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How to Beat the Winter Blues

During the cold, dark days of winter, you may feel sad and slowed down. Psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal, MD, author of Winter Blues, estimates 6 per cent of adults experience a debilitating depression called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Another 16 per cent experience milder winter blues.

People who suffer from SAD experience symptoms, such as loss of energy and oversleeping, carbohydrate cravings, increased anxiety and despair, social withdrawal, loss of libido and difficulty concentrating. It’s not entirely clear what causes winter depression, but light deprivation contributes. Short days and frigid temperatures keep us indoors, where it’s darker. In spring, symptoms lift for most people.

Kids are less likely than adults to get SAD and their symptoms may be harder to interpret. “Children tend to complain less about sadness and depression and are often more irritable and disgruntled,” Rosenthal says. “They don’t generally understand the problem as coming from within, but rather see others as being too strict and unfair.” As many as 5 per cent of teens experience seasonal depression, and recent studies show they’re likely to ruminate about negative events and report more bullying and peer conflict. The good news is this: Both kids and adults benefit from the same mood-boosting strategies.

If you or someone you love is struggling with seasonal sadness, here’s how to fight back:

Lighten up. Low-light conditions tell the body to produce melatonin, which makes you feel drowsy. Open the shades or go outside for some rays. If you still feel drained, use a therapeutic light box. “Models with intensities from 2,500 to 10,000 lux are considered effective,” says Rosenthal. Start with 15 minutes of therapy in the early morning hours. If your energy levels don’t rebound after a week, increase your exposure in five-minute increments. Finding the right regimen is important. Rosenthal cautions, “Too much light can make you feel overstimulated, like you’ve had too much caffeine.”

Fuel good. Indulging carbohydrate cravings provides only short-term satisfaction, says nutritional psychotherapist Julia Ross, M.A., MFT, executive director of the Recovery Systems Clinic and author of The Mood Cure. Sweet or starchy foods cause blood sugar to spike and then plummet, leaving you wanting another fast fix. A protein-rich diet sustains well-being because it provides the amino acid tryptophan. Without it, the body can’t make serotonin, one of the brain’s feel-good chemicals. Ross recommends eating 20 to 30 grams of protein per meal to boost mood.

Supplement. If your diet is deficient, tryptophan supplements - either 5-HTP or L-Tryptophan - may help, says Ross. Vitamins can also improve your outlook. Most people are deficient in vitamin D3, which is produced in the body when we’re exposed to sunlight, says Rosenthal. Vitamin D is crucial for calcium absorption, and it also supports heart health and immune functioning. Get a blood test from your doctor to check your level. Some people report improved mood after taking vitamin D3 supplements.

Move it. Physical exercise is an effective way to banish the blues year round. Exercise boosts serotonin production, increases oxygen flow to the brain and diminishes the body’s response to stress. Good nutrition and sunlight amplify these benefits. Walk, run or cycle outside if possible. Even on cloudy days, the light is much more intense outdoors. A treadmill or stationary bike in front of a light box is a good alternative if it’s too cold or icy to go out.

Stress less. Holiday hassles and workplace pressures can make matters worse. Schedule activities that will give you pleasure. Take a class or work on a project. Go to your book club meeting, even if you’re not feeling sociable. People are one of the most powerful and plentiful sources of joy in life. If you stay home because you feel gloomy, you’re missing out.

Schedule sleep. Oversleeping can create a vicious cycle. Keep a consistent sleep routine and get up early. “The power of that early morning light is important,” says Rosenthal. Unless you’re a habitually long sleeper, set your alarm to wake you after eight or nine hours. Good habits keep your biological rhythms steady.

Get help. If your own efforts don’t do the job or you think about harming yourself, seek professional treatment. A therapist can help you reframe negative thoughts that drag you down and give homework assignments to encourage effective coping. They may also prescribe antidepressants.

People who experience winter blues often have cycles of symptoms for several years before they recognize their gloomy moods come and go with the changing seasons. If that’s true for you, take steps to improve your outlook now. You deserve to delight in the wonders of winter.

Is it SAD?

Not all winter depression is Seasonal Affective Disorder. Women who deliver their babies during the winter months are more likely to develop postpartum depression than those who give birth in other seasons, according to a recent large-scale study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders. Reach out to your health care provider to get a professional opinion. Postpartum depression requires different treatment.

Heidi Smith Luedtke, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer and mom of two. Get more psychology lessons for life at


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