Winter is not my season. If you know me, you know this! Summer 100% is my life force (just writing that has me garden dreaming!). When it's too hot to wear clothes, and too humid for my hair to be remotely controlled, my soul is being fuelled and my energy is being restored. Alas, I am Canadian. I was born in Winnipeg, a city that carries its nickname of "Winterpeg" proudly. As I am not a naturally cold weather, dark afternoon, winter spots loving person, I put in the work to find the parts of winter that I do love, and take care of myself to ensure I don't fall victim to the winter blues, or the more weighted presentation of it as Seasonal Affective Disorder (appropriately abbreviated to SAD).
I built the freedom of travel into my business and lifestyle so that I can get some warm rays on my skin in the winter months, but that isn't an option for everyone and also isn't the solution to six months of low sunlight. While I wouldn't say I experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), I definitely feel the lethargy and lack of spark that comes from the long months of grey skies, cold and too much darkness. Over the years, I've developed some key strategies to prevent the winter blues that you might find helpful whether you're working on staving them off, or to help you come out from under the weight of them.
Seasonal Affective Disorder vs The Winter Blues: What's the Difference?
- Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): This is a specific type of depression that happens seasonally, usually in the winter but it can also happen during the summer. People with SAD have trouble properly regulating serotonin (a neurotransmitter that helps lift our mood), overproduce melatonin (a hormone that regulates our sleep-wake cycles) and underproduce Vitamin D. SAD can make you feel tired, irritable, sad, anxious and unfocused. Some may overeat (especially sugary foods) and others might experience a lack of appetite.
- The Winter Blues: People with the winter blues have much, much milder symptoms of SAD and not to the extent that it would be considered a clinical diagnosis, though could potentially get worse if action is not taken.
Who Is Most Susceptible?
The winter blues and SAD are more likely to affect those living further away from the equator, as they have much less exposure to natural sunlight. Fortunately, there are ways that you can bring some sunshine to your winter blues without taking a tropical vacation.
How To Prevent and Cope With The Winter Blues
Take Your Vitamin D
This crucial vitamin strengthens our bone health, helps balance our hormones, boosts our immune system and nourishes brain function. Low Vitamin D levels are linked to depression and people with SAD symptoms often don't make enough of it.
The sun is one of our leading sources of Vitamin D and it can be challenging to get enough in the winter. Not only are there fewer hours of sunlight, but also we tend to cover up extensively when we're outside due to the crappy weather. Vitamin D supplements are going to be your best bet for increasing your dose of Vitamin D. While there are food sources of Vitamin D such as egg yolks, liver, salmon, sardines, and mushrooms, you won't get near the dose you'll receive from a supplement.
Though I am not in the business of supplement recommending, most of us are low in Vitamin D. Step one is to get your level checked. When your doctor says that everyone has low levels and you don't need to be tested, insist on it. You want to get a baseline so when you go back in six months to get checked again, you have something to measure it against. Josh Gitalis, functional medicine practitioner (and my husband pictured above with our son Finley) gives this recommendation: "To ensure you are getting a good quality Vitamin D, make sure the form is cholecalciferol. Most people need about 5000 IUs to maintain optimal blood levels."
The typical dosage recommendations on labels are often too low, especially if you're starting out low. Of course, you'll want to check with your natural health care practitioner.
Go Outside First Thing in the Morning
Exposure to light when we get up in the morning helps to regulate our circadian rhythm and improve sleep. If you're unable to get outside first thing in the morning (or are commuting while it's still dark), try to get outside for a bit as soon as you're able to, or try a few minutes of light therapy first thing in the morning. As well, that full spectrum of natural light needs to fill your eyes. You don't want so much that you're causing damage, especially if you're in a very snowy area and the glare is high, but some natural light in the eyes everyday is important.
Get Some Full Spectrum Rays In Your Eyes Or Try Light Therapy
If you can't go to where there is more sun, you can also bring some sunshine to you! Light therapy boxes or lamps are a simple way to enjoy a full spectrum of light during the long stretches of winter and may help prevent winter blues in the first place. Look for a light that has at least 10,000 lux (a measure of light intensity) and will also filter UV rays. Remember that a little goes a long way with light therapy and too much exposure can lead to eye strain, headaches or nausea.
Tanning beds are not a good solution for dealing with the winter blues or receiving broad spectrum sunlight. They primarily emit UVA rays which does not promote production of Vitamin D and can cause damage to our skin and health. You can read my full post about the risk of tanning beds here.
Take Advantage of The Warmer Months
Stock up on the benefits of sunshine while it's around! Build up your stores of Vitamin D (like an animal preparing for hibernation!) and enjoy the health benefits of sunshine during the spring, summer, or early fall while the sun is strong. Keep in mind that people with darker skin need 3-5 times more sun exposure than those with lighter skin for optimal Vitamin D. It's important that you enjoy the sun safely and these tips will help you with healthy sun exposure.
Spend Time in Nature
Nature is a restorative and powerful force – it can help boost your mood, improve immunity, reduce stress and support the nervous system. Being in nature is a full-spectrum activity: the fresh air, the sounds of wildlife, the sights, the forest smells and the exercise all contribute to our mental and physical health.
At some points in the winter, depending on where you live, it's just too risky to be outside. In early or late winter, you may be able to go outside in short bursts and it helps if you are moving to stay warm!
One of my absolute favourite indoor winter activities is to visit the local indoor botanical gardens. See if you can find an indoor garden or greenhouse – many large cities have them. The smells in there are pure therapy. Drop me in the tropical room with the humidity and the orchids and I am a new woman.
Try Saunas for Warmth
I am a huge fan of my home infrared sauna! Aside from the comfortable heat they offer, infrared saunas are great for our health. They aid detoxification, boost immunity, improve cardiovascular function, reduce pain and can enhance relaxation. Get the full lowdown on infrared saunas and how to best use them here.
I'd recommend testing the waters in a public sauna (you can find them at some yoga studios and spas) before investing in one at home. You may never have the space or funds to buy your own and that's OK too – that's why it's helpful to have a good public spot to use in the winter.
We tend to focus on hydration in the summertime, but we can get dehydrated in the winter too – and dehydration can impair our mood and cognition. Water is always my go-to source for hydration. When it's cold you can choose hot water, herbal teas, soups and elixirs for hydration, and remember we get water from fruits and vegetables too.
Move Your Body
Exercise is important for your physical and mental well-being. Evidence indicates that aerobic exercise can reduce levels of depression in SAD patients, particularly when paired with light therapy.
During the last year, I've become obsessed with Obé and it's had an enormously positive impact on my mental health. If you register over at Obé with coupon code MEGHAN30 it's free for your first week without any obligation and if you decide to continue, you'll get the first month at 30% off.
Of course, any physical activity you enjoy will help you beat the winter blues – walking, yoga, swimming, dancing, indoor cycling, etc. Whatever you can make into a habit will provide benefit.
Change Your Perspective
Winter doesn't have to be an endless, dark void of cold and misery. Instead of griping about fewer hours of sunshine, try to shift your thought processes and look at the positive aspects of wintertime. Consider the winter as an opportunity to:
- frolic in the snow
- drink hot chocolate
- cozy up in warm sweaters and socks
- snuggle with loved ones
- hunker down on the couch with some great TV
- sleep in
- meal prep for your future self
- do the things you skip when it's nice because you don't want to 'waste time' inside
- or a combination of the above!
Winter is inevitable, but the winter blues don't always have to be. There are many ways to mitigate the effects of the darker months on your mental and physical health. I encourage you to give some of the tips I've shared a try this winter.
What do you do to avoid the winter blues?