Remedies for the Winter Blues: Five Ways to Keep SAD at Bay

by Cheryl Kain

Late fall and early winter can be a beautiful time, an opportunity to slow down and self-reflect, a season of nesting and receiving. The leaves fall, the wind drops a few degrees, and the days get shorter as we head into the chillier months.

However, not everyone loves turning back the clock—and the darkness that comes with it. A good number of people living far from the equator experience a sense of melancholy, flagging motivation, and the need to hibernate and shy away from social activities.

Some of us are more sensitive to the “winter blues,” or to a more extreme condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, sometimes called winter depression or seasonal depression. Experts think SAD may be caused by a lack of sunlight, which can throw off your biological clock, affecting mood-regulating brain chemicals like serotonin and melatonin. People with SAD feel much better in spring and summer. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, "a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression, and the change in season can disrupt the balance of the body's level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood." Seasonal Affective Disorder may affect as many as 10 million Americans, with another 10 to 20 percent suffering from milder SAD symptoms.

While more severe cases of SAD may warrant treatment with therapy and medication, the good news is there are plenty of natural alternatives for SAD sufferers, as well as those of us with a milder case of the winter blues. Here are a few strategies that continue to soothe me every time autumn ushers in the darker days.

Maximize your sunlight intake.

Being outdoors during peak sunny hours is ideal, whether it’s a brisk walk, biking in the park, or sitting on the back stoop with a mug of tea. If you work indoors, positioning yourself in front of a window can also boost your serotonin levels.

Try light therapy.

If your intake of fall and winter sunlight isn’t quite enough, consider adding light therapy to your morning routine. You can get your daily dose by sitting in front of a light box for 15 to 30 minutes a day, from early fall to spring. Commonly used in Alaska and the Nordic countries, a light box is about 20 times more powerful than typical indoor lighting, offering 10,000 lux (a measurement of light intensity) with the ultraviolet rays filtered out.

Keep moving.

Colder, darker weather can bring on the urge to stay in, watch TV, and sleep. Exercise, even in small amounts, will get your energy moving and help you feel better. No need to strive for five days at the gym or skiing Mt. Everest. Stretching on your yoga mat, running up and down the stairs, and dancing to a good tune are simple ways to change your mood. To get the benefit of sunlight as well, do your asanas in front of a big window.

Cook up a warming one-pot meal.

Healthy eating can sometimes feel more time- and labor-intensive when the thermometer drops and there’s less fresh, local produce on offer. In winter, I favor one-pot, slow-cooker meals that exude delicious smells and are warm and comforting (I find crockpot cooking one of the most low-maintenance approaches to seasonal, healthy eating, but a soup pot on the stove will also do just fine). Adding warming herbs like ginger and cayenne stoke the digestive fire, which can elevate mood.

Here’s one of my favorites warming recipes, Spicy African Spinach Stew, from a friend’s mom who lives in the Virgin Islands.

2 tablepoons olive oil
1 onion, medium diced
2 tomatoes, medium diced
2 green peppers, medium diced
3 tablespoons fresh ginger, grated
3 bunches fresh spinach
1 cup tomato paste
1 tablespoon salt
1 8-ounce jar peanut butter
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Warm olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add vegetables and grated ginger, and sauté until tender. Add spinach a little at a time. When spinach is wilted, add tomato paste and salt.

Add peanut butter and cayenne pepper, and cook on low until all ingredients are blended. Add water to thin if necessary. Feel free to add tofu or another protein of your choice. Continue stirring as the stew burns easily. Serve when heated through.

Meditate—even a little bit.

You can manage and uplift your energy while quieting mind chatter by beginning the meditation practice you’ve always wanted to try. Start small. Begin your practice with five minutes in the morning, and five minutes before bed. Just sit and breathe. Sit in silence, or listen to relaxing music if you like. Focus on your breath, and how it feels going in and out of your body.

Increase your sitting time by five minutes per week until you reach 15 minutes. Or just stay at five. No matter how long you do it, an ongoing ritual of being still and breathing will seep into your daily mindset and relax your body and nervous system.

Taking small steps toward a more peaceful season is worth the effort. Instead of putting your head down and braving it out until spring, try one or more of these healthy options to boost your mood and help your inner fire burn brighter.

Cheryl Kain is a writer, teacher, and singer who performed the national anthem at Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium. She's written features on Rod Stryker, Chubby Checker, Linda Eder, and more, and blogs for the Huffington Post. She’s at work on her second book, a mystery series. 

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