Around this time of year, many people begin to experience some version of “winter blues”, and the clinical form is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Seasonal depression, at its core, comes from light deprivation.
Light deprivation might come from:
- Shorter days in fall and winter
- Overcast skies
- Living in a dark place (walls painted dark colors, rooms with no windows, rooms with small windows, rooms with windows where light is physically blocked by trees or other houses)
The further away from the equator you go, the higher percentage of people experience some form of winter blues or SAD―and similarly, the closer to the equator you go, the lower percentage of people experience winter blues.
People with winter blues or SAD may experience symptoms such as:
- Decreased energy
- Needing more sleep than usual
- Craving sugar, starchy foods, or alcohol
- Weight gain
- Feeling blue or hopeless
- Loss of interest in activities you normally like
- Low productivity
- Less control with resisting unhealthy habits (junk food, social media, alcohol, etc)
Some people looooove the fall and winter months. I am not among them. As a “solar-powered lizard,” I much prefer the bright warm days of summer. I have long struggled with seasonal affective disorder (which has the most apt acronym of all time: SAD). While others are rejoicing that pumpkin spice lattes are back on the menu, I find myself dreading the coming months of darkness, cold, and depression. Fortunately, I happened to read a book called Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder by Norman E. Rosenthal, MD last year that changed everything for me. The book—coupled with much more research and experimentation I did last fall and winter—helped make fall and winter far more bearable. It’s still not my favorite time of year, but at least I now know how to make the best of it. Here now are some of the strategies that have proven most useful. If you struggle with SAD, too, I hope a few of these natural solutions can help you boost your mood through fall and winter.
Leverage Strategic Light Exposure
Light exposure is connected with mood and energy. Bright light gives you a boost of energy, and lack of light can lead to feelings of fatigue and being unmotivated. One of the best things you can do is get light exposure in a strategic way.
Get Light Exposure First Thing in the Morning
Getting bright light exposure first thing in the morning, like going for a brisk walk outside, helps your body set its circadian rhythm and tells your brain that now is the time to be awake. It may be cold, but just bundle up well. The movement will also help boost your mood!
Use a Light Box
Most people know about using a “happy light” to help with seasonal mood changes or Seasonal Affective Disorder. What I didn’t know, and what I learned in the book Winter Blues, is that most of these lights are actually not bright enough, or use LEDs, which can be damaging to the eyes. I bought the light box recommended in the book—the Alaska Northern Lights North Star Light Therapy Box—which is a giant briefcase-sized fluorescent light box that lights up the entire room. (It even has a handle at the top, so it looks even more like a briefcase!) The difference between this and other light boxes I’ve used is night and day (ha ha ha, get it?!). To me, it was worth spending the money on this.
Use a Tanning Bed
While using a light box is helpful, I find that the thing that actually boosts my mood the most, more than anything else, is a few minutes in a tanning bed daily. The right tanning bed mimics sunlight, boosts mood, and allows you to produce Vitamin D. I always leave the tanning bed in a better mood than when I got in. It feels like it warms my very soul. Even Dr. Rosenthal concedes in Winter Blues that UV light has been shown to be mood-boosting (though, unfortunately he quickly dismisses that recommendation due to the misconception that UV light is dangerous in any dose.)
Contrary to what we’ve been told, UV light—which tells your body to make Vitamin D— is not inherently harmful. We have evolved to be out in the sun, and our sedentary and indoor lifestyles mean that most of us are woefully deficient in Vitamin D. Sunlight is a nutrient that we need the right amount of, just like any other nutrient, like calcium or Vitamin A. Too much and it’s not good (i.e. burning and increased cancer risk), too little and it’s not good (mood disorders, decreased immunity, decreased resistance to cancer since Vitamin D is protective against cancer). You need just the right amount!
To find the right tanning bed, first, find a reputable tanning salon and ask them which of their beds has both UVA and UVB. You want a tanning bed that most closely mimics the natural spectrum of sunlight, which is 95% UVA and 5% UVB. Generally, the older and cheaper beds are the best for this, as most of the newer ones are UVA only.
How much time in the tanning bed for you will depend on a host of factors, including the fairness of your skin, but Dr. Michael Holick in The Vitamin D Solution recommends this rule of thumb for sun exposure:
If you are fair, start with just 1 minute in a tanning bed, and work your way up. The most important thing is not to get to a point where you burn, because burning is what actually increases your cancer risk. You can, however, improve your body’s ability to resist burning through getting lots of good anti-inflammatory fats and an antioxidant-rich diet. I wrote a whole guide to safe sun exposure called Eat Your Sunscreen, which goes into why UV light is so important and the foods and nutrients that help you resist burning and promote tanning.
Travel to a Sunnier Destination
Traveling somewhere warmer and sunnier, even if just for a week, can be a welcome reprieve from the gray overcast days of winter. It can also give you something to look forward to, which is in itself a mood-booster. It’s not an option for everyone, but if you can swing a trip, it can really reduce the emotional burden of months of gray and cold weather. Now that I understand more about the severity of my own seasonal mood changes, John and I have agreed to make it a financial priority that we get away to somewhere warmer and sunnier each winter for my own peace of mind.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene to Support Your Circadian Rhythm
Getting enough sleep, and high quality sleep, is perhaps one of the most important aspects of fighting depression. Making sure you go to sleep at the same time every night and practicing good “sleep hygiene” will ensure you get a restful night’s sleep and wake up with more energy and motivation.
Use Orange Glasses for At Least One Hour Before You Go to Bed
Just like bright sun exposure early in the morning helps tell your brain it’s time to be awake, blue light exposure in the evenings can keep you awake even when you should be going to sleep. Phones emit blue light, and they are one of the prime culprits here! I use these totally-not-sexy-but-very-effective orange glasses at night (and John has these hip blue blockers). They filter out blue wavelengths of light, which inhibit the production of melatonin, the hormone that makes you sleepy. Ideally, you would wear these as soon as the sun goes down, but more practically, 30-60 minutes before bed will do the trick.
I was also introduced to these red glasses, which filter out both blue and green light, since now there are studies that show green light also inhibits melatonin production. The red glasses make everything monochromatic, so it is a little harder to see with these. If you’re just reading before bed, the red glasses are perfect, but if you still need to navigate around the house and see things relatively well, the orange glasses seem to be best. Here’s how to also switch the screen on your phone to red light with a three-tap shortcut, and how to enable Night Shift on your phone.
Make Sure Your Bedroom is Cool & Totally Dark
Again, mimicking the environment we have evolved in, you want your bedroom to be cool and completely dark. Like, can’t-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face dark. Cover any electronics or blinking lights in your room, or just move them out altogether. We use blackout curtains from IKEA to block out the light from the windows, and I also wear a Manta sleep mask. I have tried probably a dozen sleep masks and the Manta really is the best. It doesn’t push on your eyelids so your eyes can still move for REM sleep. It completely blocks out all light; you can adjust the eye covers and it doesn’t even let light in from the bridge of your nose. I will probably always use this sleep mask from now on! If you’re a light sleeper like me, you also may find it helpful to sleep with earplugs.
Avoid Emotionally Arousing or Upsetting Stimulation Before Sleep
Anything that riles up your emotions is going to release cortisol, a stress hormone that will keep you awake. For that reason, it’s best to avoid work emails, social media, an emotional movie, or anything else that might be upsetting and keep you from drifting off peacefully. This is another reason why it’s a good idea to put your phone away for at least the hour before you go to sleep.
Use a Light Alarm Clock
Since we’ve evolved to wake up with the sun, many people find these alarm clocks that wake you up gradually with light to be very helpful (especially for people who have a hard time waking up in the mornings). We have the Philips Wake-Up Light Alarm Clock with Colored Sunrise Simulation and use that in winter to keep our waking up time as consistent as possible.
Wake Up and Go to Bed at the Same Time (and Learn Your Chronotype to Figure Out the Best Time For You)
One of the things that is recommended for anyone dealing with depression is getting up and going to bed at the same time every day. What time is best for you will completely depend on your chronotype. Dr. Michael Breus wrote a book all about chronotypes that we love and gift to people all the time, called The Power of When: Discover Your Chronotype—and the Best Time to Eat Lunch, Ask for a Raise, Have Sex, Write a Novel, Take Your Meds, and More. He has a free quiz you can take to find out which type you are! I am the early bird “Lion” type, and John is the night owl “Wolf” type.
Only Use Melatonin Sparingly
While it may be tempting to take melatonin to help you sleep, the reality is that exogenous hormones taken consistently can reduce your body’s own production of that hormone. It’s best to just take melatonin when you really really need it, use the smallest dosage you can find, and use it no more than 1-2 days at a time, like for dealing with jet lag or sleeping in an unfamiliar environment when you really need to get a good rest.
Move Your Body
Exercise is a proven mood-booster, but it doesn’t have to be complex or super hard.
Get an Early Morning Walk
The early morning light will tell your brain to be awake so you’ll be less likely to be fatigued.
Ride Your Bicycle
Bundle up and use your bicycle to run errands in the middle of the day for an invigorating pick-me-up.
Take an Exercise Class
If you benefit from accountability, attending an group exercise class can keep you consistently working out and also connecting with other people, which helps boost mood as well.
Use a movement app
Get the Right Nutrients
Eat a Diet Rich in Animal Protein & Fat
Aim to get most of your calories from satiating, energy-stabilizing fats and proteins. These act like logs in your body’s energy “fire,” keeping you sustained throughout the day. Contrary to popular belief, fat does not make you fat, nor does it clog your arteries or cause cancer. Join the Flourish Friday Newsletter to get our free Guide to Healthy Fats to learn which fats are healthiest, which to cook with, which to never cook with, and which you should avoid altogether.
Reduce Intake of Alcohol, Sugar & Starchy Foods
For many people who struggle with seasonal mood changes, the fall and winter seasons bring on major carb cravings as the body is looking for anything that will provide that quick hit of dopamine. It’s so tempting, but alcohol (especially beer and ciders), refined sugars, and starchy or carb-heavy foods will actually make you feel worse in the long run as they totally throw off your body’s blood sugar balance, contributing to fatigue and causing you to gain weight over time. Sometimes just knowing that your body is more likely to crave sweets during this time can help you to recognize it and put habits and systems in place to keep you from going overboard, especially during the holiday months when temptations are everywhere.
Use Targeted Supplementation
Supplementation can be very useful, but it should be just that—a supplement to a nutrient-rich, anti-inflammatory way of eating. It always starts with food. You can’t out-supplement a bad diet. Having said that, here are some nutrients and supplements that have been shown to be helpful in boosting mood:
- St. John’s Wort: known as a herbal alternative to antidepressants
- DOPA Mucuna: Supports mood and healthy dopamine levels
- Desiccated Beef Liver Capsules from Vital Proteins: Red meat, especially liver, has tons of B vitamins, which provide both an energy and mood boost. I make my own liver capsules, but you can also buy them. They are like a real-food version of those B-vitamin drinks! Make sure they are from grass-fed and grass-finished animals. Another good brand Ancestral.
- Vitamin D: There doesn’t seem to be a direct connection with Vitamin D supplementation supporting mood in winter, but many people are deficient in Vitamin D. Your body has a natural shutoff mechanism when it makes its own Vitamin D, but if you’re taking it exogenously, any excess will be stored in your body’s fat stores, so it is possible to overdose. Vitamin D toxicity is rare, but serious. If you decide to supplement with Vitamin D, work with a practitioner to get your Vitamin D levels checked. (Or, use a tanning bed judiciously and let your body manage its own Vitamin D levels naturally.)
Socialize with Others
You can’t overestimate the importance of meaningful connections with other humans when it comes to our own happiness. While you may not feel like it, making an effort to see your friends and get out of the house for social events will go a long way in making you feel better. We’ve enjoyed hosting other couples at our house throughout winter on Monday evenings for soup. Most people have weekends booked already, so Monday soup nights are a simple, low-stakes way for us to connect with our friends consistently, enjoy a bottle of wine, play a game together (we’re obsessed with Oh Snap!) and try out new soup recipes.
Shift Your Mindset
Possibly the most important and empowering thing you can do to help yourself through seasonal mood changes is to reframe how you think about the seasons. If the tanning bed is what I’ve found the most helpful “outside-in” tool for feeling better in winter, shifting your mindset is the most helpful “inside-out” tool.
“Hygge-ify” Your House
Hygge is a Danish word that roughly translates to “coziness”. If you deal with seasonal mood changes, and there is one thing you should take from this article, it should be that you put The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living on hold at your library today! Hygge is a roaring fire while it’s stormy and cold outside, sitting on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate, snuggled up on the couch in a big blanket while wearing fuzzy slippers, playing board games with friends while having a glass of wine… you get the idea. Now is a good time to stock up on things that will make your house feel very hygge! The concept of hygge is a game changer for a lot of people who deal with seasonal depression, because it helps you to embrace and even enjoy parts of the gray and cold weather, rather than just dread it. Part of the joy of hygge is the contrast of feeling warm and cozy and snuggled up inside while it’s yucky and cold outside.
A list of things you can place around your house to make it feel more hygge:
- A fire in the fireplace
- Fuzzy blankets in a wicker basket next to the couch
- Pretty warm incandescent lighting around the house (I love Himalayan salt lamps)
- Puzzles or board games
- Your favorite mugs
- Hot chocolate
Make a list of good things about the seasons
You can reframe winter as something to look forward to instead of something to be dreaded. Start to compile a list of things that you enjoy (or have enjoyed in the past, or could enjoy) about the fall and winter seasons. It will be different for each person, because each person has unique likes, dislikes, and preferences, but as an example, here are some of the things on my list:
- The smell of the early morning air reminding me of going to school as a child, yet I don’t have to actually go to school (lol)
- The leaves turning colors.
- Being able to have the window shades open during the day since it’s not too hot.
- Journaling on a chair in a warm and cozy café while it’s raining outside.
- Getting lost in the Harry Potter books while sitting on the couch with a cup of tea.
- Watching movies in the evening with my husband while eating our fancy popcorn (homemade popcorn with butter and truffle oil).
- A roaring fire in the fireplace.
- Hot apple cider, hot chocolate, and mulled wine.
Plan Projects to Do Now or in the Spring & Summer
You can use the forced indoor time as an opportunity to do some projects in preparation for spring and summer. Again, this will be different for each person, but here are some of the things that are on my “could-do” list of winter projects:
- Plan for next year’s garden
- Write more articles here on Flourish Fundamentals
- Batch prep lots of food and store in the freezer
- Construction projects that can be done indoors with my dad: building a Little Free Library, a solar sun dehydrator, or more garden beds
- Restoring a cute little mini-wheelbarrow to use as a planter in spring
- Fermenting vegetables like sauerkraut
- Plan a trip to a warm destination
- Plan summer travels for next year
- Plan classes or workshops I want to teach in spring or early summer
- Learn to knit or crochet
- Teach myself how to make tallow candles
- Actually do our will (something I have been putting off essentially since we got married….argh!)
- Make ALL THE SOUPS!
- Make homemade Christmas gifts
- Make a photo album memorializing my grandmother, who passed this year
Talk Back to Negative Thought Patterns
I learned some basic principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in a book called Feeling Good by Dr. David Burns, and this book has legitimately changed my life. CBT is one of the only modalities that the science shows works equal to or even better than anti-depressants. I suspect that this is because it is dealing with the root of the depression, which is the negative thought patterns that cause the chemical imbalance in the brain.
One of the most helpful CBT techniques is journaling out your thoughts, recognizing the unhelpful thought patterns or “cognitive distortions” in those thoughts, and doing some “self-defense” by writing back a response to those thoughts. Here are some examples of my own cognitive distortions around fall and winter being just around the corner:
|Negative Thought||Cognitive Distortion||Self-Defense|
|I basically won’t be happy again until May 1.|| Catastrophizing|
|Nonsense. There will be lots of times I will be happy and have fun over the next few months. And I have the opportunity to engineer that fun.|
|Winter clothes always make me feel constricted and miserable, and yet I can still never warm up. I’m going to feel cold and claustrophobic until springtime.|| Disqualifying the Positive|
|There are lots of winter clothes that I enjoy wearing. If I need to buy new clothes that feel less restrictive, that’s okay. And I always have the option to turn up the heat a couple notches to improve my quality of life.|
|I’m failing at being a spouse/employee/friend when it’s wintertime and my motivation and energy are low. They are unhappy with me, too. I should be able to just get on with it and be as productive and happy as I am in summertime.|| Should Statements|
|Nothing in nature goes full bore 12 months of the year, and I can’t expect myself to, either. I can use this as an opportunity for reflection and planning for the year ahead, and leave my high-motivation summer months for execution.|
Decide to Accept the Changes in Nature’s Cycles
Nothing in nature stays the same throughout the seasons, and neither should you. Winter may never be your favorite, but you can still learn to appreciate aspects of the seasons. Winter is a natural time for quiet and reflection, and that’s okay. You may not be as productive as you’d like or feel as much like “yourself” during the winter months. Give yourself grace!
See a Counselor or Therapist
Talking to somebody about this has, in my experience, been a very helpful addition to the self-defense journaling. It may even be covered by your work’s health insurance, or if not, and money is an issue, you might be able to find someone to work with who has a sliding scale for payment. If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, there is help. Please find a counselor or therapist TODAY or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Books & Guides
- Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder
- The Vitamin D Solution
- Eat Your Sunscreen: Superfoods to Boost Your Skin’s Natural Defenses Against Sunburn
- The Power of When: Discover Your Chronotype—and the Best Time to Eat Lunch, Ask for a Raise, Have Sex, Write a Novel, Take Your Meds, and More
- The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living
- Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy
- Radiant Reboot: Reclaim Your Health, Increase Your Energy & Reboot Your Life in 30 Days
- Guide to Healthy Fats
Sleep Support & Light Exposure
- Alaska Northern Lights North Star Light Therapy Box
- Philips Wake-Up Light Alarm Clock with Colored Sunrise Simulation
- Orange Blue Blocking Glasses (Regular)
- Orange Blue Blocking Glasses (Wrap-Around to go Over Prescription Glasses)
- TrueDark Daywalker Elite Blue Light Blocking Glasses (Stylish Option)
- Red Glasses
- Manta Mask Sleep Mask
- St. John’s Wort
- DOPA Mucuna
- Vital Proteins Desiccated Beef Liver Capsules
- Ancestral Desiccated Beef Liver Capsules
- Vitamin D