With bitterly cold Midwest winters and the seemingly perpetual overcast skies that accompany them, the winter blues are more than an excuse to sleep all day. According to Mental Health America, five percent of Americans experience what is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
SAD is a subcategory of depression that coincides with the change of seasons in the autumn and spring. It can be caused by many factors, like an imbalance of melatonin or an issue with one’s circadian rhythm. But the general consensus is that during the winter months, the decreased level of sunlight affects serotonin reuptake within the brain, thus affecting an individual's overall mood.
It is common for people to experience bouts of sadness, emotional distance and boredom during the winter. If these symptoms become ongoing or are paired with other symptoms like anxiety, sudden mood changes, perpetual sleeping problems or suicidal thoughts, it may be much more than the typical winter gloom and may require the attention of a professional.
While I don’t personally experience symptoms of SAD, I have seen many close friends deal with this seasonal phenomenon. Though it seems like just a typical case of the blues, SAD can affect a person's quality of life for a significant part of the year.
Although some kind of lethargy is typical for the winter, this reaction to reduced sunlight can be improved with just a handful of helpful tips.
Any way to boost serotonin production and/or dopamine will be the most effective avenue. Both of these neurotransmitters are critical for mood boosting. Dopamine is the main way we register pleasure and reward, while serotonin is the all-around mood booster and appetite regulator. If one can boost either neurotransmitter, their mood will inherently be improved. Both neurotransmitters can be increased through exercise and consumption of certain vitamins and minerals.
When I notice any dip in my mood, I almost always look to increase my consumption of Vitamin D, which is an important fat soluble vitamin that aids in everything from calcium absorption to mood. It isn’t particularly common in many foods, but is instead absorbed through the skin when in contact with the sun’s UVB rays. During the months when we aren’t able to step outside into the bright sunlight, a simple Vitamin D supplement is the perfect alternative until warm weather finds its way back again.
Another reliable mood booster during the blandness of winter is exercise. Anything from a simple 20-minute jog on a treadmill to a workout class at the rec will not only increase blood flow, but also increase production of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter.
Other tips to beating the winter drag include letting natural light into your house or dorm room. Or you could invest in a light box — a small synthetic box that emits light and mimics the effects of sunlight on the brain.
It is no secret that Midwest winters are brutal, dismal and bleak. Hopefully, as the latter half of the season unfolds, these little tips and tricks can dramatically improve the overall enjoyment of the remaining winter months.