Don't Let the 'Winter Blues' Get You Down

You've likely heard the line "suicides spike around the holidays."

The truth is, November and December see the fewest suicides of the year.

There are a few reasons why this myth of more suicides exists...

First, there's the ubiquitous showing of the film It's a Wonderful Life, where the main character contemplates suicide just before Christmas. But another contributor is one we can't ignore... Although suicide rates are lower during the holidays, depression does increase.

Depression rates rise around the winter holidays for a simple reason – stress. Demands for buying gifts, traveling, and spending time with family all take a toll on our mental health.

What's more, December, January, and February have the highest rates of death by all causes. We've written before that we believe the underlying factor is stress. When the holidays come around, we do too much, travel too much, spend too much, and – for some folks – log too many hours with our families.

Clearly, the increased mortality includes other factors... We eat and drink a little too much, and hospitals during holidays often face staffing shortages. For that matter, the time change ending daylight savings kicks off this season of stress by disrupting our sleep patterns. (Another great example of government do-gooders fixing something that ain't broke.)

Stress lays the groundwork for a deadly chain reaction in our bodies. And we know that pervasive, unchecked stress leads to depression.

So today, we want to share a couple of our favorite ways to reduce your risk of depression this season...

Brighten Up Your Day

Seasonal affective disorder ("SAD") is a type of depression that occurs due to the change in season, mostly in fall and winter. Two common and well-studied treatments for SAD are light therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy ("CBT").

Light therapy is often the first line of defense against treating SAD. It involves sitting about two feet away from of a special therapy lamp – set to 10,000 lux (a measure of illuminance) – for 20 to 30 minutes each morning, right after you wake up, during the fall and winter.

Therapy lamps mimic the sunlight. So using one first thing in the morning helps your body regulate melatonin production and boost serotonin levels, similar to how enjoying morning sunshine would. You can even use a therapy lamp in the middle of the day to get you through the midday slump, instead of reaching for yet another cup of coffee. One of our researchers uses a lamp for about 10 minutes in the afternoon to give her a boost as good as caffeine.

Studies show that light therapy can start to improve mood and increase energy levels in just a few days. However, the benefits of light therapy don't last once you stop using the therapy lamp.

CBT is a form of therapy that involves identifying negative thought patterns that arise in our internal monologue, challenging those thought distortions, and then replacing them with more positive thoughts and behaviors.

It's an effective form of treatment for a range of problems, like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. So too with SAD, CBT can be adapted to improve someone's engagement, pleasure, and coping strategies with winter.

CBT can be done with a therapist, but you can also try it on your own with the help of a workbook (like the one I've linked at the end of this article).

A study in the American Journal of Psychiatry compared the effects of light therapy and CBT in 177 participants with SAD. The researchers found that six weeks of light therapy and six weeks of CBT show similar improvements for participants in the two winters following treatment. However, during the second follow-up year, the CBT participants had fewer depressive symptoms, less severe symptoms, and more instances of recovery.

So, reframing your negative thought patterns around the change of seasons can have a lasting impact on how severely the winter affects you. And if you're already using a light therapy lamp, add some CBT exercises into the mix. It can make a huge difference.

Skip the Junk Food

When I think of winter comfort foods, one of the first images my brain produces is a tray of holiday cookies in various shapes and colors. I also think of russet potatoes in many forms – mashed with gravy, fried as latkes (potato pancakes) with sour cream or apple sauce, and scalloped with cheese...

But sugary and starchy treats such as these can be the opposite of comforting. That's because these "white killers" – as I like to call them – produce an inflammatory effect on the body and trigger chronic disease. Other "white killers" include white rice and white flour.

Turns out, a 2018 study in Molecular Psychology also established a link between pro-inflammatory foods and depression. The researchers found that participants who ate the least inflammatory foods were 24% less likely to experience depression than those who ate the most. And those following the Mediterranean diet were the least at risk for depression.

That means it's important to find new comfort in eating healthy fats, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds. These foods will nourish and protect our bodies and minds well beyond the winter season.

Take care of yourself this winter. Move a little slower when you need to. Reach out to others. Recognize the comforts you already have in place. Choose comfort foods that will nourish you.

This time of year piles on the stress, and it can feel overwhelming. Try applying our tips to your everyday life to help limit your stress and have a happier holiday.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
November 30, 2023