I have lived with depression for a good majority of my years. I recently wrote about my personal experience with depression on the blog. Over the course of time, I have come to understand that there is potential for me to struggle more during the darker winter months. I have seen this time and time again in my patients as well. There are many strategies, however, that one can employ to help support the moods during the darker winter months of the year. I have found the following strategies to be very helpful personally, and I hope that you will as well. I believe that having an intentional plan that is individualized to your unique self is important for managing depression.
Establish a Healthy Sleep Routine
Plan for Enough Time
Ideally most people should aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep each night. This can be difficult to achieve in our busy lives. For people who have depression, this task can become even more difficult as the illness often interferes with sleep. For this reason, I generally encourage people to be very intentional about their sleep habits during the winter months. Sleep hygiene is important, and a good night’s sleep will support brain health and thus mood health.
Prioritize Winding Down
“Winding down” is an important first step towards getting a good nights sleep. There are many ways to do this, and a little creativity goes a long ways. I like to wind down by reading for 30 minutes or so before I go to sleep. I sit in bed and read something I enjoy, usually fiction. This encourages me to transition with my movement as well as with my mind.
Blue Light Glasses
Blue and white light in the spectrum of light, causes our brains to “rev up” or to have difficulty settling down. We are exposed to more of these lights during the winter months being indoors more of the time. With the amount of screen time that most people participate in, our exposure to blue light is often excessive. And, furthermore, many people participate in screen time right up until they go to sleep. This causes the brain to have difficulty transitioning into a sleep state by influence on melatonin production in our body.
Melatonin is a hormone that is produced by our pineal gland and influences our sleep wake cycle. According to Harvard Health, “While light of any kind can suppress the secretion of melatonin, blue light at night does so more powerfully.” You can read the full article about blue light and sleep here.
Epsom Salt Bath
I love to wind down by soaking in an Epsom salt bath. Epsom salt is a natural form of magnesium. Magnesium is a muscle relaxant. I try to use Epsom Salt baths several times weekly for stress reduction, and it only makes sense to do this as a part of a bedtime routine. I use 1-2 cups of Epsom Salt in my bath water. Sometimes I add lavender essential oil for additional relaxation support.
Golden Milk or Tea
A warm beverage before bed can be relaxing. Some herbal teas are known to promote sleep if they include ingredients such as chamomile, valerian, ashwaganda, lemon balm. Golden milk is also a popular warm winter beverage to drink before bed. It contains curcumin from turmeric. The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory abilities of curcumin can help prevent and relieve an array of health issues that may be impacting your ability to fall asleep, or the quality of your sleep. Curcumin also enhances serotonin and increases the production of dopamine, two neurotransmitters important to brain health and for managing depression.
The type of bedding we use can influence our ability to relax and fall asleep. I aim for maximum comfort, and attend to making sure I will stay warm in bed in the winter months. I typically place flannel sheets on my bed during the colder weather. This helps me relax and fall asleep easier. I have a heated mattress pad that I can turn on during the coldest part of the winter. A hot water bottle can also work well and produce a relaxing effect.
Have you heard of weighted blankets? It is actually exactly like it sounds – a blanket with “weight” in it. Weighted blankets come in different weights and are filled with a sand like substance. The gentle pressure produced by the weight of the blanket over your body can feel soothing in the same way that a hug can be. This can act as a calming remedy and is said to increase serotonin and melatonin and decrease the stress hormone cortisol. You can read more about depression and weighted blankets here.
As I discussed above, Melatonin is a hormone produced in our body. It influences our circadian rhythm and ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. It can be used in supplement form if taken before sleep. You should check with your medical provider, however, before starting Melatonin.
Prioritize a Mindful Morning Routine
Wake at the Same Time Each Day
I love getting up in the dark so that I can ease into the daylight slowly. In the darker months, I set my alarm for 5 AM and get up to enjoy my coffee and quiet time in the darkness of the house. I cherish this time. I feel like I can “hear myself” or “my essence” when I am the only one awake in the house. This is a time for me to get lost in my thoughts or to think about my intention for the day. And of course, I love to watch the sun rise or the morning light gradually appear. It is precious time to me that I do not get in the summer months because the light comes in naturally so early.
Quiet Place to Center
I like to create places in my house that I designate as my quiet place. In my previous home, one of my favorites was a couch in the kitchen. It was placed by a large window looking out to the water of the Puget Sound. I would spend my quiet time there each morning with my cup of coffee. At other times, I have been known to choose a quiet corner in the yard under a tree. Or a favorite chair such as the rocking chair that was my grandmothers. Each place has a special feel to me and becomes a place for me to relax and center my mind.
Set the Mood
I often intentionally set the mood in my home during the winter months. I do this in several ways. My favorite is with candles. I LOVE candles. My kids laugh about memories of when they were growing up and were assigned various tasks in preparation for dinner at the table. One would set the table. One would help out in the kitchen. And one would have the job of lighting the candles; and more than just a few candles. At times I might have 30-40 candles scattered around the common living area of my home. And I love seeing them all lit up. It reminds me of how each of us has a light to shine.
Music is another way to set the tone in my home. I often choose soothing music but sometimes I put uplifting music on to lighten up my mood.
Another way to influence the mood at home is by drinking a warm and steaming cup of tea or coffee. This somehow makes me relax – even with caffeine included. Something about the warmth of the cup in my hands, the beauty of the drifting steam, the aroma of the beverage, and the time it takes to sip. All of these sensory experiences around drinking a warm beverage calm me and help to lift my mood, even if only momentarily.
Gratitude & Intentions
Sometimes I use my morning routine to write about things I am grateful for. This can have a profound effect on my mood for the rest of the day. Likewise, setting intentions for how I want to live my day or what I want to create in the day also help me to focus on something positive. An existing body of research supports the relationship between gratitude and well being. Studies suggest that by writing about gratitude daily, mental health can improve and results can be lasting. Try it! Write down 3 things you are grateful for every day for 21 days and see if this shifts your mindset to a more positive state.
Yoga or Stretching
I believe that yoga has saved my life at times. My practice goes in cycles, and I tend to practice more in the winter months. I love the mind body connection that yoga creates. And I find that if I start my day with a yoga flow, I feel more grounded and my whole day seems generally more positive. I particularly love the flow of the sun salutation with it’s gentle movement. It’s such a nice way to wake up the body and the mind.
Plan for Winter Movement
Movement is so important for our overall physical health but also for our mental health. I find my movement routine changes in the fall and winter months of the year. I tend to go slower and be more intentional. Some of my strategies are to change the pace of my movement, and to plan to move both indoors and outdoors.
Change the Pace
I tend to choose slower forms of activity in the winter months. I enjoy slow yoga where I can linger for longer periods of time in the poses or move more slowly through the flow sequences. Pilates is another favorite in the winter. I use my reformer to slowly work through a mind body series of movements and enjoy the fast progress that such a gentle form of exercise can produce. One activity I have always wanted to learn is Tai Chi. It is such a slow and beautiful way to move. I just might try it this winter.
I enjoy walking year around, mostly outside, but sometimes I walk indoors during the winter months. Indoors, my pace is slower and more mindful. Often times I move indoors by “house walking”. My home has three floors, and I simply walk all through the house and go up and down the stairs while I track my steps along the way. I just let my mind wander. It is amazing how much mileage can accumulate just moving around the house during the day. I use the gentle movement of mindful indoor steps as a form of walking meditation.
I love the snow! One of my most favorite physical activities in the winter time is cross country skiing. It requires a unique type of movement in the body that I love. I feel nourished by the white of the snow, the quiet mechanics of the movement, and the cold air. I usually plan at least one solo trip to Mazama, Washington for a few days with my dog just to have time to myself and ski. Alternative outdoor winter activities I also enjoy are snow shoeing and winter hiking. Nature time is extra important in the winter as we are more prone to staying indoors, yet we still need the natural light. I find I must be much more intentional during the winter months to make this happen.
Eat to Support Your Moods
Many of the processes that our bodies require to make neurotransmitters and support brain health are dependent on nutritional co-factors such as vitamins, minerals, amino acids and a healthy balance of macro components in our food. I recently wrote about how a nutritional evaluation test helped me to manage my depression. You can read about that here. Following are my recommendations for healthy eating to support brain health and our moods. For many of us, our diets can change with the transition of the seasons. Seasonal foods change, and we tend to cook different types of meals during the winter than in the spring and summer months. I find myself eating warmer foods such as soups and stews during the winter, and many of the recommendations below can be incorporated into these types of recipes. It is important to be mindful of our diets year around, but as we head into winter, lets think about the following.
Whole Food Diet
I generally recommend a whole food diet that includes a wide variety of colorful vegetables and fruits, regular protein throughout the day, and healthy fats. The Mediterranean diet is one way to achieve this.
The brain is made in large part from fat, and requires we eat healthy forms of fat in our diet to sustain optimal function. Healthy fats include fatty fish, olive oil, avocado, nuts or nut butters.
Protein in the diet is critical as it supports production and balance of the neurotransmitters in the brain. When managing depression, it can be very beneficial to eat protein throughout the day. This can be done with protein smoothies, nuts, meats/fish, legumes, etc. Try having a protein shake or smoothie first thing in the morning for one week. See how you feel – it may be that the intentional protein early in the day will have a positive impact on your mood.
B vitamins are critical to brain function. We obtain these in our diet from whole grains, eggs, legumes, citrus fruits, avocados. meat/poultry/fish, and liver.
Probiotics support gut health, and there is a huge connection between the health of the gut and brain health. I commonly advise patients who have depression to take probiotic supplements specifically for this reason. I take a probiotic daily, myself. Probiotics can also be consumed in our diet through fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kimchee, sauerkraut, kombucha.
Consider Supplements for Depression
Many supplements can be helpful when managing depression, especially if particular components of these are missing in our diets. The supplements I commonly advise are as follows. You should check with your medical provider, however, before starting new supplements.
Avoid Self Medication
Some substances can have a negative impact on our mental health. Often times people with depression use food or substances to “self medicate” their depression. I find it is best to avoid or limit these in the diet.
Processed Foods & Refined Sugars
Often times people with depression find that staying busy can be a helpful form of distraction from the illness. While this may be helpful at times, it is also important to find time to be still and quiet and sit with the emotions that you feel. Even if only for short periods of time, it is valuable to feel the sadness, loneliness, tears, low motivation, heaviness… etc. By sitting with these emotions even briefly, we learn to accept these as part of the human experience. Acceptance of our humanness is healing. And remember, as human beings we are “perfectly imperfect”.
Joy is something that pops into our lives at times, and those moments are precious. It is possible to intentionally create joy in our lives, and this is sometimes seems very difficult or is overlooked by people who suffer from depression.
Mary Oliver so wisely said in one of her poems, “If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happened better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb. (Don’t Hesitate)”.
While we may experience joy unexpectedly, it is also helpful to intentionally place joy into your days. I commonly do this by spending time with people I love such as my children or my husband or good friends. I also intentionally schedule activities into my day that bring me joy such as reading, working on a puzzle, knitting, gardening. Try to schedule at least a moment of joy into each day!
As humans, we are meant to connect. Connection can come in many forms. It is helpful to be intentional with the ways you connect. Opportunities to connect may cross your path unexpectedly, however, if you suffer from depression, it is wise to get into the habit of intentionally creating the type of connection that nourishes you. Some of the ways to connect are:
Connection with something we believe is greater than us or that connects all of us.
Connection with Others
Research has shown that people who are connected with others have less depression and anxiety.
Connection with Animals
I have always had animals in my life, and this serves as a wonderful way for me to connect with other living beings.
Connection with Nature
Research has shown that connection with nature can support our mental health. Even in the winter months this is important to prioritize if you have depression. You can read an article about this here.
Consider the Light
I live in a part of the country where light is not as abundant as it is in the more southern regions. Our winters here are generally very gray and often rainy. Despite this, it is important to receive natural light on a regular basis. Even through cloud cover, we can benefit from the light spectrum that the sun produces. And this in turn supports our moods. I find the light in areas that get lots of snow to be simply glorious! So, in all types of weather, I try to get outside regularly. I like to put my rain boots on and walk over to the nearby coffee shop for a change of scenery, natural light and fresh air in the fall and winter months. Even a few moments outside each day can work wonders.
Admittedly, there are times during the winter that I just do not want to go outside. On the darker days, I use a light box called the Happy Light. Research shows that using full spectrum light for 20-30 minutes in the morning can act as an anti-depressant. You can find more about the Happy Light here.
Stress can have so many negative effects on the body. It can disrupt the flow of our hormones which can then create mood disturbances. And it can result in inflammation and damage to the brain and in the gut, and therefore have a negative impact on our moods. Stress reduction is so important when managing depression. Stress management strategies I often rely on are as follows.
Plan a Slower Pace or Fewer Activities
Slowing down in the winter allows us to be more mindful. We have less to think about and can be more intentional and in the moment. Slowing down allows our nervous system to operate less in the fight-or-flight mode and more in the parasympathetic part of the nervous system which promotes healthy moods and reduce depression.
Mindfulness practices such as meditation have been shown to support healthy moods and improve depression. Meditation does not have to be difficult or complicated. I typically just sit or lie down in a comfortable place, close my eyes, and pay attention to my breathing for anywhere from 5 minutes to 45 minutes. It is best to start with a few minutes daily to establish a good habit, and then build on the amount of time from there. Meditation is a simple and very effective way to reduce stress.
Journal at the End of the Day
Journaling at the end of the day can reduce stress and depression. It can be helpful to simply write down all that you are thinking about in the evening before bed. This helps get thoughts out of your mind and may allow you to sleep better.
Therapies such as massage, acupuncture, and Reiki can help support stress reduction. Read my blog post about Reiki meditation. I find that these practices reduce stress in the physical body as well as in the mind and the spirit.
In conclusion, people who suffer from depression, often have a more difficult time during the fall and winter months for a variety of reasons. I find that it is helpful to be intentional in our thinking about how to support our moods during this transitional time. By using our creativity and attending to the many factors that have the potential to impact our moods, we can have a more balanced and healthful experience during the darker and colder time of the year.
On a related note, I created Valencia & Sage to provide women with a more holistic approach to their health (read about that here). I am thinking about creating a class for people who have depression and want a more natural approach to treatment. I feel that so many people are only given the traditional options of prescription medication and counseling for management of depression. They are often times not given the information they need to treat depression with a more holistic strategy.
I believe a functional medicine approach can be a wonderful treatment approach for depression. By identifying the root cause of the depression (for example the health of the gut or a nutritional deficiency, etc.) a more targeted and holistic approach can be developed for each individual. I am looking for women to give me some feedback on the ideas I have for this class. If you are a woman who currently has depression or if you have had depression in the past and would be willing to answer some questions for me, I would love for you to take my survey. The answers are anonymous, and your responses would be ever so helpful to me as I develop a class that will best meet the needs of people who are living with depression and want a more holistic treatment approach.
You can access the survey here.
+ view comments . . .