I notice the changes each year as the days get shorter.   I feel more tired and sluggish during the day, my patience wears a bit more thin, irritability intensifies, and there is a distinct lull and lethargy about my moods.

I know now that I am simply feeling the impact of a mild form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which can be termed as the “winter blues.”

There are simple, natural ways to help alleviate the symptoms of SAD.

Though the symptoms of SAD may feel like other forms of depression, this mood disorder specifically descends for weeks or months at a time during the times of the year that are naturally darker with less sunlight, and then lifts as the hours of sunlight increase with the shifting of seasons.

And similar to postpartum depression, SAD varies greatly in it’s severity — ranging from the mild “winter blues” to a severe form that can truly be debilitating.

An important note: Whenever you feel like you’re experiencing more severe or longer-than-normal stretches of depression, low moods, anxiety, or losing touch with your “normal” self, it is always a good idea to seek out trusted professional support.

For those of us who experience a more mild form of this seasonal depression, there are simple, natural ways of lifting the lull and lackluster feelings as we move into the darker, colder months of winter.

1.  Exercise

It doesn’t help our winter blues when we stop our normal routines of exercise as the days get shorter and colder.

Exercise is beneficial on so many levels.

Not only does aerobic exercise improve mood, but it also reduces stress, which often exacerbates feelings of depression brought on by the winter blues.

Studies show that one hour of aerobic exercise outside, even with cloudy skies overhead, significantly reduce the symptoms of SAD. Aerobic exercise combats depressed moods by increasing serotonin levels (which are our happy-feeling neurotransmitters) as well as oxygenating our cells.

The great news is that many things count as aerobic exercise. Short brisk walks, playing with your kids outside, raking the leaves, shoveling the snow, sledding or making a snow man all can help suffers feel better.

Experts suggest that exercising first thing in the morning helps tremendously, energizing the body as it helps banish the winter blues.

2.  Healthy, Balanced Diet

There is simply no getting around that eating a healthy, whole-foods based diet goes a long way in keeping your body and mind healthy.

Winter blues sufferers often reach for the typical comfort foods which are high in refined sugars and refined white flour.  These lead to a quick high followed by a nasty crash, making you even more vulnerable to depression.

Beyond the general advice to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and quality proteins, the following key nutrients also help if you’re susceptible to low moods in the winter time:

An important note: Please talk with a trusted health care provider to determine whether added supplements is appropriate for you.

1.  Omega 3 fatty acids

These are primarily found in fatty fishes like salmon, herring and mackerel, in pastured eggs or free-roaming, grass fed organic animal meats.  Chia seeds or ground flax seeds are also vegetarian source of omega 3s.

These fatty acids can also be taken in supplement form.  Be sure to seek out micro-filtered fish oil or cod liver oil capsules that are certified free of mercury.

2.  Vitamin B complex

This is essential for healthy energy levels and mood balance.  Food like whole grains, legumes, eggs, green leafy vegetables, and berries are high in these vitamins.

3.  Vitamin D

This vitamin is typically manufactured in our own body from cholesterol with the aid of sunlight.  There are not many food sources high in vitamin D.  Fish and egg yolks (from chickens with time spent outdoors and are free-roaming) are probably the best sources.

You can ask your doctor for a simple blood test to see if your vitamin D levels are deficient, and to decide if a supplement if right for you (and how much would be necessary).

Photo by RowdyKittens

3.  Light Therapy

Finally, one of the best therapies for reducing the symptoms of SAD has been with light.

Based on the theory that changes in daylight are at the root cause of SAD, Dr. Michael Terman and Dr. Jiuan Su Terman of the New York State Psychiatric Institute at Columbia University suggest using a “dawn simulator.” This device gradually turns on a bedroom light every morning while you are still asleep, helping ease SAD symptoms by making the body think that it is experiencing the early sunrises of summer.

Other studies have found that a majority of SAD sufferers experienced relief from the regular use of light boxes. These emit high intensities of light of 2,500 to 10,000 lux (A normal light fixture emits 250 to 500 lux.) and produce effects similar to the sun’s natural rays.  It appears that the high intensities of light, whether from natural or artificial sources, improve the mood of those suffering from the winter blues by lowering secretion of melatonin in the brain.

If you find yourself experiencing symptoms of the winter blues, consider shifting your exercise habits, diet or access to light to see if you can alleviate and lift your moods.

Do you experience any level of winter blues as the days get shorter and colder?  What has helped lift your moods during the winter months?