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Woman experiencing winter blues with her head down on her desk in front of a laptop. Below are illustrated flowers in a vase.

January 20, 2023 • read

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How to beat the winter blues and improve your mood

If the shorter days and cooler temperatures have you feeling down, you’re not alone. Wintertime can usher in the winter blues and even depression for many. Despite this, winter doesn’t have to mean guaranteed misery. Here’s how to improve your mood, no matter what the temperature is outside.

What are the winter blues?

The cold weather blues, or winter blues, are a period of low mood that comes on in the fall or winter. Science isn’t totally clear about what causes the condition, but it likely has to do at least in part with a reduction in the amount of sunshine that winter brings.

Symptoms of the winter blues include classic hibernation behaviours like sleeping more and craving comfort foods. Beyond that, however, they can also cause you to feel gloomy and unmotivated, avoid socializing, and have difficulty sleeping. If this sounds like you right now, there’s a good chance you’re among the 15% of Canadians who experience them.

Despite their prevalence, winter blues aren’t the most common mental health concern. One in four Canadians screened positive for a mental health condition like depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2021.

But, while mental health concerns are common, many who experience them are reluctant to discuss them due to stigma. Public campaigns like Let’s Talk, which takes place this year on January 25, are aiming to change this. This initiative focuses on spreading awareness of mental health issues to end this stigma while raising funds for organizations that provide mental health support.

How long do the winter blues last?

Winter blues are time-limited by definition, but they can still linger. November and its noticeably darker days often introduce them, and many find they don’t fully shake them off until spring starts in March. So, while they can ebb and flow throughout the colder months, you might find yourself experiencing them for upwards of five months.

Winter blues vs. seasonal affective disorder vs. depression

While often confused with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), the winter blues aren’t a form of depression. Despite often leaving you feeling sad and low, the blues don’t interfere with activities of everyday life — unlike depression.

SAD, on the other hand, is a form of depression that comes on in the fall or winter and spontaneously recedes in the spring or summer. And it comes with all the signs and symptoms of traditional depression.

These can include having low energy, concentration issues, sleep difficulties, a loss of pleasure in previously enjoyed activities, and suicidal ideation — just to name a few. Winter-pattern SAD’s classic presentation, however, is overeating, oversleeping, weight gain, and social withdrawal. Scientists aren’t sure exactly what causes SAD, but like the blues, a lack of sunlight likely contributes.

If you feel that you may be experiencing SAD or another form of depression, Maple can help. Maple is a telehealth platform that can connect you with Canadian-licensed doctors and specialists. This includes mental health therapists and mental health physicians you can speak to from your phone, tablet, or computer.

How to avoid the winter blues

You can know that shorter, darker, colder days are coming and still be caught off-guard by the winter blues. There are things you can do to prepare, however.

Staying physically active and eating healthy are important baselines for keeping you feeling well. Additionally, certain natural supplements and vitamins for winter blues, like folic acid, vitamin D, B6, and B12 may also be beneficial.

More research is still needed, but some studies show that folic acid, vitamins B6, and B12 may have a protective effect against depression. But, hold off on adding folic acid to your routine just yet. Over-supplementing with folic acid can cause side effects. Since many foods are already enriched with it, you’ll want to speak to your healthcare provider before adding it to the mix.

However, the research speaks for itself when it comes to vitamin D. A methodical review of numerous studies demonstrates that vitamin D supplementation has a clinically significant effect on depression symptoms.

Among other things, vitamin D promotes the production and release of serotonin. Both a hormone and a neurotransmitter, serotonin helps stabilize your mood, and is sometimes called the “happy hormone.”

But that’s not all. Vitamin D is also a key ingredient in the synthesis of dopamine and norepinephrine, two additional hormonal neurotransmitters. While their functions are different from serotonin, both are involved in mood regulation and depression.

If you prefer to get the benefits of these mood-modifying brain chemical neurotransmitters from your food instead of a supplement, choose foods like eggs and fatty fish like salmon and sardines. These are high in vitamin D, as are fortified products like orange juice and dairy.

11 tips to beat the winter blues

If you’re wondering how to beat the winter blues, look no further. With some intentional changes, you can kiss your low winter mood goodbye. Here’s how.

1. Brighten up your life

From boosting your mood to replenishing your vitamin D levels, sunlight benefits many aspects of your health. Whether it’s a week-long jaunt to the Caribbean or the simple act of remembering to raise your blinds every day, add some sunshine to your life to help shake off those winter blues.

2. Watch what you eat

Winter may have you craving comfort food, but a daily dose of mac ‘n cheese won’t exactly leave you with a spring in your step. Instead, focus on eating whole, unprocessed foods.

Foods high in fibre like fruits, veggies, and whole grains will keep your digestion on point while helping you feel fuller, longer. Pair them with proteins like beans or chicken and healthy fats like salmon and nuts for nutritious and satisfying meals.

And, don’t forget chocolate. Eating chocolate positively affects your mood and may even lower your risk for depression. Varieties over 85% cacao seem especially promising as they may function as prebiotics, nurturing “good” bacteria in your gut that beneficially affect your mood.

3. Try the 10x10x10 plan

Regular winter exercise is an integral part of banishing the winter blues. But, setting yourself a daily exercise goal can be pretty daunting. To help make it easier, try the 10x10x10 exercise plan.

Aim for just 10 minutes of a workout — even a walk counts — by 10am every day for 10 days. You’ll likely surprise yourself with how quickly the practice becomes manageable. Plus, it’ll give you an energy boost to start your day.

4. Listen to upbeat music

The benefits of listening to music are extensive. From reducing anxiety to improving mood, few things brighten your mood more quickly than a cheerful song.

Beyond your emotions, upbeat music also affects the brain’s functioning — improving both alertness and memory. So the next time you’re feeling low, put on some of your favourite tunes and feel your bad feelings melt away.

5. Avoid drugs and alcohol

It can be tempting to try and numb unwanted emotions with drugs or a couple of drinks. But, these depressant substances will only leave you feeling worse in the long run.

Drugs and alcohol tend to enhance whatever you’re already feeling, so if that’s sadness, they’re more likely to amplify it than erase it. What’s more, hangovers can leave you in an even worse place emotionally. Your best bet is to abstain until you’re in a better frame of mind.

6. Get outside

Getting outside on bright days helps you boost your vitamin D levels. Even when it’s overcast, being out in nature can promote feelings of calm and reduce your sense of isolation. And, since it’s winter, you’ll likely be walking or moving to keep warm, which counts as exercise — bonus!

7. Volunteer

The mental health benefits of volunteering are substantial. Not only is volunteering associated with increased happiness and lower depressive symptoms, but it also helps you build skills and self-confidence. Consider taking a couple of hours a week to help yourself by helping others.

8. Plan an event to look forward to

Winter can feel long, especially once the holidays are over. To break up the time and give yourself something to look forward to, consider planning an event. There’s no need to stress yourself out by throwing a huge party though. An intimate dinner or a family outing somewhere new could do the trick.

9. Get enough sleep

Lack of sleep is both miserable and tied to depression. To help you get the seven to nine nightly hours you need, aim to go to bed on the same schedule every night and wake up at the same time every morning. That, coupled with proper sleep hygiene, should help you get the sleep dreams are made of.

10. Lean on your support system

Humans are social creatures, and feeling connected is crucial for maintaining good mental health. Counteract your winter drive to isolate by reaching out to your friends and family.

A phone or video call is great, but seeing a loved one in person is even better. Make plans for a walk, a meal, or even a cup of tea to strengthen those social connections.

11. Look into light therapy

If you’ve tried all these tips and still feel low, you may be able to improve your mood with light therapy. Before you go all in on a light box, you should speak to your healthcare provider. Not all light therapy lamps are made for SAD, which means they might not provide the help you need.

Not only can your provider guide you to the appropriate product, but they can also offer additional therapeutic modalities to address your depression if you’re dealing with SAD.

How Maple can help with the winter blues

If you find that your cold weather blues are interfering with your life, or if winter’s darkness leaves you sad despite your best efforts, you need more help.

While it might be common, feeling depressed for half the year isn’t normal, and it’s not your fault. With Maple, you can connect with a Canadian-licensed mental health physician for help addressing your symptoms.

Mental health physicians are specially trained to diagnose and manage common mental health conditions like depression. They can also provide prescriptions, if necessary, delivered to the pharmacy of your choice or your doorstep for free.

Moreover, with Maple, you can speak with a Canadian-licensed therapist for online support with depression. You can chat with them virtually by video, text, or audio depending on which you find most comfortable.

If winter’s weather leaves you feeling depressed, waiting for spring isn’t the solution. Depression is very treatable, and six months of the year is too long to wait for relief. Get in touch today and take your first step towards enjoying winter.

This blog was developed by our team and reviewed by a medical professional.

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