Dr. Day is a cardiologist/electrophysiologist at the Intermountain Medical Center Heart Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah. He graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School and completed his residency and fellowships in cardiology and electrophysiology at Stanford University. He is the former president of the Heart Rhythm Society and currently serves as the president of the Utah chapter of the American College of Cardiology.
3 Ways to Naturally Beat Wintertime Depression
One in five people struggle with wintertime depression or seasonal affective disorder. For many, this strikes immediately after the holiday season. In this article, I share 3 ways to naturally beat wintertime depression.
My Struggle with Wintertime Depression
Growing up, I struggled with wintertime depression. Typically, this hit me within a few hours after opening presents on Christmas day.
While wintertime depression never stopped me from other activities, I always felt somewhat melancholic from Christmas day until March. Looking back, I rarely went outside during this period of time.
I went to school in the dark and came home in the dark. The only light I lived by was the artificial light that permeated indoor spaces. I really didn’t see much of the sun until March.
Of course, my diet didn’t help. As a youth, I lived on the Standard American Diet. I loved my sugar and my processed carbohydrates.
Fortunately, my wintertime depression mostly resolved when I began my internship at Stanford University Hospital. In the warmer California climate, I often went on long runs outside in the winter.
Even though we currently live in the cold climate of Salt Lake City, wintertime depression is usually no longer an issue for me. As long as I can get a dose of the sun, eat right, and exercise on most days, I generally do very well.
What Causes Wintertime Depression?
Wintertime depression, is a form of depression which occurs during the winter months. In my experience, it is generally caused by a lack of natural light, poor food choices, and not enough physical activity.
Living in rhythm with the sun is critically important to a long and heathy life. For example, studies consistently show that people who work nights, or travel through different time zones, are far more likely to die from a heart attack or cancer.
In addition to a lack of natural light, all of the sugar and processed carbohydrates during the holiday season can shoot inflammation levels sky high. Chronic inflammation, or unnecessary activation of your immune system from poor lifestyle choices, has also been shown to be an important cause of depression. Indeed, many researchers now believe that depression is just inflammation of the brain.
Lastly, when it is cold outside many people stop exercising. The right amount of exercise also lowers inflammation and boosts the feel good brain chemicals like dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin.
3 Ways to Naturally Beat Wintertime Depression
Now that you understand the causes of wintertime depression, the key to recovery is to reclaim your circadian rhythm, keep unnecessary inflammation as low as possible, and keep your brain chemistry in balance. To help you get there, here are my three best ways to naturally beat wintertime depression.
As discussed, living out of your circadian rhythm throws off other hormones, like melatonin and serotonin. It also activates unnecessary inflammation and leads to heart attacks and cancer.
Fortunately, the treatment for this is really simple. Get more natural light. The earlier in the day you can get some sunlight, the better off you will be.
If you have a job, like mine, that rarely allows you to see the sun in the winter, then just do the best you can. Go outside on a break or during your lunch hour. Consider using a light box at work.
Personally, I have found that a light box has helped me when I can’t get outside. To learn which light boxes work best, here is a link to the Mayo Clinic website.
Indeed, studies clearly show that light therapy treats wintertime depression. In a head-to-head study, light therapy was shown to be just as good as an anti-depressant during the winter.
Even better, light therapy was shown to work much faster and without side effects when compared to an anti-depressant. For those suffering from non-wintertime depression, light therapy has also been shown to help.
As discussed in my last blog, keeping unnecessary inflammation as low as possible is the secret to a long and healthy life. To do this, you need to follow an anti-inflammation diet. This is because many experts now consider depression to be inflammation of the brain.
Sadly, most Americans gorge themselves on sugar and processed carbohydrates over the holidays. Feasting on junk food during the darkest days of winter is when you can least afford to do so. Medical studies are now pretty clear that processed foods and sugar significantly increase the risk of depression.
If you suffer from wintertime depression, make sure you are eating two servings of vegetables and one fruit with each meal. Yes, this means two servings of vegetables even with your breakfast. If you can get in your nine servings daily of vegetables and fruits each day then hopefully you will be too full to even think about eating sugar or processed foods.
One thing the pharmaceutical industry will never tell you is that even a short workout may be just as helpful in treating depression as a little pill. Indeed, since the first head-to-head study in 1999, exercise has consistently performed just as good, if not better, than an anti-depressant.
How much exercise do you need to treat depression? That depends.
While some studies show that even minimal amounts help, other studies show that higher doses are required to treat depression. In addition to boosting the feel good hormones like dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin, the right dose of exercise can also drop inflammation levels.
If you are on an anti-depressant right now, don’t stop taking this medication unless your physician instructs you to do so. Abruptly stopping an anti-depressant could have dangerous consequences and could even trigger a suicide attempt. To find the right dose of light, healthy foods, or exercise to treat depression, please work closely with your physician.
Take Home Message
The take home message is that you, or someone you love, is probably suffering from wintertime depression right now. Fortunately, there are simple solutions that usually don’t require an anti-depressant.
By simply getting more sun in your life, eating right, and exercising daily you can boost your brain’s feel good chemicals and eliminate any unnecessary inflammation. With this prescription, most people can beat wintertime depression.
I know this has been the case for me. Daily sun, healthy foods, and exercise has cured my wintertime depression.
Do you suffer from wintertime depression? If so, what has worked for you?
Please leave your thoughts and questions below. I’ll do my best to answer your questions as quickly as possible.
Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.