What’s Causing Your Winter Blues? (And How to Beat Them!)
For some, winter is the most glorious time of year. The crisp air, the pretty snow, figure eights on local skating rinks, followed by steaming hot chocolate with those little marshmallows melting into a gooey layer of sweetness. #bliss.
However, this is decidedly not the experience of many Canadians. The Canadian Mental Health Association cites that it’s estimated up to 15 per cent of Canadians experience the “winter blues”: crankiness, fatigue, decreased energy and feelings of anxiety. The winter blues are thought to be a mild form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a form of depression, affecting two to three per cent of the general population, according to a study published in the Journal of Psychology Research and Behavior Management.
So what’s behind these feelings that make it near impossible to drag yourself out of bed on a cold February morning?
Well, new research is exploring the actual neurochemistry involved in shaping the way we think and act, especially when it’s cold and dark for so many hours in a day.
One recent article, published in the journal Brain, suggested that these symptoms in winter are due to a change in the way your brain uses serotonin, a feel-good hormone. What this means is that the brain releases serotonin but then acts like a sponge and soaks it all back up so it doesn’t get a chance to do its job of making us feel happy. The brains of people diagnosed with SAD ultimately had less serotonin available to stimulate that happy feeling during the winter than they did in the summer.
This can have a number of effects beyond making us feel blue. For instance, it can increase appetite and makes us feel sluggish.
So how can you beat those winter blues?
As noted above, one of the main drivers of those symptoms is the shorter days that we experience here in Canada during the winter, which can affect our diet and other indicators of wellness. Taking a holistic approach, including exercise, foods and natural health products, to prevent these symptoms before they start can help you have the best winter ever.
Eat the blues away
Consume foods that are rich in good fats and energizing protein.
Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan, which is readily available in nuts, seeds, tofu and fish. Some recent research published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that consuming a diet with increased levels of tryptophan containing protein, particularly during times of less sunlight, may reduce symptoms of anxiety or depression-like symptoms.
Supplement your mood
Supplements might also be a source of mood-boosting compounds that can carry you through the dark winter months. A number of natural health products have been correlated with mood improvement including SAMe, long chain omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamin D. Tryptophan, the amino acid that is used in producing serotonin, is also available as L-tryptophan in supplement form.
Work it out
Exercise has been shown to relieve stress and increase general well-being. If possible, go for a noon-time walk outside to get a bit of sunlight and get the blood pumping. If you opt to exercise indoors, orient yourself towards a large window for a bit of natural light.
Bright light therapy is an increasingly common treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder. However, you don’t need a diagnosis to benefit from a natural-spectrum light, which simulates the colour of natural sunlight. It can be as simple as switching it on while you’re having your breakfast on dark, winter mornings before work.
If you’re prone to feeling blue during the late months of winter, consider making some simple additions to your winter routine. Consuming more protein-rich foods, getting an extra nutritional kick with a supplement or adding exercise and a bright light to your day may be effective ways of keeping those winter blues at bay.
If you or a loved one are experiencing severe, depression-like symptoms, it is very important that you speak to a health care practitioner.