mug, snowflake, and red blanket with text overlay - Living Well with Autoimmune Disease: 10 Of Our Favorite Way to Beat the Winter Blues

10 of Our Best Tips to Beat the Winter Blues

Frank Autoimmune Mom (& Dad) Life, Coping with Symptoms, Emotional Healing, Living Well with Autoimmune Disease, Nontoxic Living & Natural Remedies 2 Comments

mug, snowflake, and red blanket with text overlay - Living Well with Autoimmune Disease: 10 of Our Favorite Ways to Beat the Winter Blues

“Winter is my favorite season!”

I can’t believe I said this repeatedly to my dad when I was in high school.  He thought I was out of my mind.

Now, I realize there are people out there who really enjoy long, cold winter months.  Apparently, I used to be one of them. 

Of course, that was before I had a 45-minute commute to work.  I also didn’t have toddlers that required 30 minutes to dress, compiling layer upon layer, just to be outside for a grand total of 60 seconds.

Once I became an adult, and especially a stay-at-home mom, the woes of winter really set in.  I’ll admit, I was confused the first time the “winter blues” hit me. 

What was this new sense of darkness and despair that only occurred in the months of February, March, and sometimes even April & May depending on the year?

We live in Michigan and our winters are usually 6 months long and consist of mostly overcast days with unpredictable snowfall.  By the time February and March hit, people are EXTRA grumpy.  I think it would be better if there was more sunshine, but of course, no one likes the frigid temperatures that make your face freeze either.

What are the “Winter Blues”?

If right around the end of fall, beginning of winter, you find yourself:

  • Feeling down
  • Sleeping longer
  • Less energetic
  • Craving and eating more carbs
  • Wondering if the sun even exists anymore

…then, you might be experiencing the winter blues.  This down mood usually lifts once spring hits and the days start getting longer. 

These symptoms could be attributed to less exposure to sunlight, which can cause issues with your body’s circadian rhythm (your body’s internal clock).  This leads to compromised cortisol production, sleep patterns, and hormonal & neurotransmitter production. 

Basically, due to the lack of sun (and lack of Vitamin D as a result), the body is confused when it’s day-time, when it’s night-time, and therefore doesn’t know when to wake up or go to sleep!

How the Winter Blues Can Affect Autoimmune Symptoms

Not surprisingly, all the things above have a downstream affect, and some people (such as those who have autoimmune disease) have to be extra careful during the winter months and really prioritize self-care. 

The down mood, low energy, hormonal issues, and everything else that accompanies the winter blues can quickly spiral into an autoimmune flare, making things even worse, and possibly push you into a more severe form of the winter blues called Seasonal Affective Disorder (aka SAD).

I’ll admit, there was one year (2018… a brutal winter) where I probably fit into this SAD category, especially since I was right smack in the middle of an autoimmune flare.  That winter scarred me for life and Frank and I quickly got to work to make sure it didn’t happen again.

We found that supporting the WHOLE body during the winter months not only makes winters easier, but also keeps autoimmune symptoms at bay.  Many of the tactics we use to beat the blues are also extremely beneficial for managing autoimmune disease.  And while we aren’t cured, by any means, of our loathe for winter… we are coping much better and enjoy flare-free winters.

Related: How to Prevent Autoimmune Flare-Ups During the Holiday Season

(This post is about the winter blues.  If you think you may be suffering from SAD, we encourage you to reach out for professional help.)

10 of Our Best Tips to Beat the Winter Blues

1. Mindset – “There’s no such thing as bad weather.”

Summer of 2019.  It was a good one.  But, I remember waking up every day and saying to myself “Enjoy this day as much as possible because the long dark months of winter will be here soon.”

I was dreading winter SO much that I think it made me miss out on the full joy of summer.  As September and October hit, I felt myself melting each day into the abyss of sadness.  At that point, I realized this was really becoming a serious problem.  I can’t ruin an entire year and spoil our precious summer days just because of my disdain for winter.

It all changed when a friend said “You should read There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather.  I’m reading it now – so far so good. 

It’s about this Scandinavian mom who follows the philosophy that: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.”

As soon as I read this it was like someone flipped a switch in my brain.

So simple, but she was SO RIGHT.

Regardless of the weather, I had to remind myself that I love being outside and I love nature.  Just because it’s covered in snow, doesn’t mean it no longer exists, or that all the beauty is poof… gone. 

Plus, as a child, the whole “No such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing” was absolutely true, since my siblings and I spent every single day outside no matter the weather because we had a daily newspaper-route… and people needed their papers!

So, I started to channel that same energy from my childhood, hoping to pass it on to my kids and I’m proud to say that we made it outside almost every day last winter as a result.  The fresh air and natural light (which helps normalize circadian rhythm) did us some good.  I definitely didn’t feel as blue, and bonus – the kids were happier, too. 

2. Diet

In our autoimmune journey, we’ve learned NUMBER ONE over all the reasons for improving what ails you is to focus on diet!  What Americans have been peddled as healthy food over the past 50+ years is a crock of crap.

What’s most interesting about the winter blues is that the most affected part of your body, the brain, has the most to gain by eating right.  Here’s why…

Real, healthy food is jam-packed with nutrients that actually allow your brain to function optimally.  You probably already know that, BUT there is another reason. 

The brain in your head is not the only one in your body.  Many people call the GUT the second brain. 

Just like the brain in your head, the gut has millions of neurons.  And common inflammatory or autoimmune digestive conditions like IBS and Celiac Disease¹ can actually trigger anxiety and depression.  Keep in mind that digestive issues (and therefore the mental symptoms they cause) can be vastly improved, if not reversed, through diet alone.

So, while we eat pretty well all year around, we especially focus on this during the winter.

We’ve experimented with many diets throughout the years and picked up a few key things that help our whole family feel more alert, energized, and just plain happier… which is what we’re after, right?  These things are:

  • Very little sugar.  Most days, our “dessert” is fruit.
  • Free-range, hormone and antibiotic free, and properly fed meats and poultry (LOCAL is best!)
  • Lots and lots… and LOTS of organic green leafy vegetables and vegetables in general.  We aim for about 9-12 servings a day.
  • Eliminating inflammatory foods – this is very individualized, but the big ones for us are gluten, dairy, corn, soy, tomatoes, and eggs.  (Finding a practitioner who works with healing diets can be a time-saving resource to help you find the right diet for your body.)
  • So much purified water!  We both drink about a gallon a day and use a Berkey to filter our water.

Related: How to Start and Stick to an Autoimmune Healing Diet

3. Exercise

The winter time is the time to… pump some iron.

Exercise benefits are pretty widely known, but for the sake of refreshing you, it can:

  • Promote a positive attitude (KEY for the winter months)
  • Trigger endorphin production and boosts mood (goodbye blues)
  • Aid in detoxification (especially if you get a good sweat going)
  • Burn excess energy
  • Boost immune system (prevent the flu!)
  • Improve memory

My dream would be to enroll in a daily exercise class, but it’s just not possible during this phase of our life.  Plus, some exercise is actually too intense, which can add to the inflammation that’s already there from autoimmunity.

Instead, we focus on NEAT which stands for non-exercise activity time.  This means that we don’t necessarily set aside a specific time and routine each day to exercise.  Rather, we work it in by dancing with our kids, doing house chores, or going for walks as a family. 

4. Supplements and Alternative Therapies

Yes, the diet, mindset, and exercise are all significant, especially when paired together.  But, there are other tools available to really hone in on a holistic health approach that can reduce inflammation AND give your mood a boost.

Targeted Nutritional Supplementation

Anything involving supplementation is incredibly individualized, and it’s really best to work with a skilled practitioner in this area.  BUT, the most common one for the winter tends to be Vitamin D.

Where do we get Vitamin D?  THE SUN!  And when the sun is missing, so is our Vitamin D production.  Sometimes, Vitamin D is all someone needs to reverse the winter blues.  So, this is a biggie, not only for winter, but also for those of us with autoimmune disease, as it is a leading deficiency for autoimmune issues, and a critical nutrient. 

Personally, we use Vitamin D all winter long and even during the summer if needed, and work with a functional medicine practitioner to monitor our levels.  Pairing it with Vitamin K is essential as they work together within the body.  This is the kind we use.

There are other supplements like magnesium, omega-3s, B vitamins, and zinc that could also offer some relief depending on your body’s needs, so these are worth asking your doctor about.

Herbal Adaptogens

Instead of reaching for the coffee because of low energy (which can further disrupt circadian rhythm and cortisol production), we reach for adaptogens!  This is a recent discovery for us, and I have to say… I’m impressed.

Adaptogens do just what they sound like – they help our bodies adapt to stress of any type.  That could be low energy, poor sleep, a tough workout, food, mental/emotional stressors, etc.  They bring the body back into balance. 

We’ve tried a few in pill form but nothing really stuck or made a huge impact until we found Rasa.  It’s the best tasting alternative we’ve found to coffee and they have a nightshade-free option which is helpful for anyone following the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) diet.

(Also, if you’re a mom, Rasa is amazing for those really, really chaotic days.)

Alternative Healing Therapies/Medicine

There are plenty of options that benefit the whole body like chiropractic, acupuncture, massage therapy, and our personal favorite – homeopathy.

Related: Homeopathy for Beginners: What the Heck is Homeopathy?

Winter is an awesome time to experiment and see what works best for you.

5. Optimizing Sleep

One of the primary symptoms of depression is the need to sleep, constantly.  Ironically, depression and the winter blues can also cause insomnia.2

Pretty counter-productive.

The objective is to improve sleep quality and increase quantity without going overboard.  Optimal sleep can improve cognitive function, alertness, positive thoughts, and overall energy.  Plus, optimal sleep is restorative and the time your body needs to detox, calm inflammation, and HEAL!

All the things we discuss in this article can help give better sleep, but there are a few things we do in addition that really help.

  • Reducing blue light exposure before bed:  Blue light occurs naturally (part of the sun’s light) and artificially (fluorescent lights, cell phone, computer, etc.).  Your circadian rhythm is thrown off when you are exposed to blue light close to bed by tricking your body into thinking its daytime.
    • To keep you from being duped by blue light, use the “Night Shift” or Blue light filter setting on your cell phone at night, and/or buy a pair of blue light filtering glasses to wear in the evening.
  • No chocolate, processed sugar, coffee, or anything containing caffeine in the afternoon or evening.
  • Carb Cycling:  This is another fantastic way to improve circadian rhythm while simultaneously improving overall sleep quality.  Carb cycling can help control cortisol levels (a stress hormone that controls blood sugar/energy levels and hormonal uptake) throughout the day to ensure that it is at its lowest when you are going to sleep.
    • The interesting thing is that cortisol levels are usually inversely related to carbohydrate intake.  If you eat a lot of carbs, your cortisol decreases.
    • To learn more about carb cycling, check out Dr. Alan Christianson’s book: The Adrenal Reset Diet.  The secret is to eat high quality carbs in increasing increments throughout the day to have maximum energy in the morning and minimal energy by night.

For more ways to optimize sleep, this article is a helpful resource.

6. White Light Therapy

The sun gives us our daily dose of Vitamin D, but it also gives us LIGHT. 

Increasing light exposure can have huge benefits for tackling the winter blues and other forms of depression.  Since sunlight is seldom for us in Michigan, we decided to give a White Light Therapy Lamp a try.  We bought a light that met the following criteria and we sit in front of it every morning upon waking.

  • White light – not blue or red, as white has the most research backing its safety and effectiveness
  • 10,000 lux or higher
  • Pay attention to distance recommendations
  • Having the capability of the light shining down at you from above can potentially increase the benefit
  • Read the reviews (good and bad) to get some anecdotal data

If you are looking for more information about light therapy, this article has further info.

7. Aromatherapy

When I was first introduced to essential oils, I was under the impression they were the end-all-be-all solution to all things ever in life.  Maybe you had the same experience? 

While I found that this simply isn’t the case (sorry, essential oils), they are actually pretty helpful for giving your mood and energy level a pleasant boost.  As much as I wish I could bottle up some sunshine and take it with me everywhere I go… I can’t.  But!  I can bottle up essential oils that smell like sunshine and that’s the next best thing.

Personally, we use essential oils by diffusing and found that to be very effective for elevating the mood in the house.  An inhaler is also pretty handy for taking essential oils on the go.  We’ve tried 5 or 6 different brands, including popular MLM companies, but settled on Plant Therapy as trustworthy and budget-friendly.  Some of our favorites are:

  • Anything citrus, especially in the morning.  We love Bergamot, Lemon, Orange, and Lime.
  • Germ Fighter.  This blend smells like Christmas time and is VERY popular for fighting off colds and flus.  There is a “Kid-Safe” alternative to this called Germ Destroyer which does NOT smell like Christmas time, but still smells amazing.
  • Frankincense.  My personal all-time favorite essential oil ever.
  • Woodsy type scents like Pine and Cedarwood.  So nice for evening.  I especially love Vetiver for sleep.

There are also plenty of blends to choose from, including one named “Blues Buster” which seems appropriate for this situation.  

8. Staying Busy

I didn’t even know the winter blues was a thing until I became a stay-at-home-mom.

Now, I realize part of the reason is because I wasn’t as busy, both mentally and physically, as I was when I was working full-time at a corporate job.  Once I quit my job, I wasn’t moving as much and most days, I didn’t leave the house because I was in nap jail (when you can’t do anything because your baby is always napping).

I needed to find something to fill up that time and keep me motivated and distracted from the lack of sunshine in my life. 

Here are a few things that really helped.

  • Finding a passion. The beginning thoughts for starting a blog were born during the winter months, and now this is a passion I look forward to working on every day, no matter the weather!  I especially love sitting down with a hot cup of my Rasa tea and watching the snow fall outside while writing a post.  So cozy and fun.
  • Learning something new. I discovered homeopathy in the winter months and dove right into it.  Podcasts, books, online courses.  It’s the perfect time to learn something new. 
  • Minimizing, organizing, or redecorating. Clearly, my environment greatly impacts my mood.  Clutter can have almost the same effect as an overcast day.  The difference is that I can usually de-clutter, but I can’t make the sun shine!  I found minimizing, decluttering, redecorating, etc. are all effective winter blues therapies.
  • Escaping into a good book. There is just nothing like a good book.

9. Taking a Vacation

Here’s my take – if the weather is the cause of the blues, then a nice vacation to a tropical paradise can certainly be the solution!

It makes sense too, especially if we are all Vitamin D deficient, to go to a warm sunny place for a while and soak up the rays. 

The only problem?

Not always realistic for everyone, and that includes us.  But boy, I dream about the day we can head to the beach for a week or two.  Heck, maybe even a month.  Perhaps we will do what a lot of Michiganders do and become Florida snow birds… you never know.  Some dreams do come true.

10. Gathering with Friends, Family, & Appreciating the Little Things

One time, I Googled how to beat the winter blues if you live in Alaska.  Alaska has those really, really long dark days so I assumed that the people who live there know what they are doing.

The main suggestion I found was harnessing and building a tight-knit community to weather the storm together.

Then, I discovered the Danish concept of “hygge” (pronounced like HOO-gah), which is a secret for all those happy people in Denmark, one of happiest populations in the world.  They have harsh, cold winters too and obviously that doesn’t stop them!

They say hygge is hard to describe, but the way I interpret it is the feeling you get when you’re all warm and cozy, sitting next to a fire, watching the snowfall and you’re totally at peace.  Despite my winter blues, I know I have those moments, and it would be really cool if I could take them and spread them to last the whole winter.

So, maybe the secret, on top of everything else, is to create hygge with family and friends!  Forget about the weather and embrace the smaller things… the company, the atmosphere, a homemade hot chocolate (Paleo style of course). 

If you’re new to hygge, like me, I found this article full of ideas on how to hygge.

The winter months don’t have to be so dark.

By really focusing on self-care through all the tips and techniques listed above, we’ve taken winter from down in the dumps to something we kind of actually… enjoy!  And we think it can be the same for you too.

If you have any tips you’d like to share, please comment below.  We’d love to read them!

Sources:

  1. Jackson, J., Eaton, W., Cascella, N., Fasano, A., Kelly, D. Neurologic and Psychiatric Manifestations of Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity. Psychiatr Q. 2012 Mar; 83(1): 91–102. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3641836/.
  2. Nutt, D., Wilson, S., & Paterson, L. Sleep disorders as core symptoms of depression. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2008 Sep; 10(3): 329–336. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181883/.
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mug, snowflake, and red blanket with text overlay - Living Well with Autoimmune Disease: 10 of Our Favorite Ways to Beat the Winter Blues

Comments 2

  1. Flowers. When my husband was in seminary we lived in MIchigan, and this southern girl thought she would die for lack if sunshine! Even though we were poor as church mice, I would take a little money out of the budget each month and buy a bouquet of bright yellow flowers. It was well worth the cost. Also a lot of what you have here works for the covid isolation issues too.

    1. Linda, you are absolutely right! I totally forgot about flowers. We bought a bouquet of roses back in October on a whim, which is something we rarely do because of cost, but they lasted over a week and all we kept saying was how much we really liked having them in the house. You’ve inspired me. We are going to add more flowers and plants to our house this winter. Thank you!

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