Fighting the Winter Blues

In this post, a slight deviation from skin care to focus on the winter blues, something that can affect many of us during this time of year. Often accompanied by sadness, sluggishness and food cravings,  it’s estimated that the gloom caused by Mother Nature during the cold season is biologically felt to some degree by an estimated one in four of us. Although the majority of us experience milder cases, some individuals experience a more severe form of the winter blues known as seasonal affective disorder (aptly shortened to SAD). SAD involves more serious symptoms including significant weight gain, a lack of interest in normal activities and depression.

I grew up on the Canadian Prairies where summers were short and winters were long. And cold. The silver lining? Lots of sunshine. Still, as one with low blood pressure, warm weather genes and perpetually cold feet, below freezing temperatures, often hovering in the -20 to -30 degree Celsius temperature range, were not my cup of tea! So, as an adult, I packed up my bags leaving Edmonton, Alberta for more temperate climes in Vancouver, BC.

The joy of ditching the winter boots, the down parka and plugging in the car lasted for a couple of winters until I became as jaded as Vancouverites by the perpetual drizzle and grey clouds that hovered over the city from November till February or March each year. It’s no wonder that people seem happier in the summer – the lack of sunshine in Pacific Northwest winters really can do a number on you! This year has been particularly brutal, I have to say.

The cause of the winter blues is the lack of sunlight from winter’s shorter days. In Vancouver, this is compounded by the constant grey skies we experience through much of the winter disrupting our circadian rhythm, or internal body clock, resulting in winter ‘depression’. Geography, genetics, and individual brain chemistry all have an impact on the severity of symptoms you may experience. The farther north from the equator you live, the greater the risk you’ll have some degree of winter depression. For example, only about 1% of Florida residents have some winter-specific discomfort or depression, compared to about half of those living in uppermost parts of the U.S. or in southern Canada.

Fixing the Winter Blues

The best, and permanent, solution would be to move to a sunnier place. It’s something I definitely consider around this time of year! However, that’s not terribly practical for most people. If the winter blues are something you struggle with, here are 4 tips to help you cope:

  1. Up Your Sunlight Exposure. If moving isn’t a viable option, then a warm weather vacation may do the trick. If that’s not possible, consider light therapy. A device such as a lightbox is specially designed to mimic the sun’s beneficial rays. About 30 minutes of exposure first thing in the morning can help keep your body clock on its springtime cycle during the winter, and has been shown to help lift depressive symptoms.
  2. Consider Ion Therapy. Not as widely known as sunlight exposure, one study has suggested that ions (invisible particles) in the air –  also affect one’s mood. When SAD patients were exposed to high levels of negative ions for 30 minutes, their depression eased after just a few weeks. Commercial negative ionizers are available and they may help some people.
  3. Supplement With Vitamin D. Experts have suggested that the feeling of sadness associated with the winter blues is partially due to a lack of Vitamin D, which is produced by exposure to natural light. Consider supplementing and check with your health care provider if you’re not sure what is best for you.
  4. Get Moving. Exercise releases endorphins that can be a great stress-buster and help to elevate your mood.

If none of the above strategies work and you still find yourself blue and sad, it may be time to seek out the help of your physician. The winter blues may actually be more serious – depression – and if this the case, you may require medication. Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance if you need it.

Personally, out of all these strategies, I’m all for the winter getaway. Florida is looking mighty fine right now. Who’s in?