How You Can Beat the Winter Blues and Stay Happy Using Natural Methods
Winter is officially upon us, declaring its arrival with sub-zero temperatures. It’s time to share a few tips—some natural methods, products, and nutritional remedies to beat the “winter blues.”
We’ve got three months until spring … we can do this.
In this article:
- Seasonal Depression? The Effects of Winter Light
- Symptoms of Seasonal Depression
- Light Therapy
- Color Therapy
- Plant Therapy
- Vitamin D
- Food Therapy
- Best Supplements for Seasonal Depression
- Touch Therapy
- Melatonin and Sleep
Seasonal Depression? The Effects of Winter Light
This time of year affects everyone a little differently. You might not notice any change at all, or you may feel a little ache, like the loss of a good friend that’s moved away—that good friend being warmth and sunshine.
On the more extreme end of the spectrum, you may be part of the 5% of the U.S. population that experiences full-blown seasonal depression, otherwise known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). A milder form of this type of depression is experienced by approximately 10-20% of Americans.
Symptoms of seasonal depression include:
- Apathy and decreased interest in activities
- Tension and anxiety
- Disturbance in your sleep cycle, from oversleeping to insomnia
- Extreme fatigue
- Cravings for starchy or sweet foods that lead to overeating
The human organism was meant to be outside, and sunshine is one of the greatest antidepressants. When sunshine is harder to come by during the darker, colder months of the year, it’s important to be aware of your changing moods and take some steps to relieve your anxiety before it gets entrenched. Here are a few tried and true remedies.
I live in a snowy state (5 minutes from a ski resort, in fact), but I work at home and position my desk where I can open the blinds and get sunlight through the windows on sunny days during the winter. Sometimes I take off everything but shorts and a tank top and stand in front of the window, soaking in all the sunlight I can get for 10 minutes.
Remember, Vitamin D is one of the hormonal factors you can “bank.” In other words, you don’t have to get it every day in order for it to be helpful; if you get a lot of Vitamin D on Monday, you’ll still be feeling the effects of it on Tuesday and Wednesday.
If diminishing daylight hours is a problem for you, you may want to consider investing in artificial light therapy. Unfortunately, most light boxes use full-spectrum fluorescent lights at an intensity of 10,000 lux. So, while getting bathed in a sea of light, you are also exposing yourself to a bath of electromagnetic radiation.
If possible, plan two short vacations to sunny places during the winter. You can also put on your snowshoes or winter boots and enjoy a jaunt through the sparkling snowflakes; it may be colder outside, but lower temperatures don’t completely rule out the positive effects of sunshine!
If below-freezing temperatures make the outdoors relatively painful, consider “designing” your way out of the blues by painting the walls of your home and office. I’ve painted my bedroom yellow in my last three homes, and it makes me happy!
When choosing your palette, think the opposite of the blues and grays of winter and spruce up your walls with the bright colors of a tropical sunset. A golden glow or earthy colors can also promote a feeling of peace and warmth.
Bring the outdoors in with one of the best reminders of spring—plants! Dracaenas and palms do well indoors. Better yet, buy some bulbs and fill your home with flowers. Amaryllis and paperwhite narcissus are beautiful choices as well as crocus, hyacinths and mini-daffodils. Put them where you spend most of your time.
Now that you’ve set the stage in your physical surroundings, let’s look at what’s happening inside your body and how we can bring a little “happy” back.
Just as plants require sunlight to produce life-sustaining oxygen, we, as humans, require sunlight to produce Vitamin D. In fact, we derive only about 10 percent of this vitamin from our food. Vitamin D promotes the production of serotonin, a hormone that plays a central role in regulating our moods.
So how do we get more Vitamin D into our systems when the days are shorter and we’re keeping so much of our skin covered up? Keep an eye out for that ray of sun shimmering in between the trees, and make spending some time in it a priority. Believe it or not, the sun is not vanquished by the coming of winter! We just don’t have the same inclination to bask in its rays when temperatures are in the teens.
Did you know that after you go in the sun, your body needs a few hours to convert the substances collected on your skin to Vitamin D in the body? So after any sun exposure you can get, don’t take a shower for several hours. This will go a long way towards giving you a positive, upbeat mood and high productivity.
Depending on your location and the time of day, the sunlight may not be direct enough to synthesize into Vitamin D. Here’s a great test the Linus Pauling Institute recommends: measure your shadow. If it's the same height or shorter than you, you can get enough sun, but if your shadow is taller than you are, the sunlight isn’t quite strong enough to give you the vitamin D you need.
And remember, sunlight is also needed for the health of your hypothalamus (the gland in your brain responsible for sleep, mood, and appetite). It needs sufficient levels of daily natural light through your eyes to stimulate and regulate it, so spend some time outside each day with your sunglasses off.
Yes, you can eat your way to happiness, but no, potato chips are not the answer. (Sorry!)
Tryptophan, an essential amino acid found in food, is a precursor to serotonin. Because of this, many people have been mistakenly loading up on turkey and other animal proteins such as eggs and beef with the intention of boosting their serotonin levels. Don’t do that! Studies comparing animal-protein meals vs. carbohydrate meals show that brain tryptophan levels go up after carb-rich meals, but down after protein-rich meals. Why? Because tryptophan requires carbs to transport it across the blood-brain barrier. (Think healthy, whole-food carbs, like fresh fruits and vegetables or whole grains.)
When you’ve got the blues and reach for a chocolate bar to make yourself feel better, you may think that your body is in self-sabotage mode. Not so fast! The truth is that your body is smart; it knows that sugar produces insulin, which helps tryptophan get from the gut to the brain.
Skip the processed carbs, though; you want to get complex carbs from whole foods like greens, legumes, and sprouted nuts and seeds, or whole-foods carbs with simple sugars and also lots of fiber and nutrients, like a piece of fruit.
You also need nutrients from whole foods to keep your gut microbiome healthy, since tryptophan is synthesized by the good bacteria in your gut.
More happy winter foods include those with Vitamin D, like mushrooms and organic eggs, but don’t rely on them in place of sunlight; in the winter when sunlight is harder to come by, you will probably need to supplement (more on that later).
You should also consider green tea in your mood-boosting diet. Green tea contains L-Theanine, an amino acid that has been shown to increase serotonin levels in the brain.
You will probably find it difficult to get the amount of Vitamin D that you need from the sun and food during the winter months.
Over 80% of North Americans are chronically deficient in Vitamin D, and not only does this affect your wintertime mood; it massively increases cancer risk as well!
The most assimilable forms will be in olive oil capsules, rather than hard pills. And make sure it’s D3, not D2! Best of all is an oil-based D3 with Vitamin K added, for best absorption.
You should also take a probiotic, preferably with prebiotics and enzymes. The exploding research on microbiome diversity shows that mental health relies on gut health.
Your gut bacteria are responsible for making all the hormones that modulate mood, sleep, weight, mental energy, and even pain, so keep them healthy with a good supplement.
Omega-3-fatty acids have also been shown to be a key component when treating the winter blues. Don’t get yours from polluted, rancid fish sources!
Instead, you can add sprouted, ground flaxseed to your smoothies, batters, and other foods. Like probiotics, you need omega-3s all year round, but be especially vigilant in wintertime.
Curcumin, the active ingredient in the herb turmeric, has been a popular supplement for its strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, but it also helps increase serotonin production.
Many SAD sufferers have also gotten relief by supplementing with SAM-e (S-Adenosyl-Methionine), a naturally-occurring compound that helps produce and regulate hormones.
It’s easy to let the weather put a damper on your exercise routine. If you make 30 to 45 minutes of low-intensity exercise every day a priority in your life, you’ll be amazed at the changes you feel in both your body and mind.
Exercise is an important way to release those feel-good chemicals, serotonin and dopamine. If it’s just too cold outside and winter hiking is not your thing, find other options to get your sweat on indoors.
Most of you know about the power of touch, particularly therapeutic touch. The energetic exchange we get from other human beings cannot be overestimated, and if you aren’t getting that from an intimate relationship, make sure you’re getting it somewhere!
Massages, for example, have been shown to release serotonin. The University of Miami School of Medicine conducted a study that showed a 28% increase of serotonin and a 31% decrease of cortisol (a hormone associated with stress) after a massage.¹
Massage has also been shown to release oxytocin, our “love” and “trust” hormone.
Melatonin and Sleep
It’s hard to be happy if you’re groggy and tired most of the time. Melatonin is the hormone that plays an important part in our sleep/wake cycle. Daytime sun limits its production, while darkness sends the message that it’s time for melatonin to increase.
Seasonal changes in light exposure have been shown to disrupt the normal ebb and flow of this powerful hormone in your body.
Researchers at Oregon Health and Science University placed 68 patients suffering from SAD into three groups, two of which received low doses of melatonin. Their conclusion? Melatonin can relieve the doldrums of winter depression.
If you still find yourself feeling the blues after trying these natural approaches, don’t hesitate to reach out for support. Talking to someone who understands what you are going through can bring awareness and camaraderie. Join a Meetup group, related to any interest you might have, and try not to be alone, too much, during the winter.
Whatever you do, don’t isolate yourself.
Remember the words of Edna Jaques when the walls begin to close in:
“Go out, go out I beg of you. And taste the beauty of the wild. Behold the miracle of the earth. With the wonder of a child.”
Robyn Openshaw, MSW, is the bestselling author of The Green Smoothies Diet, 12 Steps to Whole Foods, and 2017’s #1 Amazon Bestseller and USA Today Bestseller, Vibe. Learn more about how to make the journey painless, from the nutrient-scarce Standard American Diet, to a whole-foods diet, in her free video masterclass 12 Steps to Whole Foods.
1. Field T, et al. Cortisol decreases and serotonin and dopamine increase following massage therapy. Touch Research Institutes, University of Miami School of Medicine. firstname.lastname@example.org.
2. Lansdowne, AT. Et al. Vitamin D3 enhances mood in healthy subjects during winter. Psychopharmacology. 02/1998. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9539254
3. Michels, Alexander PhD. Can you rely on sunlight to get enough vitamin D this winter? Linus Pauling Institute. 01/2016. http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/linuspaulinginstitute/2016/01/25/sunlight-vitamin-d-winter/
4. World Happiness Report. United Nations. 2017. http://worldhappiness.report/
5. Altshul, Sara. Natural Ways to Beat the Winter Blues. Health 03/2013. http://www.health.com/health/article/0,,20428713,00.html
6. Weil, Andrew Dr. Is SAMe Worthwhile for Depression? Weil. 11/2011.
7. Melatonin Improves Mood in Winter Depression. ScienceDaily. 05/2006. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/05/060501113832.htm
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links that help support the GSG mission without costing you extra. I recommend only companies and products that I use myself.
Posted in: 12 Steps To Whole Food, Exercise, High-Vibe Living, Mind/Body Connection, Natural Remedies, Stress Management
11 thoughts on “How You Can Beat the Winter Blues and Stay Happy Using Natural Methods”Leave a Comment
Robyn, I would like to suggest you read the book The Vitamin D Solution by Michael Holick before you make suggestions to people about getting sun. Several of the things you have said in the blog are just not accurate and or not the truth. I’m not saying you’re a lier but you need to be informed about this subject. Best wishes in the new year. Susan
What is a “lier” Susan?
Susan….do you mean they aren’t the truth according to a book you read? There are now hundreds of published studies that those who get sun exposure have enough vitamin d and that vitamin d is more correlated to cancer risk than any other nutrient or hormone. Lots of books that predate this evidence made claims to the opposition that are now proven false.
I am French (I live in France) and I enjoy reading your posts regularly. I have a private suggestion and a question for you. Can you contact me off line, please. Thanks ! Kristine
Thank you very much Robin. Coming from the Pacific NW, I can relate to the winter blues. I have gone up to two weeks at a time without seeing the sun, and I work outdoors! I think the suggestions about vitamin D and being in the company of others are good suggestions, and listening to uplifting music too.
Hi Ian – thanks for commenting. Music is indeed a mood changer! I love to listen to Whole Tones by Michael Tyrrell. https://wholetones.com/ltr/jv/1?affid=320583&subid=gsg_wholetones
Robin , being from Europe, we here don’t get UVB rays from October till Aprill, so cannot produce wit D.
Also to produce vit D our system needs magnesum otherwise the production of it will not be great or none.
The excess of vit A in the body hinders the production of vit D. And I only guess that are possibly other co-factors yet not discovered…
Anyway thank you for your lovely and knewledable article! Wishing you wonderfull 2018!!!
Hi Robyn, thanks for all the great information. Hope you are having a wonderful weekend. Enjoying the nice sunny weather here in Henderson, NV and soaking in the natural Vitamin D. 🙂
As a small scale food producer, I really appreciate having and sharing quality food. Food would have naturally provided for our ancestors in winter through the fat of a dried salmon, maybe a seal, or from many different foods that’s were preserved. Start your lifelong journey now of seeking quality older varieties of all food(I have just started this process). Supplements cannot replace real food, but can add to our nutrient depleted food available. I have seen many comments on sugar content of food being a problem in their lives. You would not even recognize a lot of the ancestors of the food we now consume. They have been bred to have so much sugar content and lack of nutrition. The REAL problem is people not caring where their food came from, and since we eat things that were once alive, they need to have been treated well. Everyone’s goal should be to lower sugar consumed, that includes finding(probably need to grow yourself) carrots, apples, etc that are older varieties with less sugar and more fiber. It takes time, but adding quality fat/herbs/roots help to transition from using sugar to get through the day, even sugar that comes from a fruit or vegetable. I am a firm believer in simulating what our ancestors would have done. Not having food for days would have definitely been common, now we call that fasting. Being outside and often exposed to cold and hot, now we have cold treatments and saunas to mimic, but really just need to get outside. Sun and vitamins, not really even debatable at this point. Having fat, fruits, herbs, protein, etc. dried in the sun or cured would have gotten our ancestors through many tough times, and really should be adopted in our practices today. Try raw eggs, cured or raw food of all sorts. In foraging for food, many herbs would have been consumed as a necessity, now we use sugar and crappy salt with no minerals to flavor our lives and food. We humans have modified our diet way to fast for our species to adjust. Find animals on pasture and that are treated right. Hunting and gathering are not the norm, but we can mimic, adjust and learn systems of farming that give us the nutrients closest to what our grandparents would have recognized. Experiment with curing, freeze drying and producing your own food. Everyone thinks that buying quality food from the grocery store will give you all you need. Good luck, and I really hope you start to seek your connection on this planet, even if you only have room to do a plant in your window or on your deck. Connection comes from touching the earth, you can try and avoid this, but I can tell you after may years of being outside and touching the earth, it will be the single biggest and best step if you want to be healthy and happy. You also get to enjoy what you produce and can share your knowledge with others. Know that seasonal changes in our diets are necessary if you are not living close to the equator. Have fun, and know for certain what your putting in your mouth!!
Jason, I like what you’ve written, but it bothers me when people write "your" when they mean "you are". It should be spelled, "you’re".
.Dr. Mercola says, "The sun emits ultraviolet (UV) A, UVB, and UVC rays. Vitamin D is produced by the body when the skin is hit by UVB rays, with 7-dehydrocholesterol being the resulting chemical. But most glass windows block this wavelength meaning you can’t reap the health benefits."