Firstly, you are not alone. 1 in 3 people experience symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) such as fatigue and depression and nearly 60% of the population report that their overall mood is worse during the winter months. (1)
Secondly SAD may well be a perfectly reasonable response to cold weather. Doesn’t it make sense that we have evolved to shut down, and semi-hibernate? Staying in-doors and conserving energy seems like a pretty intelligent response in the face of a severely limited food supply and the real dangers cold weather presented to our predecessors.
Lastly, and probably most importantly, accepting your winter depression, rather than fearing it or thrashing around to find relief, may be all you need to do. Studies have shown that mindfulness training and meditation is at least as effective in relieving symptoms of depression as pharmaceuticals. (2) These trainings essentially develop your ability to accept both good and bad things at face value, rather than creating a story about how awful or fantastic those things may be (see resources for useful links).
However, accepting something as it is doesn’t stop you from taking sensible steps to create the best conditions for yourself. It just means you are less attached to the steps and to the outcome.
So, let’s look at some sensible steps……
Finding your light:
- Get out! Try to go outside and enjoy natural daylight as much as possible, particularly in the middle of the day.
Do things that make you happy.
Try to exercise more. A daily walk for at least an hour has been show to improve winter blues.
Hang out with friends and family. Socialising is good for your mental health and helps ward off depression
Invest in a light box (maybe share it with a friend or neighbour). The light box mimics daylight which can help with melatonin and serotonin production (deficiencies in these neurotransmitters are often cited as one of the causes of SAD). If it is going to be the answer for you it should work within 3-4 weeks. (3)
Very occasionally it does have some side effects, including headaches, eye strain, nausea and agitation, but nothing like as damaging as the potential side effects of anti-depressants.
Acupuncture. Some people have found acupuncture very helpful with depression, and a Cochrane Database Systematic Review (the gold standard for medical research) says “there is no evidence that medication was better than acupuncture in reducing the severity of depression.” (4)
Psychotherapy. Some people have found psychotherapy effective in managing depression. (12)
Diet and Depression:
- Cut out the junk! Consumers of fast food such as hamburgers, sausages, pizzas and processed baked goods such as muffins, doughnuts, croissants are 37% more likely to be depressed than those with little to no consumption. (5) Equally too much sugar or refined carbs can dramatically destabilize your mood. (6)
- Double your vegetable intake and then have some more. Eating 7 portions of fruit and vegetables (5 vegetables, 2 fruit) a day may lower your risk of death from any disease by as much as a whopping 42%. That’s like cutting your risk of death from anything in half. (7) Fruit and vegetables will give you more energy and the nutrients you need for your brain to function optimally.
- SMASH it! Oily Fish (Salmon, Mackerel, Anchovies, Sardines, Herrings – SMASH) are rich sources of Omega 3. Omega 3 makes up a 1/3 of your brain and can reduce your risk of depression by up to 50%. Those who consume healthier fats such as fish oil and olive oil are associated with a lower risk of suffering depression. (5) Equally the balance between omega 3 and 6 (found in nuts/meat, vegetable and seed oil) is important. Too much omega 6 blocks the effects of omega 3. (6) So cutting down on sources of omega 6 may also be beneficial.
- The sunshine Vitamin. There is a clear link between low levels of Vitamin D and symptoms of depression, though scientists are not quite sure how the two are related. But certainly, there is enough evidence to make it worth trying a Vitamin D3 supplement. (8)
- B Vitamins. B vitamins are essential cofactors in the creation of neurotransmitters, the substances that regulate brain activity. This may result in mood alterations, memory and cognitive issues. There is a particularly strong link between B12, Folate (B9) and depression. Animal products are a good source of B12 and folate is in all green leafy vegetables. (9)
- St John’s Wort. This amazing herb, taken as tea, capsules or tincture, has been shown time and time again to perform at least as well as medication if not better. St John’s Wort should not be taken in conjunction with light therapy or with several pharmaceuticals including antidepressant drugs, some anticoagulants and immunosuppressants (consult your health care practitioner if you are on medications and want to take St John’s Wort). (10)
Interestingly, some critics of natural/nutritional methods for combatting depression suggest that they are no more effective than a placebo (where the idea that you are receiving treatment makes you feel better). It is unlikely. But it could be true, as the placebo effect is particularly powerful with depression, having more-or-less the same impact as anti-depressants! The important thing is that a) these methods have been shown to have a significant impact b) they do not have the same side effects as anti-depressants which, at worse, include a 2-4 fold increase in risk of suicide. (11) (12)
There is much we can do with natural therapies to support people going through depression. Finding some kind of mindfulness practice that suits you and working with a nutritional therapist to explore how your diet can be improved to support your wellbeing are two great ways to start.
Balanced View. Visit Balanced View’s website for an introduction to resources designed to help us all live with ease and stability no matter what happens in life: https://www.balancedview.org
Head Space. On-line meditation training. https://www.headspace.com/. Learn meditation on line in just 10 minutes a day. Try their free trial Take 10.
Comprehensive guide to natural ways of working with depression. ‘Treating Depression without drugs part i/ii/iii’. https://chriskresser.com/treating-depression-without-drugs-part-i/
1) Molloy A (2014): ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder. 1-3 people suffer from SAD’; Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/seasonal-affective-disorder-1-in-3-people-suffer-from-sad-9814164.html
2) Kuyken W et al (2015): ‘Effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy compared with maintenance antidepressant treatment in the prevention of depressive relapse or recurrence (PREVENT): a randomised controlled trial’ The Lancet: Available at: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(14)62222-4/abstract
3) NHS Choices (2015). Beating the Winter Blues. Available at: http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/pages/dealing-with-winter-blues-sad.aspx
4) Smith C, Hay PP (2010) Cochrane Database Review. Acupuncture for depression. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15846693
5) Sanchez – Villegas, Verberne L et al. (2012). ‘Dietary fat intake and the risk of depression: the SUN Project’. Public Health Nutrition, Volume 15, Issue 3 March 2012, pp. 424-432
Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/fast-food-and-commercial-baked-goods-consumption-and-the-risk-of-depression/CF02E46F44CFC28D5F4D151FAD39EC77
6) Kresser C ( 2008) ‘Treating Depression without drugs part iii’. Available at: https://chriskresser.com/treating-depression-without-drugs-part-iii/
7) Oyebode O, Gordon-Dseagu V et al (2013). ‘Fruit and vegetable consumption and all-cause, cancer and CVD mortality: analysis of Health Survey for England data’. J Epidemiol Community Health doi:10.1136/jech-2013-203500. Available at: http://jech.bmj.com/content/early/2014/03/03/jech-2013-203500
8) Vitamin D Council (2014). Depression and Vitamin D. Available at https://www.vitamindcouncil.org/health-conditions/depression/
9) Hintikka J et al (2003) High vitamin B12 level and good treatment outcome may be associated in major depressive disorder. BMC Psychiatry. Available at: http://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-244X-3-17
10) Kresser C ( 2008) ‘Treating Depression without drugs part ii’. Available at: https://chriskresser.com/treating-depression-without-drugs-part-ii/
11) Kirsch (2014) Antidepressants and the Placebo Effect. Z Psychol. Irving Kirsch Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4172306/
12) Kresser C (2008). ‘Treating Depression without drugs part I’. Available at: https://chriskresser.com/treating-depression-without-drugs-part-i/