The winter months can be pretty cold, dark, and bleak, even though we start it off with Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations. They can be hard to get through, because it’s dark when we wake up and dark when we get home from school, university, and work. So I thought I’d put together this survival guide.
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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
SAD is a subset of depression where people who have normal levels of mental health at other times of year can sink into depression at a certain point in the year, usually in winter (Wikipedia, Mind, and WebMD). According to Cleveland Clinic, 5% of Americans have SAD with 10-20% of the American population have a milder form of SAD, nicknamed the winter blues. This means what works for SAD will work for anyone with its milder sibling, the winter blues, to help you through the winter months.
The Winter Months Survival Guide
Less sun exposure in the winter months can lead to vitamin D deficiency. The darker your skin, the more at risk you are at having a vitamin D deficiency. As a black person, I’ve had to be prescribed vitamin D a few times because of my vitamin D levels being on the very low side. I was given an extremely high dose to bring my levels back to within the normal range. As such, I’ve started taking vitamin D every day to avoid my level dropping that low again.
Vitamin D is important because it can affect our serotonin production, an important neurotransmitter which helps regulate our mood. This disruption can make us feel depressed, but also affect our sex drive, sleep, memory, and appetite.
This is supported by Melrose (2015), who states that a systematic review and meta-analysis concluded that low levels of vitamin D were linked to depression. Melrose goes on to say that vitamin D should be taken before the winter darkness sets in to help prevent winter depression.
According to WebMD, some researchers have linked SAD to the natural hormone melatonin, which causes drowsiness in response to darkness. The Cleveland Clinic has also said that the lack of sunlight could be over stimulating the production of melatonin, causing us to feel tired and sluggish.
Thus, the winter months will affect our circadian rhythms, or our sleep-wake cycle. This cycle helps keep everything working normally as it should, whereas disturbances to it can mess up our entire day.
I was given melatonin tablets to help with my insomnia as a natural, nonaddictive sleeping tablet. However, it had an unfortunate side effect or interaction with my beta-blocker for my heart condition, causing heart palpitations, so I had to report it to Yellow Card.
If darkness causes the release of melatonin, then the opposite should be true, shouldn’t it? According to Mind, they don’t believe there is enough evidence to support the use of light exposure and light therapy to help get through the winter months and to help manage SAD. However, they don’t go so far as to dismiss the use of light exposure and light therapy.
Kurlansik and Ibay (2012) believe differently to Mind, stating that although light exposure and light therapy have had issues with finding an acceptable placebo to conduct studies (something Westrin and Lam, 2007, also stated), several systematic reviews and meta-analysis of light therapy studies show such treatments as being affective for SAD.
Personally, before the pandemic started, how easy it was for me to wake up and start functioning in the morning was always affected by when the sun rose and how much light would come in through my window. So in spring and summer I’d wake up early, often at 5-6am, while in winter I’d struggled to get up before 10am.
If we can work with people with SAD, then it could also potentially help all of us to cope with the cold and dark winter months. This can be done by using a light box or having a day light alarm clock.
Going outside, especially in the morning, will help exposure you to natural light, and the effects of natural daylight will still be effective even when it’s cloudy outside. You could do this by taking a short walk when you wake up, having your morning coffee outside, or you could sit in front of the window that’s facing the sun while having breakfast. Support for this comes from Melrose (2015) who stated that low levels of vitamin D are associated with little outdoor exposure to natural light.
Exercising, ideally for 30 minutes a day, five times a week, will also help. If you need help with achieving this exercising requirement, then why not check out my review of a yoga app by clicking here, or reading my article on how to keep exercise interesting, by clicking here. Oh, and if you’re a goth and/or like a bit of metal, I’ve also got your exercise needs covered. Just click here.
According to Parker et al. (2006) and Larrieu and Layé (2018), eating omega-3 fats can help improve our moods. For a list of some of the food items with the best levels of omega-3 fats, check out BBC Good Food by clicking here. You’ll be happy to know that not all the suggestions are fish.
As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, please share your experiences of SAD, the winter blues, and getting through the winter months in the comments section below as well. Don’t forget to bookmark my site and if you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.
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Unwanted Life readers.
Kurlansik, S. L., & Ibay, A. D. (2012). Seasonal affective disorder. American family physician, 86(11), 1037-1041. Retrieved from https://www.aafp.org/afp/2012/1201/p1037.html.
Larrieu, T., & Layé, S. (2018). Food for Mood: Relevance of Nutritional Omega-3 Fatty Acids for Depression and Anxiety. Frontiers in physiology, 9, 1047. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.01047 and https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6087749.
Melrose, S. (2015). Seasonal affective disorder: an overview of assessment and treatment approaches. Depression research and treatment, 2015. Retrieved from https://www.hindawi.com/journals/drt/2015/178564 and https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/178564.
Parker, G., Gibson, N. A., Brotchie, H., Heruc, G., Rees, A. M., & Hadzi-Pavlovic, D. (2006). Omega-3 fatty acids and mood disorders. The American journal of psychiatry, 163(6), 969–978. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1176/ajp.2006.163.6.969 and https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/ajp.2006.163.6.969.
Westrin, Å., & Lam, R. W. (2007). Seasonal affective disorder: a clinical update. Annals of Clinical Psychiatry, 19(4), 239-246. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.3109/10401230701653476.