As winter approaches and the end of the year winds down, cold weather compels many of us to bundle in blankets and conserve our energy. In particular, short days and lack of sunlight affects the release of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. An estimated 10 million Americans are affected by the winter months in a mental illness known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
As a graduate student in a counseling program, I have heard many say that it’s that “time of the year”—the time that seasonal depression peaks. But what exactly are these chemicals that our brain isn’t producing enough of in the winter?
Serotonin is considered to be the “happy chemical” in our brain, the one that contribute to happiness in ourselves. Research has linked lower serotonin production in the brain with increased depression.
Dopamine is another neurotransmitter that plays an important role in both physical and mental well-being. It’s involved in motivation, aiding in the control of movements and balancing emotional responses. Research has linked low dopamine levels to higher levels in depression, schizophrenia, psychosis, and gastrointestinal issues.
Oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone” or the “cuddle hormone,” is a neurohormone produced in the hypothalamus that plays many important roles in decision-making, social decisions, and bonding. Research has been finding that oxytocin can influence both mood disorders and depressive disorders by signaling specific stressor reactions.
While there is no exact “cure” to depression, there are ways to combat these peaks of depression. Here are some tips and tricks that have personally helped me through periods of Seasonal Affective Disorder. These methods can balance neurotransmitter levels in the brain and alleviate depressive symptoms.
While this sounds like a simple solution, exercise and moving is very important! During the winter months, it can be harder to find the motivation to go to the gym. Thankfully, there are plenty of videos and instructions on simple at-home floor workouts!
Research from Harvard Health Publishing has found that exercising releases not only endorphins but also neurotrophic factors in the brain. Neurotrophic factors are proteins that help with cell growth and maturation. While depression is associated with a smaller hippocampus, exercise can stimulate neurotrophic factors that enable growth in this brain structure. Even going for a walk or dancing can help cell growth and counteract depressive symptoms.
2. Try to go outside when possible. Sunlight and vitamin D is important.
While some may not like going outside too much in the cold winter months, it is important to get exposure to the sun. Exposure to sunlight increases brain levels of serotonin, while lower exposure to sunlight lowers serotonin. Even just opening the windows and letting in natural light can be important to your mental health! While not a cure, it is also helpful to take vitamin D supplements. Low levels of Vitamin D has been found in individuals with depression, as well.
An important part to my mental health is journaling about my feelings or situations that may be happening in my life. If it’s harder for you to journal, try using a prompt from a writing book or even a website! Just a quick 10-minute journaling session before bed can help relieve the problems of the day. It feels good to get down what you might not be able to say out loud. For further information on the benefits of journaling and writing, check out a related post: Why I Write.
4. Eating healthy makes a difference.
There are many links between unhealthy eating and depressive symptoms. I have had my fair share of wanting to eat poorly while feeling depressed, but this never seems to work. Try eating foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids (walnuts, salmon, chia seeds), antioxidants (berries, spinach, artichoke, kale), vitamin B (dark leafy vegetables, eggs, almonds), and probiotics (yogurts or supplements). This has become important to both my physical and mental health, which definitely go hand in hand with each other.
5. Light Therapy
While a somewhat debated topic, light therapy is a known way to treat SAD. Light therapy is correlated to help other conditions, but seasonal depression is a main one. Light therapy boxes are meant to mimic sunlight that is lacking in the winter, so treatments include sitting in front of the light box for a certain amount of time (usually no longer than 30 minutes). This is correlated to help with proper sleep routine, depressive symptoms, and the triggering of serotonin, which many find serotonin to be lacking in a depressive brain. Light therapy can be helpful, but it is still important to discuss with a doctor and research before using it as a method of treatment.
Meditating for even 5 minutes in the morning can help calm the mind for a full day of work and life stressors. When I meditate, I like to use instrumental playlists and essential oils and burn sage. In particular, lavender essential oil can mitigate depressive symptoms. It is important to not hold expectations when meditating, but meditation may pleasantly surprise you after participating in it for just a week.
Research from the Harvard Health Study has also found that meditation begins to change specific regions in the brain that affect depression, specifically the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex. Meditation was also shown to increase dopamine in the basal ganglia and ventral striatum. Meditation can also help focus, clarity, and awareness in the self.
7. It is okay to go to therapy and talk things out.
Therapy is becoming less of a taboo in the world, but many people are still hesitant to participate in it or talk about it. It’s okay to get help and want someone to counsel and listen to you. Therapists and counselors are there for you if you let them in. If the winter months are getting you down, the best thing you can do for yourself when you need help, is to get the help you need. It’s okay and valid to feel this sadness.
Sunlight and a healthy diet can increase serotonin.
Exercise and meditation can increase dopamine.
Hugging a friend, cuddling a pet, and spa treatments can increase oxytocin levels.