Evidence-Based Approaches to Winter Wellness
Author: Shoshana Belisle, MSW, MA, RYT, Namaste Wellness Advisor
Now that the days are becoming shorter and nights are becoming longer, many people find themselves succumbing to the effects of the “winter blues.” A reduction of sunlight in autumn and winter can make us literally want to hibernate!
The winter blues increases sleepiness, reduces energy, lowers mood, and creates cravings for carbohydrates, which is often a major culprit behind winter weight gain. The clinical, more severe, expression of the condition - “seasonal affective disorder” (SAD) - is a type of major depression with a recurrent seasonal pattern; it worsens in fall/winter and remits in spring/summer. (This is a diagnosable mood disorder that requires professional attention. Please make sure to get help if think you might be suffering from SAD.)
The winter blues occurs when we don’t have sufficient exposure to sunlight. Thus, people who are vulnerable to SAD may also find their mood and energy dip in darker climates. Higher latitudes usually predict a higher risk of SAD in a population. Also, it is much more common among women and people with a history or genetic predisposition to depression.
The exact cause isn’t completely understood. The most popular hypothesis is that a reduction of sunlight can disturb one’s circadian clock, causing it to be out of phase with the normal day-night cycle. Sunlight stimulates the retina in the eyes, which sends signals to the pineal gland, a small endocrine gland tucked under the brain. The pineal gland produces melatonin, which is a critical hormone for regulating our circadian rhythms. When the pineal gland doesn’t get exposed to sunlight through the eyes, melatonin production can be out of balance, leading to symptoms of grogginess and moodiness and sleep challenges.
Dr. Normal Rosenthal, MD, the researcher who first described Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), wrote a book that provides a thorough understanding of SAD and describes the primary treatment recommendations. There are many tools available that can help you stay healthy, vibrant and happy during the winter months.
Phototherapy (i.e. light therapy), a standard practice for the past 30 years, involves using a lightbox, which emits broad-spectrum light, much like that of natural sunlight. Using a lightbox for 30 minutes in the morning can jump-start your day. Dr. Rosenthal recommends lightboxes that have fluorescent light bulbs behind a screen that filters out UV light.
Exercising outdoors in the morning is a proven way to boost your energy, especially in winter. In general, aerobic exercise has a powerful antidepressant effect. Yes, it can be a challenge to get outdoors when it’s cold - but it’s worth the effort! Also, outdoor light - even on an overcast day - has more illumination than normal indoor lighting.
Supplementing vitamin D may help in reducing the negative effects of inadequate exposure to sunlight. Vitamin D is often deficient among people who live at higher latitudes, so supplementation is often a good idea.
For people with severe SAD, psychotherapy and antidepressant therapy may be needed to improve mood and function.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps address the cognitive barriers that prevent us from staying active and engaged in the winter. Its effects have been shown to be just as powerful as light therapy but are longer lasting because it involves the development of lasting skills.
Mindful nutrition can reduce carbohydrate cravings typical with SAD. Nutrition coaching can help you create a nutrition plan to ensure steady energy from healthful sources.
Yoga may even play a role in managing SAD by stimulating the pineal gland through breathing exercises and postures.
Meditation is a powerful tool to reduce stress and lessen the likelihood or impact of SAD.
If you are truly suffering from SAD, be sure to get professional help from a licensed mental health provider. But if you have a mild case of the winter blues, an overall healthy lifestyle can make a huge difference in maintaining a steady mood regardless of the seasons.
At Namaste, we believe in the power of prevention. Wellness coaching can be a great tool to help you build a lifestyle that supports optimal energy. We can be your partner in creating a wellness plan to help beat and prevent the winter blues, deliver a trainer to your door to support you in getting outside to move, provide nutrition coaching to optimize your mood, and incorporate yoga and meditation into your weekly routine.
There is no reason why you can’t feel your best year-round with the right information and a little help from your friends.