At first, winter feels magical. I mean, what’s not to love? There’s hot cocoa, crackling fireplaces, and snow gently falling outside. But—fast forward three months and most of us are starting to feel a little stir-crazy, sick, and sad. Our skin is dry, our noses are running, and we absolutely yearn to get outside and feel the sun on our skin.
If you can relate to this, you’re not alone. In fact, close to 20 to 35% (1) of people have struggled with mild to severe forms of seasonal affective disorder, also known as SAD.
As a functional medicine practitioner, it’s my job to help my patients feel good all year long. And yes, that means through the entire winter—no matter if you live in Florida or Minnesota. If you’re feeling the winter blues come on, it’s time to try one of these 10 tips, stat.
1. Stimulate your vagus nerve
Have you heard of the vagus nerve? It’s a nerve that travels all over your body but is most famous for connecting your brain to your GI system. Simulating this nerve has been shown (2) to be an effective treatment for depression. You can do this through modalities like pulsed electromagnetic field but also by doing practices such as deep breathing exercises and intermittent fasting.
2. Exercise, even if it’s just for a little
I know you don’t want to (Who wants to exercise when it’s freezing outside?!) but when it comes to supporting your mood, there’s nothing more important than getting your body moving. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy; in fact, it could be as simple as a 10-minute at-home HIIT workout or a dance party around the kitchen.
3. Lean on TCM
Traditional Chinese medicine includes many different healing modalities, but the most famous is probably acupuncture. Acupuncture has been linked (3) to an increase in serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters we want to support in the winter. But how well does this really work? Pretty well. In fact, one study (4) on treatment-resistant patients found that depression was reduced after just one 30-minute acupuncture session.
4. Get a massage
Many of us think of a massage as a huge luxury, but it’s time we start thinking of it as part of our winter self-care routines. Research has shown that bodywork not only lowers cortisol—your body’s main stress hormone—it boosts (5) dopamine and serotonin, which means a happier you.
5. Try taking some herbs
More specifically, try taking adaptogens, a group of herbs that are meant to help your body deal with stress. My two favorites for winter are Mucuna pruriens—which contains high levels of L-DOPA, a precursor to dopamine—and holy basil. In a 2008 study (6), a dose of 1 gram of holy basil for two months lowered symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress.
6. Take St. John’s wort
Speaking of herbs, you’ve probably already heard of St. John’s wort, a natural supplement that’s been used for years as an alternative to antidepressant medications. While more research needs to be done, the studies we do have point to its ability to reduce depression (7).
7. Don’t forget your vitamin D
Vitamin D’s nickname is the “sunshine vitamin” because we get it when direct sunlight comes into contact with our skin. Knowing this, it’s no surprise that our levels are often low in the winter. You can focus on eating vitamin D-rich foods like egg yolks and wild-caught fish, but many of us still require a supplement. In my practice, I like my patient’s levels to be between 60 and 80 ng/mL, which can require a dose of anywhere between 2,000 and 6,000 IUs of vitamin D per day.
8. Get a lightbox
In the winter it’s not uncommon to leave for work in the dark and come home long after the sun has set. Instead of letting your only light exposure be the fluorescent lighting in your office, try getting a lightbox. They have been shown—in many studies! (8)—to help alleviate SAD. If you can’t get some real sun, this might be the next best thing.
9. Book an infrared sauna session
If you’re craving some heat and a mood boost, try booking an infrared sauna session. Studies have shown that just 15 minutes of sauna a day for a month decreased (9) depression.
10. Drink more tea
After you’ve worked out, taken your vitamin D supplement, used your lightbox, and bo0ked a sauna session, it’s time to cuddle up on the couch with a warm glass of organic tea. Luckily, this can also support your mood. L-theanine, a compound found in green, black, and white tea was shown to improve (10) neurotransmitters like glutamate, which can be out of balance in people with SAD.
If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer webcam as well as in-person consultations for people across the country and around the world.
- Targum, S. D., & Rosenthal, N. (2008). Seasonal affective disorder. Psychiatry (Edgmont (Pa. : Township)), 5(5), 31–33.
- Manta, Stella, Jianming Dong, Guy Debonnel, and Pierre Blier. “Enhancement of the Function of Rat Serotonin and Norepinephrine Neurons by Sustained Vagus Nerve Stimulation.” Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience: JPN 34, no. 4 (July 2009): 272–80.
- Wen G., He X., Lu Y., Xia Y. (2010) Effect of Acupuncture on Neurotransmitters/Modulators. In: Xia Y., Cao X., Wu G., Cheng J. (eds) Acupuncture Therapy for Neurological Diseases. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg
- Yeung, Albert S., Victoria E. Ameral, Sarah E. Chuzi, Maurizio Fava, and David Mischoulon. “A Pilot Study of Acupuncture Augmentation Therapy in Antidepressant Partial and Non-Responders with Major Depressive Disorder.” Journal of Affective Disorders 130, no. 1–2 (April 2011): 285–89. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2010.07.025.
- Field, T., M. A. Diego, M. Hernandez-Reif, S. Schanberg, and C. Kuhn. “Massage Therapy Effects on Depressed Pregnant Women.” Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynaecology 25, no. 2 (June 2004): 115–22.
- Bhattacharyya, D., T. K. Sur, U. Jana, and P. K. Debnath. “Controlled Programmed Trial of Ocimum Sanctum Leaf on Generalized Anxiety Disorders.” Nepal Medical College Journal: NMCJ 10, no. 3 (September 2008): 176–79.
- Linde, Klaus, Michael M. Berner, and Levente Kriston. “St John’s Wort for Major Depression.” The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, no. 4 (October 8, 2008): CD000448. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD000448.pub3.
- Virk, G., Reeves, G., Rosenthal, N. E., Sher, L., & Postolache, T. T. (2009). Short exposure to light treatment improves depression scores in patients with seasonal affective disorder: A brief report. International journal on disability and human development : IJDHD, 8(3), 283–286. doi:10.1901/jaba.2009.8-283
- Masuda, Akinori, Yasuyuki Koga, Masato Hattanmaru, Shinichi Minagoe, and Chuwa Tei. “The Effects of Repeated Thermal Therapy for Patients with Chronic Pain.” Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics 74, no. 5 (2005): 288–94. https://doi.org/10.1159/000086319.
- Hidese, Shinsuke, Miho Ota, Chisato Wakabayashi, Takamasa Noda, Hayato Ozawa, Tsutomu Okubo, and Hiroshi Kunugi. “Effects of Chronic L-Theanine Administration in Patients with Major Depressive Disorder: An Open-Label Study.” Acta Neuropsychiatrica 29, no. 2 (April 2017): 72–79. https://doi.org/10.1017/neu.2016.33.
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