SAD: Beat the Winter Blues

December 21, 2020

Winter Solstice & Seasonal Rhythm

Ayurveda recognizes not only daily circadian rhythms (known as Dinacharya), but also nature’s seasonal rhythms (known as Ritucharya, meaning “cosmic rhythm or seasonal movement”). Ritucharya is the knowledge of how to live in rhythm with the changing seasons of the solar year.

As with all things in life, our personal seasonal routines should change and adapt with what nature is doing.  All humans are affected by seasonal change- we are an intrinsic part of mother nature!  Generally, the further you live from the equator, the more dramatic your region’s seasonal change is; Ayurveda suggests things like lifestyle, diet, & energy output should also change more dramatically as well with seasonal shifts.

During this cycle, after the Summer peak/solstice, the Sun’s energy decreases as days gradually become shorter. December 21 marks the winter Solstice, with the peak of darkness and lunar energy.  This is a natural time for going inward, reflection, mindfulness, self-connection and regeneration for the new season to come.  This is a great time of year to prioritize more rest to help counteract busy and energizing summer months.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Unfortunately, many Alaskans greet this time of year with dread, or associate it with the experience of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a mood disorder characterized by the predictable onset of depression in the late fall/winter months.

Here are some common symptoms associated with SAD:

  • Oversleeping
  • Lethargy & feeling unmotivated
  • Carbohydrate cravings, desire to overeat
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness or depression
  • Weakened immune system

Chronobiological mechanisms related to circadian rhythms and photoperiodism play a significant role in many cases of SAD. Reduced sunlight can disrupt your internal genetic and molecular clocks. Lack of natural sunlight in the winter months causes reduction in serotonin production (a neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of happiness & joy) as well as an increase in the level of melatonin, an important sleep hormone.

Using Ayurveda to Beat the Winter Blues

Ayurveda offers a myriad of seasonal lifestyle adaptations to alleviate Seasonal Affective Symptoms.  When you stop and observe animals in their natural environment during the winter seasons, they are slowing down, preserving energy and intentionally “doing less;”

but as humans, we often continue on with our fast-paced lives irregardless of the obvious seasonal changes. Ayurveda suggests that we too, are animals living in nature and should modify our lifestyles in respect to the natural world.

What Does This Look Like?

Rest More. As the days become longer and darker, it’s okay to sleep more!  Alaskans are often tired and under-slept from the business and intensity of the summer months.  Accept that it’s okay to rest more during this season.  However, try not to nap or sleep during the daylight hours, as this can increase feelings of malaise and lethargy.  Ayurveda suggests a bedtime between 8-10pm and waking up a few hours before sunrise in the winter (6-8am).  Trying not to sleep too late into the “Kapha” time of day (approx. 6-10am) helps you feel more energized and alert throughout the day.  Keep in mind, these are general recommendations- a good rule of thumb is always: if you are tired, you need more sleep.  It’s okay to accept periods of sleeping in/more sleep if in the bigger picture if helps you feel more awake throughout the day.

But Keep Exercising. Brisk cardio or any rigorous physical activity that promotes sweating helps balance kapha dosha.  Studies suggest that exercise increases endorphins & other “feel good” hormones.  The increase in circulation & movement of lymph not only help you feel energized & motivated, but also enhance your bodies immune system response.  The best time to exercise is during the kapha time of morning, before lunchtime- but anytime during daylight hours is great.

Get Outside.  Every day if you can.  Many of us spend hours a day connected to an electronic device- give yourself a break!  Ayurveda suggests when we disconnect ourselves from nature, we feel disconnected from ourselves & are more likely to feel unmotivated, depressed, anxious or lost.  Do something outside everyday & take notice of the natural world you live in.

Rethink Your Diet.   An Ayurveda tenet is “like increases like & opposites balance.”  A good rule of thumb: if it’s cold outside, you should be eating warm foods!  Reduce foods that are cold in temperature as well as raw fruits & vegetables- eat fresh foods that are cooked, warm, well-spiced & tasty!  Favor herbal teas & small amounts of fermented foods.

As this is the Kapha time of the year, Ayurveda suggests favoring Kapha-reducing foods. The tastes that increase Kapha are sweet, sour, and salty. Consciously minimize the use of simple starches, sugary sweets, fried foods, dairy, cheese, and alcohol.  Especially avoid sugary carbs close to bedtime.

This is NOT the time of year for a fast or cleanse.  Cleanses are intended to purify the body; however this is a nourishing/building, not a purifying/lightening time of year.  Ayurveda utilizes cleanses, de-toxes, panchakarma and weight loss programs for fall and spring, NOT the middle of winter.  (if you are feeling you are needing a cleanse at this time, consider a basic kitchari cleanse- more importantly: drink plenty of warm liquids & foods, sweat daily and reduce caffeine/alcohol consumption)

Herbal Support. It can be good idea to use some specific adaptogens like Bramhi, Tulsi, St. Johns Wort, Triphala, Chyawanprash, Shatavari & Ashwagandha to manage stress and boost emotional health.  Check with your healthcare provider or Ayurvedic practitioner for specific herbal recommendations for you.

Yoga.  A daily yoga practice is one of the best anti-dotes for SAD.  Studies suggest that people who regularly practice yoga have more energy, better self-esteem and that it helps reduce their depression & anxiety symptoms.  Winter is the ideal time for warm/hot yoga; favor vinyasa style or anything that gets your heart pumping & blood moving.  Poses like inversions, backbends and energizing flows reduce kapha dosha.

Pranayama.  This is the ideal time of year for energizing & heating breathwork.  Practices like kaphalbhati, bhastrika and solar pranayama are excellent in the morning before meditation.


My Experience

For years I loathed the Alaskan winters; I would watch my anxiety grow every fall in anticipation of the relentless darkness and long nights.  For many years I would take anti-depressants because the sadness that coincided with the dark season was just too much for me to bear…the loneliness, hopelessness and feelings of isolation were incredibly painful.  Deep down I felt that prescription antidepressants weren’t the answer, but I had no idea of how else to manage.

Implementing Ayurvedic lifestyle changes has helped me embrace the duality of the northern seasons- I’ve come to invite the darkness, instead of resisting it.  Ayurveda suggests that we too, are animals in nature.  When you stop and observe the animals in the winter seasons, they are slowing down, preserving energy and intentionally “doing less.”

I realized my personal habits, energy outputs, sleep schedules and diet weren’t changing with the seasons- little did I know that this was impacting my mental health & contributing to the challenges with winter months.

Over the years I have come to embrace winter season for it’s unique qualities.  I have found that when I intentionally slow down and accept that “less is more,” I can actually enjoy and appreciate the qualities of the dark lunar time of year.  This is a time for self-care and “going within.”

I started connecting to and better listening to my body; I realized that when it gets darker earlier, I get tired earlier- crazy huh!? 😉  I began to honor my tiredness instead of fighting it.  With more sleep from an earlier bedtime, my mental clarity gradually increased and motivation for living life returned.

I continued getting outside daily and connecting to nature; for me, this involves skiing 4-5 days a week.  On weekends, I try to have longer days outside.  When I’m working, I get out everyday during daylight hours-even if it’s only for a 10 minute walk.  I try to notice the sun rising or setting everyday- I’ll step outside of my office or house and remind myself of the beautiful world we live in.

I use the darkness for quiet activities and re-connecting with myself.  I began to favor reading, writing and meditation.  I set new year/season intentions and journal what my hopes & dreams are for the future.  Ayurveda refers to this as cultivating one’s “inner light.”

I take time for kitchen projects and try out elaborate recipes and new foods.  I eat mindfully with appreciation and awe for something as simple as a delicious homecooked meal.

I connect with family and friends and let them know what I appreciate them.  It’s the people we love that make life worth living.  What a great time of year to slow down and remember that…that’s what the holidays are about, right?

These little things have radically changed my experience with winter.  Instead of loathing the darkness, I am better able to embrace it and appreciate the night season for what it has to offer.

I hope you take some time this solstice to pause, reflect and cultivate your “inner light.”    Om Shanti

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