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Let’s talk about what you can do during the winter months to keep your mood up. This could mean you’re suffering from actual seasonal affective disorder where you have major depressive disorder, but there’s a seasonal variation to your moods, or you may just have the winter blues, feeling less motivated, more down, or sad or just having a harder time with energy or sleep during the winter months. It matters to have a good plan and to be proactive. So let’s talk about some of my favorite tips and things that I do in my own life and I recommend to patients as we approach and are in the middle of winter. A lot of times I see there’s an interest in this in February and March, and I think it’s always great to make a move, but that’s a little late. We want to be thinking earlier, in October and November and December about how we can keep our mood and activity levels up.
Tip number one, move beyond vitamin D. Vitamin D is a very important fat-soluble nutrient. You want to have normal levels for most people, this requires taking a supplemental vitamin D, especially during the winter months and getting some sunshine. We make vitamin D, however, most people are low. That said, there are a lot of inconsistencies in the data when it comes to supplementing with vitamin D. However, we know being low in vitamin D does contribute to your risk of depression, so get your levels normal.
Number two is nutritional psychiatry. As we enter fall and winter, a lot of my favorite brain foods come onto the menu. At the top of the list is going to be lentils, where for just a cup, around 250 calories, you’re going to get 90% of your daily needs of vitamin B9, folate. You’re also going to get a tremendous amount of fiber so lentils are a great choice. You should be adding it in your soups and your stews. The next step would be to incorporate all of the squash, pumpkin and other orange vegetables which have great amount of carotenoids. This is this large family of fat soluble phytonutrients that are fascinating and great for our health. A lot of times we make jokes about carb craving. There are great carbs during the winter months and they’re part of our dietary pattern for a reason. So whether it’s the purple sweet potatoes or squash or lentils think about how to optimize the nutrient density of your food choices during fall and winter. This is a really important set of choices when it comes to thinking about your mood during the winter months.
Number three is to get a medical workup and consider things like medications. I’d also put some supplements on there that have an antidepressant effect. Why? I find a lot of the time, clinically, people sit on really struggling with depression and low grade depression throughout the winter months, and they’ve never tried something, whether it’s a multivitamin or omega 3 fat or Zoloft or Prozac or just engaging with a healthcare provider. I also find a lot of people never get a medical workup, so lots of things can cause depression, a B12 deficiency, a B9 deficiency, having too much inflammation, having high blood pressure. There are a lot of things that you want to check out. The fall is a great time to check out a annual visit with your doctor and make sure that medically things are okay and if you’re having severe symptoms, think about some of the options that oftentimes because of stigma, we don’t put out there when we think about winter or seasonal depression.
Number four, I would think about using a light box and a lot of people haven’t used a light box. There’s a lot of research around seasonal affective disorder, winter moods, and getting more bright light, especially in the morning. The treatment protocols usually are people getting a light box, at least 10,000 lux and staring really close to the light, not staring at the light, but ideally reading while the light is on your face, getting into your eyes. Another way to approximate this is really make sure and get a lot of bright sunlight as soon as the sun gets up. You want to get this without sunglasses on, not through a window ideally. So ideally outside, but using light because there’s less of it for most people in the winter. Think about how you can really optimize light and potentially augment it with a light box.
My next tip is transition your exercise and movement into the colder months. I find a lot of people maybe have a great running or summer exercise routine. They’re really active, they’re out swimming, and it’s just easy to get outdoors and a lot of times they don’t transition into the winter months. So whether it’s a pair of running gloves or extra warm socks, having the right gear to keep yourself warm, so you can be prepared and be comfortable as you’re doing all the movement that you need to do. One of the most powerful tools we have to keep our mood up is exercise and movement, so really doing everything that you can do or identifying any barriers in your way to get that going is one of the things that I ask people to focus on.
Finally, make sure to get social and think about the structure of your social life during the winter months. Again, it’s easy during the summer for a lot of people, the days are long, it’s fun to go out, people are meeting up for picnics. In winter, people can get a little more isolated so make sure that whether it’s having people over for a potluck, listening to some live music or going to a yoga class or a community event, stay social so you don’t isolate. We know that just makes depression and mental health concerns worse when we feel that we’re alone with them.
Wherever you are, I hope this helps you as you think about your mood during the winter, and I hope you hear my encouragement to really get an active mental fitness plan. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Spend a few minutes with yourself. Think about your goals, what are some of the things that you know about yourself and what are some of the things that work. I hope some of these tips help inspire you to think about next steps, and I hope this helps you have a great, active, creative, loving, fun winter.