposure, and sunlight exposure can be used to predict rates of depression in different regions of the world.
Light therapy is a recognized approach to reducing SAD symptoms and full-spectrum light exposure for 30 minutes per day can provide rapid symptom relief for some people with severe SAD. Light therapy can create a blue light glare which some people find uncomfortable, and you need to ensure you do not look directly at the sun or you can damage your eyes.
For milder symptoms, a more natural approach of getting outside or sitting near a window can be sufficient to boost sunshine vitamin D (activated by sunlight on the skin) and help reset the body’s natural sleep/wake cycle which is controlled by light. If you can watch the sunrise and sunset then step outside for a bit of midday sun too this will help your body understand that it is winter and settle into appropriate cycles which support your well being.

Don’t be Sad, be Happy

Depression and SAD can be effectively treated and even prevented with natural life-enhancing actions. Eat well, move more and relax. Get outside to combine fresh air, sunshine, nature and movement then you get a super-dose of all things right for you. Create your own plan to prevent SAD, boost your mood naturally and take charge of your mental wellness this winter, and for the rest of your life. Small changes add up to a big difference and a happy, healthy start to the New Year.
Dr. Rob & Dr. Kirti Carter
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