When the temperature drops and the days become shorter, many of us start to feel our sunny summer disposition slip away. While seasonal affective disorder (SAD) depression during winter is more common in the Northern hemisphere, even people in sunnier countries like Australia can feel less cheerful in winter.
"The shorter days, getting up in the dark to go to work and coming home in the dark, do affect our mood," says Dr Brian Morton, chair of the Australian Medical Association Council of General Practice.
The good news is that you can beat the winter blues with some simple steps.
The temptation to hit the snooze button instead of the gym is high when it's cold and dark outside, but a study conducted at Duke University in North Carolina found that exercise is more effective in treating depression than antidepressant medications. In fact, exercise is associated with a higher recovery rate and fewer relapses. You don't have to run marathons either researchers at Duke University found that people who walked for 30 minutes three times a week reported feeling less depressed.
Get some sun
It's no secret that lack of sunlight can affect our mood. In northern countries, light therapy involving exposure to bright lights is often used to treat SAD, but Australians can generally get enough by simply stepping outside. "Our internal clocks are set by sunlight, so it's worthwhile for people who have office jobs to escape at lunchtime and go for a walk to get exposed to the sun," says Dr Morton.
While sunlight helps our bodies produce mood-lifting vitamin D, Dr Morton explains that its benefits go beyond that. "It's more than just vitamin D. Sunlight also has positive effects on our brain function and diurnal rhythm."
Watch what you eat
Along with exercise programs, healthy diets tend to go out the window during the cold months.
"We often go for heavier foods in winter," says Dr Morton. "We have to be careful not to neglect fruit and salads and all the healthy foods we have in summer. Attention to diet is worthwhile."
You might also want to consider adding oily fish or omega-3 supplements to your diet. A study at Université de Montréal in Canada found that omega-3s are effective in the treatment of depression.
Go play outside
Fight the temptation to stay cooped up inside the house all weekend, especially if you have kids.
"For people with families, engaging in outdoor activities even during the cold and wet months of winter is a great way to let the kids burn off steam and the parents interact in a positive way," says Dr Morton. "Avoid being a couch potato in winter."
Take deep breaths
According to experts at the Touch Research Institute at Miami University, deep breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, which counteracts the stress response that frequently triggers or exacerbates depression.
You can stimulate your vagus by taking deep breaths and exhaling for twice as long as you inhale, or by practicing activities like yoga and meditation that focus on breathing.
There's no better remedy for the blues than having a few laughs with your friends. Ditch your trackies and head out to dinner, even if it feels like an effort.
However, if you feel like you can't face people and social situations, you might be suffering from clinical depression. According to national depression initiative Beyondblue, symptoms of depression include loss of interest in pleasurable activities and spending less time with friends and family. For more information on this and other symptoms of depression, visit beyondblue.org.au.
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