Coping with the Winter Blues

It’s been a long, long winter with an end that’s far in sight — as evidenced by Punxsutawney Phil’s 2021 prediction. If you’re a believer in Groundhog Day, then you know many states are in for at least another few weeks of winter.

For those experiencing the winter blues — or its more severe counterpart, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) — the news of more cold, dark days may come as a disappointment. After all, the freezing weather and lack of light in wintertime can seriously affect our mood.

More weeks of winter means it’s time to step up your self-care game to counteract these mood-altering effects. Here’s how to cope with the winter blues, according to science.

Why Do You Feel Down in the Winter?

To understand how to combat the winter blues, you need to understand how the winter weather affects your body.

Shorter days in the wintertime can disrupt your biological clock, a.k.a. the circadian rhythm. Due to decreased exposure to natural light, your body produces less melatonin (the chemical that tells your brain to wind down for sleep). Because your body doesn’t produce as much melatonin, your body has a harder time telling you when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to wake. As a result, you might feel sluggish, lethargic, and depressed throughout the day.

How to Combat the Winter Blues – Use a light therapy box.

You may not believe that something as simple as using a light therapy box for 30 minutes a day can make a difference in your mood, but it is a proven treatment for SAD. As many as 70% of patients with SAD feel better after a few weeks of light therapy. Even if you don’t have SAD, using a therapy lamp can up your exposure to natural light during the wintertime, giving you a much-needed mood boost.

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Take a melatonin supplement.

Because a lack of natural melatonin plays such an important role in seasonal depression, it’s thought that taking a melatonin supplement can make you feel better. A 2006 study found that low-dose melatonin can improve the symptoms of SAD. According to the study, the time of day when you take melatonin matters: people who are “night owls” responded best to it at night, while those who considered themselves “morning people” responded better to an AM dose.

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Get more vitamin D.

Decreased exposure to sunlight during the wintertime can take a serious toll on our mood — and our body’s vitamin D production. It’s thought that vitamin D deficiency affects about 40% of Americans and is more common in the north, where sunlight is especially scarce during the wintertime. Your doctor can run a simple blood test to diagnose vitamin D deficiency.

In addition to causing bone problems over time, vitamin D deficiency can also contribute to low mood. Most of the time, spending 10 to 30 minutes in the mid-day sunshine is thought to be enough to get your daily dose of vitamin D. Still, in the winter months, when there is less natural sunlight, Harvard Medical School attests that the best way to get vitamin D may be through a supplement.

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Practice good sleep hygiene.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), insomnia, or the inability to fall and stay asleep, is closely linked to feelings of depression. Your body needs a minimum of seven hours of sleep each night to help you feel your best. It can be more challenging to get the sleep your body needs in the wintertime when your circadian rhythms are out of wack. However, following these sleep hygiene tips can help you get a better night’s rest:

  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day (yes, even on weekends!)
  • Avoid blue light-emitting electronics at least 30-60 minutes before bedtime
  • Don’t drink caffeinated beverages six hours before winding down for bed

 

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