Ten Easy Steps to Beat the Wintertime Blues

by David Edelberg, MD

If you live in a sunny place like Florida then you probably won't know what I'm talking about. The wintertime blues, also known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), usually begin when the days start getting shorter and the sky clouds over into perpetual gray. People with SAD dread October because the clocks move back an hour and, in a single day, autumn twilight becomes dark night.

Symptoms of SAD include depression, brain fog, easy sleepiness, carb craving, and weight gain.

At the very heart of the wintertime blues is a lack of the feel-good brain chemical serotonin. When the gray winter days in the Northern Hemisphere arrive, the serotonin you stored up in the sunny summer months starts declining. At the same time, your brain's stores of sleep-inducing melatonin increase, making you feel like a hibernating bear.

Women are the major victims of wintertime blues because all women start life with less serotonin in their brains than men. But if you're someone trapped in a SAD life, with no immediate prospects of wintering on the Costa del Sol, you can beat the wintertime blues and get your life back. Basically, you'll need to pull out the stops and do everything you can to stimulate your brain to make more serotonin. This includes lighting up your life, exercising, taking a couple common supplements, and timing your intake of good carbohydrates throughout the day.

Here are 10 low-cost steps you can take right now to banish the wintertime blues:

  1. Go outside and walk briskly with your face in the light -- even if it's gray outside -- for 20 minutes every day. Both the light and the exercise will kick up your feel-good serotonin. Of course, if the wind-chill outside will deep-freeze your face, find a health club with windows, locate a treadmill or a stationary bike in the brightest light, and hop on.

  2. Keep your curtains or blinds pulled open all the way so sunlight (or daylight, even on cloudy days) can pour into your living/work space.

  3. Paint your walls light colors -- they'll reflect the light.

  4. If your car has a sunroof, let in the light while you drive (singing along to your favorite songs is optional, but I recommend that too).

  5. Increase the wattage of your light bulbs to between 5,000 and 10,000 lux (units of light). Choose subcompact fluorescent bulbs, a bit more expensive but mine have lasted 7+ years. The newer bulbs don't have the annoying flicker and strange light the old fluorescent tubes once had, use 25% less energy than a standard bulb, and fit in most fixtures. If you have any sort of a desk job, buy a full spectrum light box (available online) and aim it at your languishing self for an hour a day.

  6. Add the raw materials your body needs to make more serotonin by taking these supplements every day: 2 grams of fish oil and one B complex 100.

  7. Eat a small amount of high-quality carbohydrates with every meal and as snacks throughout your day. Fruits, nuts, veggies, and whole grains are among the best choices, as are beans, soups, and oatmeal. You need a little carbohydrate at every meal for your brain to produce serotonin. In fact, craving comfort foods in the winter is your body's cry for more carbs to boost serotonin -- but, please, if you want to keep your weight stable, make good food choices most of the time.

  1. Premenstrual aggravation of wintertime blues is very common. If you notice a worsening in the week or so before your period, understand that your hormones are taking your serotonin levels on a roller-coaster ride: when your estrogen drops, as it does in the week before your period, your feel-good serotonin goes right along with it. Get your PMS under control by following the healing path in The Triple Whammy Cure.

  2. Try alternative therapies: acupuncture and Chinese herbal remedies -- together called traditional Chinese medicine -- have a seasonal component that make them effective for mild wintertime blues. Flower essence therapies like honeysuckle, mustard, and sweet chestnut all have antidepressant and energizing qualities. And bodywork therapies such as massage and Reiki allow your chi to flow freely thought your body, reducing symptoms of wintertime blues.

  3. If after trying the ideas in items 1-9 your symptoms haven't budged, consider taking St. John's wort or 5HTP, both of which increase serotonin levels.

David Edelberg, M.D., the author of The Triple Whammy Cure, is a practicing physician for more than 30 years and was chief medical adviser of WholehealthMD.com. In 1993, he founded American Wholehealth (AWH), a network of health care centers that combines conventional and alternative medicine. He teaches alternative and integrative medicine to medical students and residents from the University of Chicago.

Copyright © David Edelberg, M.D. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.