Ask The Doctor: Beating Seasonal Blues

What can you do to alleviate seasonal depression? Purist’s columnist Dr. Frank Lipman offers nine winter mood-lifters.
Photograph by Tim Tiedemann

The winter blahs and blues: Just about all of us get them at some point be it for a few moments, weeks—or worse, a few months. No doubt, it’s not easy to remain mentally and physically buoyant through winter’s icy temps, gray skies and early darkness. Even the sunniest souls among us can get pushed to the brink, but fortunately, there are ways to make the gloomiest days seem a little less so. Here are a few of my best blues-beaters to help you take on winter and emerge victorious—and ready for spring:


Anything you can do that makes your body feel good—short of drugs or alcohol or overindulging in unhealthy foods—is worth doing, because feel-good activities help release your body’s reserves of mood-boosting endorphins. To tap into them, indulge in a massage, hit the steam room or book an infrared-sauna session at a spa. Regular exercise, sex and laughter also get endorphins flowing.


Morning light is a body clock-regulating mood-booster, so if the sun is shining, get out there. Walk to work, walk to the corner to get lunch, or sit on a park bench and direct your face into the sun for a few minutes. Your body is thirsty for sunshine, so give it daily “sips” to help boost mood and energy until the winter blues season tails off in mid-April.


Full-spectrum lightbulbs help boost energy and mood, while being easier on your eyes. Though not a replacement for sun, they’re a good way to supplement it when daylight is in short supply. Use full-spectrum lightbulbs in areas where you want to feel a bit more alert, for example, in your office or living room, not the bedroom.


For a quick daytime mood and energy boost, shake each limb for a few seconds, one at a time, to wake up your body and get energy flowing again. First thing in the morning, do the Reclining Open Chest Pose to combat the seasonal energy drain. In the pose, the back and upper body are supported and the chest is open, giving you a much-needed, relaxing stretch—all of which helps you feel more physically and mentally energized.


Bottom line: You cannot drink the blues away, so don’t try. Keep alcohol intake to an absolute minimum, particularly in winter. Cocktails compound winter blues, depress mood, disrupt sleep and bomb you with energy- and immunity-sapping sugar, so outsmart the season by staying sober.


Exercise helps boost levels of serotonin, which is one of the brain chemicals that helps regulate feelings of well-being and hunger, while an hour of outdoor fitness offers the same mood lift as 2.5 hours of light treatment indoors. So when you exercise outdoors, you get the best of both, and you’ll burn more a bit more fat as your body works harder to maintain your core temperature.


Laughter makes blood pressure and stress levels dip, aids the release of feel-good endorphins and boosts feelings of well-being, so make time to hang out with upbeat, fun-loving people whose company you truly enjoy.


Though you may be craving sugar, comfort foods and sleep-inducing simple carbs, they’re counterproductive to keeping spirits high, so trade them for lean protein and complex carbs. They’ll help feed your gut and brain the nutrients they need to keep your mood on an even keel.


If possible, avoid pharmaceuticals and support your mood via healthy supplements with blues-taming effects:

Vitamin D: Sun is in short supply at this time of year, so try taking 2,000 IU/day of vitamin D to help keep brain chemistry and neurotransmitter action at optimal levels.

Fish oils and other omega-3’s: These play a role in the synthesis of serotonin, and are thought to elevate mood and decrease symptoms of depression.

Melatonin: 1-2mg of melatonin at bedtime can be helpful to relieve some seasonal symptoms (but don’t take it more than a few nights in a row).

5-HTP: This is the precursor in the biosynthesis of mood-boosting serotonin, so I often recommend 200-400mg at bedtime.

Magnesium: 400-600mg of magnesium glycinate taken at bedtime works as a mood-booster.

One last bit of advice: The more, the merrier: by adding several blues-busters to your daily routine, you’ll lessen the severity and likelihood of a recurrence, and that’s a ray of sunshine right there.