For some, the shorter daylight hours and the long, dark nights of fall and winter also coincide with a dip in mood known as the "winter blues." The winter blues may in fact be a mild form of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, a condition characterized by recurring depression in the fall and winter months and improvement during the summer. (There is also a summer type of SAD that coincides with depressive moods during the summer months, but is less common). In addition to depression, the symptoms of winter SAD also include lethargy, irritability, loss of interest, sleep disturbances, increased food intake, and cravings for carbohydrates.
Researchers suggest that the winter type of SAD may be related to the delayed sunrise and diminished daylight during the fall and winter seasons. It may also be linked to the disruption of melatonin, the hormone that regulates circadian rhythms, or serotonin, a chemical that mediates mood. All living beings are influenced by seasonal changes. Serotonin activity, for example, has been shown to fluctuate across the seasons, with the lowest levels seen during the winter months of December and January.
For a mild case of the winter blues, the following natural remedies can be helpful for improving and buffering some of the seasonal changes in mood and behavior that come with the season. From a Traditional Chinese Medicine perspective, these remedies can be seen as adopting a bit of summer yang to balance winter's yin and boosting one's "life fire."
Light therapy - exposure to intense light for 15-20 minutes a day can help to bring circadian rhythms back in sync. Light boxes and dawn simulators can be used to simulate an earlier sunrise.
Exercise - physical activity, especially exercise done outdoors, can improve mood and attention.
Complex carbohydrates - whole grains, sweet potatoes, legumes, root vegetables boost energy and are preferred over simple sugars.
Vitamin D - some research suggests that high doses of vitamin D may be more effective than light therapy in treating SAD.
Omega 3's - foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (e.g. flax seeds, walnuts, spinach, and fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, anchovies) can help to alleviate depression.
Serotonin-boosting foods - dark leafy greens are rich in folate and vitamin B12. Foods with tryptophan (e.g. bananas, avocados, and turkey) can help to convert vitamin D to serotonin and have a calming effect. Exercise caution with caffeine since it suppresses serotonin.
Alam, W. and B. Hollis, 1999. Vitamin D vs broad spectrum phototherapy in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder. The Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging 3(1):5-7.
Golden, R.N., B.N. Gaynes, R.D. Ekstrom, et al., 2005. The efficacy of light therapy in the treatment of mood disorders: a review and meta-analysis of the evidence. American Journal of Psychiatry 162(4):656-62.
Lam, R.W. and R.D. Levitan, 2000. Pathophysiology of seasonal affective disorder: a review. Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience 25(5):69-80.
Photo by: Marjan Apostolovic/Shutterstock.com