How to get through the winter blues

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July is the coldest month of winter and, more often than not, especially if we are not winter people, our spirits tend to become depleted. We may lose the zesty energy that spring and summer bring. I often wish that we could be like bears and hibernate through winter. I struggle to stay warm and being a mother of two very energetic boys, climbing into bed early seems to be a very foreign concept. It probably isn’t all that bad, as I am able to spend time with them outside in the lovely garden papered with leaves, and needing to prepare healthy meals for them forces me eat healthy too.

Life has a seasonal rhythm. As we start the New Year in summer, we are enthusiastic to set our resolutions. Most of us predictable human beings promise to watch what we eat, exercise and be more optimistic. When we hit the middle of the year with cold fronts looming, temperatures falling and nights lengthening, our moods become more affected.

Research shows that natural sun light fills our bodies with vitamin D, which is also referred to as “the happy hormone” (it’s actually a prohormone). Vitamin D assists our brains, bones and liver to function effectively and low levels of vitamin D have been linked to fibromyalgia, depression, thyroid dysfunction and other autoimmune diseases. Even though it is often not the only cause of such imbalances, correcting it can make an immense difference to our health.

Our neurotransmitters also play an important role in transporting messages through our bodies. Some neurotransmitters act like accelerators that energise or speed us up, while others act as brakes to slow us down – and shut off certain activities. Our unique biological makeup i.e. our genes and inherited potentials, along with stressful lifestyles, poor diet and lack of exercise tend to create the imbalanced messages that our neurotransmitters then transport within our bodies.

Thus, maintaining a consistent exercise programme throughout the year and being mindful of what fuel in terms of food and beverages we give our bodies throughout the year is a powerful way to help strike a healthy balance. In winter, we tend to become lazier, we may look for shortcuts but in order to beat the slumpy stages of winter, we need to take control of our habits. This includes continuing to eat fresh, seasonal foods, drink water or herbal teas keeping our caffeine and alcohol intake to a minimum.

“Research shows that natural sunlight fills our bodies with vitamin D which is also referred to as “the happy hormone” (it’s actually a prohormone).”

We need to force ourselves to go outside despite the cold and take in some crisp, clean air and sunlight. In addition, we can also provide our bodies with extra supplements, such as essential omega oils, a good multivitamin and, if necessary, vitamins B, C and D. It is advisable to consult your doctor when adding such supplements.

And finally, remember the power of your thoughts. Thinking negatively and forgetting to appreciate yourself or overlooking what you have or what you have achieved can lead to feeling dissatisfied and losing motivation. This in turn can lead into a downward spiral. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is related to changes in seasons.

An individual normally experiences the same symptoms of SAD at about the same time every year. If you suffer from SAD, you are most likely to start feeling the symptoms in autumn and continue into the winter months, feeling zapped of your energy and making you feel moody. Less often, SAD causes depression in the spring and early summer.

Often people brush off that yearly feeling as simply a case of the “winter blues.” Take steps to keep your mood and motivation steady throughout the year and if you are struggling to find the joy in life and feel you are not able to keep your spirits up, seek treatment. Treatment for SAD may include phototherapy (this light therapy is often used in countries where natural light is limited such as Canada and the UK), medication and psychotherapy.

What to look out for

In most cases, SAD symptoms appear during in late autumn or early winter and go away during the sunnier days of spring and summer. The reduced levels of sunlight during these seasons may disrupt your body’s circadian rhythm, also known as your biological clock, and lead to feelings of depression. In addition, reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin in your brain that may trigger depression. The change in season can also disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.

Some people with the opposite patterns have symptoms that begin in spring or summer. Although this is uncommon, it does occur. In either case, symptoms may start out mild and become more severe as the season progresses.

 Signs and symptoms of SAD may include:

  • Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
  • Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Having low energy
  • Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, worthless or guilty
  • Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide

Symptoms specific to winter-onset of SAD, also referred to as winter depression, may include:

  • Oversleeping
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Tiredness or low energy

Symptoms specific to summer-onset of SAD, also known as summer depression, may include:

  • Trouble sleeping (insomnia)
  • Poor appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Agitation or anxiety
  • Mania or hypomania (less intense form of mania)

If you experience these symptoms, you should contact your doctor, especially if you are feeling down for days and can’t get motivated to do activities that you normally enjoyed; if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed; if you’re relying on alcohol and/or substances for comfort or relaxation, or feeling hopeless or thinking about suicide. Treatment can help prevent complications, especially if SAD is diagnosed and treated before the symptoms escalate.

And, there is hope. There is help in many forms, from medication, to therapy and social support in the form of friends, family and community. Winter moves on, and spring arrives to bring new growth and possibility… for everything there is a season.

Written by Anastasia A. Savopoulos, counselling psychologist at CentaPaeds, referencing Mayo Clinic.

 Also read:

Why you should add pregnancy to your to-do list
Can’t keep your New Year’s resolutions? Try being kinder to yourself