Let the sun shine: Mind your mental health this winter

Dominic Wu, MD
Dominic Wu, MD, Contributing Editor

Although the winter season begins with a bit of holiday cheer, many people feel a little “off” as the cold weather drags on. I’ve already seen a few patients who are puzzled by how easily they become irritated. “Is there something wrong with me?” “Why am I so unhappy?”  Often, their bodies are just responding to the darker and colder days.

We are governed by circadian rhythms, our body’s natural clock that helps regulate important functions including sleep/wake cycles and mood. These rhythms can be thrown off by the winter season.1 The sky gets bright later in the morning, and dark earlier in the evening; yet, our hectic schedules require us to keep going as if nothing has changed. This shift, along with other factors – including genetics and body chemistry – may affect your mental health.

Maintaining wellness

Exercising, eating nutritious foods, practicing mindfulness, and maintaining social support systems are core components of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Not only is physical activity a fantastic outlet for stress, exercising 30 minutes daily may help your body release endorphins, your natural “happy hormones.” It may be challenging during the holidays to eat healthy, but try to fill up first on healthy fruits and vegetables to maintain a balanced diet then have the occasional indulgence.

Meditation has been shown to improve symptoms in people suffering from depression and anxiety, and may also help you to stay well. Meditation can be as short as a 10-minute session every other day when you take the time to be mindful and check in with your body. Some people, especially those who find it difficult to quiet their minds, may find guided meditation helpful. There are plenty of apps such as Headspace and podcasts available to help you. Other meditative practices such as yoga, taking a quiet stroll in a park, or even closing your eyes to focus on listening to your favorite song can also be helpful.

Keeping in touch with your family, friends, and other caring people in your life strengthens your sense of community, and provides you with a strong support system to call on when you feel down.

Light therapy

Some studies2 have shown that light therapy may benefit those with depression, especially if it is related to the season. A review article3 showed that light boxes that produce light intensities of more than 2,500 lux are beneficial (to compare, a cloudy winter day provides around 4,000 lux whereas a sunny day provides 50,000– 100,000 lux!). We usually recommend that light therapy be used early morning when you wake up, using a fluorescent white light box of 10,000 lux without ultraviolet wavelengths4 (these are sold specifically for seasonal mood problems). You should position the light 12-18 inches from yourself for approximately 30 minutes, keep your eyes open but do not look directly into the light. Many people will place it nearby as they eat breakfast or begin their daytime chores. Although light therapy is generally well tolerated, you should consult your doctor before starting the therapy, especially if you have preexisting conditions such as eye disease. Possible side effects include headache, eye strain, nausea, and even agitation or sleep disturbance, although this is usually related to using the light later in the day.

When to seek medical attention

Depression can come on during any season, and although some people might think they feel just a little “off,” it is important to call your doctor when you have these concerning signs of depression:

  • depressed mood most of the day
  • decreased interest or pleasure in activities that you used to enjoy
  • difficulty sleeping or sleeping more than usual
  • moving slower or feeling more hyperactive during the day
  • feeling tired and less energetic
  • feeling worthless or excessively guilty
  • difficulty concentrating more than usual
  • thoughts of death, suicide, or harming others

If you notice these symptoms almost every day during the week, or have thoughts of harming yourself or others, seek medical attention right away. It is also important to reach out to the supportive people in your life. If you notice these symptoms tend to occur in the winter months, you may suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD), which could benefit from medical treatment.

References

  1. Duffy JF, Czeisler CA. Effect of Light on Human Circadian Physiology. Sleep Med Clin., 2009.
  2. Golden RN, Gaynes BN, Ekstrom RD, et al. The efficacy of light therapy in the treatment of mood disorders: a review and meta-analysis of the evidence. Am J Psychiatry, 2005.
  3. Westrin A, Lam RW. Seasonal Affective Disorder: A Clinical Update. Annals of Clin Psychiatry, 2007.
  4. Kurlansik SL, Ibay AD. Seasonal Affective Disorder. Am Fam Physician, Dec. 2012.

Related Information: Understanding Depression

Comments:

  1. Ita Vasquez

    hello!
    we all have good and bad days.
    however, if you´re feeling anxiety and down, and if these feelings have started affecting what normally you enjoy or do, it is necesary that you find out or search information that can help you.
    i recommend the website “youth and beyond blue” because here you can find information about disaeses such as anxiety, psysicological disaeses, depression. some examples are “youth beyond blue” it is an Australian page, created by profesional of the health.
    The greatest is that you can read real histories of persons that suffered disaeses such as depression, anxiety or any nervous breakdown.
    In this website, you can find information safe and reliable, you can enter just one click, over all you can find help in moments that you need it.

  2. Julie

    I never even knew I had S.A.D. until my family and I spent an abnormal winter in Goldendale, Washington State. That year, it rained daily instead of snow and later sunshine returning. I thought I’d go crazy! I’ve had it all my life as I become a very different person probably starting in December (providing November is mild and sunny). I hate the slippery slide each year and I have numerous chronic illnesses that make it even more challenging. I have tried the light but did have all the side effects mentioned by Dr. Wu. I no longer use. I, also, have Fuch’s Dystrophy (deterioration of the corneas so it’s not recommended). I surround myself in YELLOW which does help and exercise and eat pretty well. I emerge each Spring/late Spring a new creation and overall feel much better in the warmth of sunshine and light. Good ideas from others.

  3. John Thornton

    Come on down to Sanibel FL for a week for a break to cure those winter depression blues🙂

    • Julie

      Right you are! Sanibel Island is a lovely place especially for beachcombers like myself. I have done this twice and it certainly has been incredibly helpful.

  4. Tapas datta

    I am having depressive mood almost all the day. Tried medication for 8 yrs . Stopped taking since August. Very difficult to keep away all miserable thoughts out of my mind. No drive at all to progress in terms of personal development. Need suggestion from any body got benefit from alternative of using pills

    • Dominic Wu

      Hi Tapas datta, I am sorry to hear that you have had a long battle with depression. It certainly sounds like you should talk to your doctor about this and I would encourage you to see them soon!

      There are a few alternative therapies to taking medication, some herbal as well. I find that medication with therapy is most helpful for patients with depression, but each person is different. Talk to your doctor about your case, and see what they can offer for alternative approaches.

  5. Tony Abramavicius

    Exercise daily, go outside in the sun and stay away from alcohol. Eat properly and sleep deeply for at least 7 hours. See a doctor or psychiatrist if none of the above works.

    • R. T. Whit

      Not sure what you mean by “sleep deeply”. You’re probably suggesting that a person get seven uninterrupted hours of sleep. For me to sleep through the night is almost impossible, however, I can still get a good night’s rest in an eight-hour span. My understanding is that it’s normal for a person to get 4 to five hours of continued sleep and then wake for a brief person but fall back to sleep.

  6. Jacqueline Olds

    You can also use an early morning walk in the sun to combat depression in two ways: bright light and exercise!! And you can use a wearable light tracker (SunSprite) to let you know when you get the right dose of bright light if you’re using the sun as your light!

  7. Tony Cheung

    Very good and useful advices from Dr. Wu.
    Thank you

  8. Sam Johnson

    Managing stress with medication can be difficult. Natural supplements, like EMPowerplus, are the way to go and way better for you in the long run. It even has a quite a few studies done on it!