What helps with seasonal depression in winter

By Vladimir Marchenko

  1. Why is winter depression so heavy
  2. Alaska paradox
  3. Norwegian “mirroring” therapy
  4. The signs of winter depression
  5. How seasonal depression is diagnosed
  6. The right diet for SAD
  7. How to beat winter depression

If every year, with the advent of cold weather and darkness, you feel complete indifference to everything that happens around and nothing pleases you, then most likely you suffer from seasonal depression. So is it possible to deal with it on your own?

Why is winter depression so heavy

Winter depression is one of the most serious seasonal affective disorders (SAD), during which emotional and cognitive impairment occurs. It can appear at different times of the year, depending on the place of residence and the level of insolation but in general, it overtakes from the beginning of November to the end of February. There is clear evidence that reduced daylight hours and the number of sunny days are connected with winter depression. In spring and summer when there is more bright sunlight, the retina is exposed to it longer which stimulates the production of serotonin (one of the "pleasure hormones"), while the lack of ultraviolet radiation in wintertime provokes depression.

The production of the sleep hormone melatonin also increases in winter. It causes drowsiness, lethargy, and apathy. Perhaps we inherited this mechanism from our ancestors when the decrease in activity in winter was justified by the need to save energy in the conditions when there was not so much food. Now the shops are filled with goods all year round, but the genetic memory turned out to be stronger and we constantly feel sleepy in November-February. Nevertheless, in the animal kingdom, such adaptation is still relevant, that’s why many mammals - bears, raccoons, hamsters, chipmunks, etc hibernate during winter.

Along the way, there occurs a "phase shift" of the circadian rhythm. To put it simply, you get up at 7 a.m. all year round and in spring and summer this wouldn’t cause difficulties - the sun has already risen and the natural mechanisms of awakening coincide with the schedule you adhere to. Although in winter the situation becomes more complicated. Your “body clock" persuades you to sleep a little more - after all, it is dark outside the window, while duty calls demand from you to forcefully tear yourself off the pillow.

bad snowman
In the United States alone, 3% of the population, or about 9 million people, suffer from SAD, and only 20% of them in a milder form

In addition to purely biological reasons, social factors can get involved as well. Against the background of the second wave of coronavirus, the number of interactions and contacts is sharply limited, corporate events and parties are cancelled. Loneliness and uselessness are felt more acutely, which in turn only strengthens the biological prerequisites for SAD.

Alaska paradox

At first glance, everything is simple - as soon as the amount of sunlight decreases, people become depressed. However, residents of the city of Fairbanks, located in the heart of Alaska, refute this axiom. In winter, the interval between sunrise and sunset there does not exceed 4 hours. Almost the same is observed in the Norwegian Tromsø, and in Norilsk in Russia. However, only 10% of the Fairbanks population have been diagnosed with SAD (in different forms). One of the residents of the city admitted that despite the lack of sun, cold weather and 12-hour shifts at the power plant, he does not suffer from the winter depression. Mark considers that constant activity protects you from feeling low. Hence, after work, he removes the snow around his house, chops wood, or goes to the city for coffee with friends.

Fairbanks Alaska street

Such paradoxes made scientists think that SAD may be predetermined by genetic factors. According to one of the hypotheses, some people are predisposed to seasonal depression, moreover, the degree of severity can also differ even for the same person from year to year. Severity wise, some may experience slight difficulties with waking up in the morning (exactly before the first rays of the sun appear) and light overeating, while others may have a complete breakdown, apathy, and unwillingness to do anything. Another relatively new hypothesis assumes that there are significantly fewer negatively charged ions in the air in winter than during the warm season which affects the overall state of mind and body. Accordingly, targeted negative ion flux therapy can potentially help with SAD management.

Norwegian “mirroring” therapy

The people from the Norwegian town of Rjukan, located at the same latitude with St. Petersburg, also suffered from the lack of sunlight. The town's peculiarity is that it is surrounded by high mountains, which is why winter here lasts from September to March. In fact, the sun is not visible for more than 7 months per year. The population was rapidly declining and at some point has decreased to 3.4 thousand people. The project "Mirror" helped to improve the situation.

Rjukan Norway mirror

The idea to illuminate the city with mirrors came from the "father" of the city more than a hundred years ago. However, at that time, it was a very expensive and difficult project to implement. An alternative solution was found - everyone was taken up a 500-meter mountain by cable car so that they could stand in the sun for at least a couple of hours. Subsequently, it became possible to install three huge mirrors with an area of ​​28 square meters each. They follow the sun automatically and redirect the sunlight to the main square of Rjukan. Now residents have an opportunity to enjoy natural sunlight and suffer less from SAD.

The signs of winter depression

Seasonal depression can manifest itself in different ways for different people. Sometimes its symptoms can even be confused with thyroid diseases, vegetative-vascular dystonia, diabetes mellitus, etc.

black and white winter street

The most common symptoms of winter depression are:

  • Difficulty waking up in the morning, desire to stay in bed until the first glimpses of dawn;
  • Inactivity, lack of energy;
  • Decreased immunity and susceptibility to infectious diseases;
  • Unwillingness to do anything, including work and household chores;
  • Feelings of guilt, hopelessness, uselessness, despair, lethargy, apathy;
  • Daytime sleepiness. Hypersomnia or, conversely, sleep problems;
  • Decreased concentration of attention, intellectual activity, memory impairment;
  • Rapid fatigability, difficulties in performing standard loads of work (both physically and psychologically);
  • Overeating with an emphasis on sweet, spicy, and salty food or alcohol;
  • Exacerbation of chronic diseases;
  • Desocialization, unwillingness to leave the house.

At the same time, inhabitants of the northern regions are about 10 times more likely to suffer from SAD than southerners, and women suffer from seasonal depression 4-5 times more often than men.

How seasonal depression is diagnosed

A mental health specialist usually can identify seasonal depression quite easily. For this, you will need to go through several stages:

  • Anamnesis and questioning; 
  • Confirmation of symptoms of depression; 
  • Recording the regularity and seasonality of SAD (for example, stable signs of depression during the winter months for three years) and the predominance of seasonal episodes at other times of the year;
  • The decrease in symptoms with the coming of the next season.

The right diet for SAD

In the cold season, the appetite only increases. This is the ingrained habit of storing fat for the winter widespread in the animal kingdom and vastly contributing to their survival. Thus, we tend to consume more carbs during this period. For people, however, it is also about the desire to activate the pleasure centres with food. Despite this, if the diet is normalized it is possible to neutralize or even almost completely eliminate the symptoms of winter depression.

It is better to minimize the consumption of the following products during winter:

  • pastry and baked goods; 
  • coffee, tea, and energy drinks; 
  • alcohol;
  • pasta;
  • potatoes.

What is necessary to add to the diet:

  • fruits and vegetables; 
  • lean meat, fish;
  • whole-grain products; 
  • vitamins B, C, D; 
  • products containing ginseng and guarana; 
  • foods rich in L-carnitine and omega-3 acids (beef and lamb, pork and rabbit, seafood and fish, poultry, milk and dairy products); 
  • Tryptophan-rich foods, including cottage cheese, yoghurt, peas, cashews, oatmeal, and soy.
winter diet omega-3
The main focus in wintertime in terms of the diet should be on the consumption of vitamin D and Omega-3 fatty acids

Vitamin D is particularly important in counteracting winter depression. A 2015 study of healthy women aged 18 to 25 living in the Pacific Northwest in the fall, winter and spring found that vitamin D deficiency (30 ng/ml or less) leads to the onset of clinically significant symptoms of several disorders, including depression. A 2006 study found that also older adults with vitamin D levels below 20 ng/ml had a 1,100% higher risk of developing depression compared to those without vitamin D deficiency.

How to beat winter depression

The choice of prevention and depression management will depend on the severity of SAD. Sometimes it is enough just to increase the amount of sunlight; physical activity often helps. 

1. An increased amount of light. Of course, you will have to increase it with the help of artificial lighting, and it is especially important to expose yourself to light in the morning. There are special fluorescent lamps and alarm clocks that simulate dawn, however, they only partially replace the sun. If on a sunny day the illumination can range from 5,000 to 130,000 lux, indoors it does not exceed 500 lux. However, it is still better than being in the dark.

2. Light therapy (phototherapy). This method is closely related to the above-mentioned approach but involves the use of a special device that simulates outdoors light. Its brightness starts at 10,000 lux while the course lasts about 30-45 minutes. Some time spent in its presence activates chemical reactions associated with mood. This method has few side effects, and the results are noticeable after a couple of weeks.

3. Wintering in warm countries. Of course, due to coronavirus, not all the places are ready to receive tourists, but if there is an opportunity to work remotely in a warm country with open borders it is best to spend the winter away from cold and dark. A bonus in this case is a variety of foods (fresh vegetables and fruits, seafood) and new experiences available around.

4. Physical activity. In winter, the level of activity decreases due to subconscious mechanisms (remember about saving energy?). It is especially difficult to find time for training before or after work because it is usually dark outside the window and the body refuses to arrange a "before bedtime" physical training marathon. However, it is not necessary to engage in strength exercises, a short walk, yoga, tai chi, meditation, dancing are also suitable.

5. Communicate. Fortunately, modern means of communication allow you to maintain interaction even with those who are thousands of kilometres away from you. Try to find time for those who you enjoy talking to and those who are ready to share your joy and sorrow.

6. Choose window seats literally everywhere: in transport and at work, at home and in a cafe. Maximize your exposure to light.

7. Aromatherapy. Essential oils affect the areas of the brain responsible for mood, internal clocks, sleep, and appetite. You can add a few drops to the bath, use aroma lamps or incense. Choose any soothing scent for falling asleep to your liking (pine needles, lavender, etc.).

8. Keep a diary. Recording thoughts has a positive effect on mood. Sometimes the negative should be splashed out on paper (it is not necessary to re-read what was written later) and it is advisable to do this right before falling asleep - the brain gets tired of this activity and quickly decides to sleep. It usually takes no more than 20 minutes to write about your thoughts, feelings and worries.

9. Medicines. Antidepressants are prescribed only in the most severe cases of depression and it is only a doctor who can do this. Sometimes drugs are taken before the seasonal flare-up, which recurs every year. The course usually takes several weeks.

10. Psychotherapy. In this case, we are talking about cognitive-behavioural therapy. It allows you to identify thoughts and behaviour patterns that negatively affect your overall well-being, and also offers general recommendations for eliminating stressors.

skiing with dogs

One of the tools for boosting psychophysiological characteristics is the Hypnopedia mobile application. It reproduces thematic affirmations while the user is sleeping, but it does not wake him up and does not require active listening. According to the latest scientific data, the perception of small bits of information occurs even in such an “unconscious” state like sleep. As a result, mental health is strengthened while the user experiences a surge of energy. The app takes into account the personal characteristics collected using Apple Watch sensors. They are processed by a know-how algorithm that accompanies the entire sleep and collects individual statistics. There is also a selection of relaxing sounds for a calm sleep, and for a gentle awakening - a "smart" alarm clock with haptic alarm function.

Ссылка App Store

Thus, winter depression is an unpleasant condition but it can definitely be overcome, especially if you keep in mind the fact that even the most severe winter is followed by inevitable spring and summer. You can cope with seasonal depression quite easily if only you keep yourself in good shape and not succumb to despondency.

Hypnopedia Mental health Positive thinking Self-awareness