Fighting the winter blues

🕔Dec 15, 2009

As much as I enjoy living in our northern climate and enjoy all four seasons, I do find—especially as I age, and commitments and responsibilities pile up—that staying chipper in winter has become harder.

I love many aspects of winter: freshly falling snow and the muffled quality it brings to our noisy lives; a crisp blue background offsetting the busy chickadees at my birdfeeder; long, long, long nights where sometimes second and even third sleeps happen. Yet in spite of these quintessential northern vignettes, winter at times just plain sucks.

From the relatively mild winter blues to a serious clinical depression such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), fighting the emotional vagaries of winter can require time and attention.

Subject rises at 6 am in the cold and dark, skips breakfast, and leaves the house. Starts car, scrapes snow and ice, drives fifteen minutes to meet carpool. Another 45 minutes to an hour on the road (depending on weather conditions) through more cold and dark. Enters workplace before sunrise, spends eight hours in a building devoid of fresh air and with minimal natural light. At lunch grabs fast food from concession and bangs head against wall. Leaves after sunset, arrives home, eats take-out. Spends one to two hours marking and/or prepping for work next day.

We’re busy all the time; that much is a fact of modern life. Balancing our lives is a struggle for most of us, day-in and day-out. In winter especially, when reality smacks us with subzero temperatures, six hours of daylight and too much to do, the things that strengthen us physically and psychologically often fall behind our paid work, laundry and shopping.

Staying happy as a preventative measure for winter health should be taken more seriously by our society on both an individual and institutional basis. Keeping on the bright side not only increases productivity at work, but also helps us stay together as couples and makes for better-adjusted, more motivated kids. Winter isn’t actually out to get us, but without a doubt the season possesses some characteristics that can throw us a big curveball if we aren’t prepared to play defence.

Chemicals in balance

Whether winter is a tragedy or a comedy in part depends on a wrestling match between the neurotransmitter serotonin and the hormone melatonin. Serotonin (think Frodo) keeps us happy; melatonin (think Sauron) induces sleep and, as we all know, bats heavy in winter. The reason being that the plentiful darkness from November to February (or so) sends your pineal gland a message to convert serotonin to melatonin…that is, unless it gets enough bright light to halt this process. Without this, you may find yourself helplessly stuck on the couch with your hand in a bag of chips or cookies.

The deck is stacked in favour of melatonin in other ways, too. Serotonin transporters (the proteins that move our serotonin—the good guy—off the court and onto the bench, or into storage) have denser networks in fall and winter, meaning that our predisposition to lay low and do less is to some extent beyond our conscious control. At -30º, with many mammals hibernating, it seems a reasonable idea.

One way to keep melatonin in its proper place in winter is to make sure you get outside during the day. Expose yourself to natural light whenever possible, especially during your crux period (the time of winter when you are most likely to be hailed as either “Her Highness Most Weepy and Grumpy” or “His Highness Most Aggressive and Surly.”) The subject in the description above needs to schedule a meeting with Mr. Golden Sun ASAP unless she wants to turn into the dragon from Sleeping Beauty. Forty minutes after dawn is the best light a brain can get, but most workaday northerners will have to settle for lunchtime rays.

If there is absolutely no way that you can bring light into your life on a daily basis, there is always the technological fix. Connect a phototherapy lightbox to a timer that will switch on fifteen minutes before you want to awake for some dawn simulation therapy. You’ll need a white bulb with an intensity level of 10,000 lux, a Kelvin rating of 4,000 or less, and no ultraviolet light. Information shows that our moods are just plain better when we wake up in a well-lit room. (I personally would not respond well to the bright light wake-up, but then my personal ideal bedroom is a sensory deprivation chamber…so keep in mind that everyone is different and that not everything works for everybody.) Subject-in-question could do her morning make-up under a full spectrum light, and her marking/prep at night under the same.

Work those levels up

Exercise is also a proven method for getting your mojo back. Serotonin levels rise during exercise and then stay higher afterwards—a serotonin afterglow can last days for some people, while others need to work out more often to stay sane. Try to exercise during daylight for a double whammy of happiness. During lunch, don your new workout duds, plug in to some fast-paced workout tunes, and get sweaty. Again, our subject needs to fly solo or get a walking or running group together—she’ll be literally laughing in no time. If a particular week is hair-straight-back or meeting-intense, then stockpile serotonin and exercise twice on the weekend: try to go downhill skiing or snowshoeing and get above the cloud.

Pumping up your serotonin’s biceps through a prescription anti-depressant is an option that works for many. Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) keep more serotonin in your brain, countering the tendency of those nasty little serotonin transporters to put all our vivacity and cheer into storage just when we need it. Talk to your doctor and take advantage of his or her expert advice.

There has been news recently about the beneficial effects of “depression-specific” vitamins, but the jury is out on many of the details. Maintain a nutrient-rich, balanced diet as your foundation for health and sanity during these dark days of winter.

Vitamin D increases serotonin levels in the brain (hence the cod-liver oil of years past), so pack a breath mint or two and eat a lot of herring, salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel or egg salad at lunch. Fatty fish is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, a shortage of which is implicated in depression. Alternatively (or additionally), incorporate flaxseed and munch nuts.

Eating carbohydrates also keeps serotonin levels up—but beware the winter layer! Choose whole grains, fruits, veggies, and legumes more often than a doughnut.

Combat free radicals with antioxidants such as Vitamin C (blueberries, broccoli, grapefruit, kiwi, oranges, peppers, potatoes, strawberries, tomato), Vitamin E (nuts and seeds, vegetable oils, wheat germ) and beta carotene (apricots, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, collards, peaches, pumpkin, spinach, sweet potato).

Eat protein-rich foods often: beans and peas, lean beef, low-fat cheese, fish, milk, poultry, soy products and yogurt—especially when you feel like you need energy.

Selenium is linked with improving depression symptoms and is found in many of the foods listed above.

Here’s to a happy, healthful winter for everyone, with just enough of a hitch in our giddy-up to keep us honest and on our toes.