5 Proven Tips to Improve Your Mental Health this Winter
1. Get enough light, from a lamp or by going outdoors
In the winter months, the days tend to be shorter and the sun’s rays are less intense, meaning we typically don’t get enough exposure to the sun. This is especially true for those who work 9-5, who may find themselves indoors during the day, and travelling to and from work in the dark.
There are two main ways you can expose yourself to light. One is to simply get outside during the day when the sun is up, ideally around noon. This could be as simple as going for a lunchtime walk.
Another option is a light exposure therapy lamp. Light exposure therapy is exposure to broad-spectrum light rays that mimic the sun’s rays. According to CAMH, “many people who have SAD are helped by exposure to bright artificial light (light therapy)”.
Whether you have SAD or not, it’s a good idea to get some light exposure each day – ideally in the morning. This can help regulate your circadian rhythms, contributing to better sleep and feeling better the next day. A 2017 study had office workers wear a light-sensing device. Those who were exposed to more light before noon took less time to fall asleep and got better quality sleep.
2. Make sure you’re getting enough vitamin D
Also called the sunshine vitamin, vitamin D has many important functions in the body. Vitamin D deficiency is common in Canada because of the reduced levels of UV light exposure in the winter. Most Canadians should take a vitamin D supplement through the winter, and taking one year-round isn’t a bad idea either.
Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with depression. While a causal relationship hasn’t been established, a 2018 meta-analysis found a link between lower vitamin D levels and depression.
Vitamin D is especially important if you have darker skin. People with darker skin produce more melanin, which protects against sunburns, but also impairs vitamin D production. If your skin tone is dark, talk to your doctor about taking vitamin D year-round.
3. Get some exercise
There’s a reason exercise is an age-old tip for boosting your mental health – it works. Though many gyms and fitness centres remain closed because of COVID restrictions, there are still plenty of great options for working out outdoors or at home.
There are tons of free workouts available online, ranging from yoga, to pilates, to HIIT, to bodyweight strength training routines. For cardio, some people like using an indoor bike or treadmill, while others are willing to brace the cold and go for an outdoor run. Even a brisk walk can make an impact on your mental health and wellbeing.
Canada’s food guide recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate to high-intensity physical activity each week, which works out to about 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week.
4. Maintain social connections
Despite the pandemic, it’s important to maintain your social connections, especially if you live alone or have a small family. There are a lot of ways you can maintain your connections while still staying safe, like phone calls, texts, video calls, going for a walk, or meeting up with friends.
Importantly, social isolation has been linked to worse mental and physical health. Though we may feel the urge to withdraw this winter, it’s important to balance alone-time with social contact with friends.
5. Eat well, focusing on whole foods
There is growing evidence that suggests eating a less-processed, less-refined diet can support mental health, by reducing inflammation and oxidative stress, and improving insulin sensitivity and brain function.
During the winter, it’s easy to get into a cycle of eating junk food as a form of comfort. But these kinds of foods can leave us lethargic and feeling worse than before. Eating meals based around whole foods like fruits and vegetables, proteins, and whole grains are more likely to support your mental health.
If you find it hard to eat healthy when you’re stuck in a rut, consider easier options like pre-made salads, ready-to-heat whole grains, and cooked proteins like a rotisserie chicken. Starting with something easy may give you the momentum you need to get back into healthy eating.
Laura Tennant is a Toronto freelance medical writer She enjoys reading scientific journal articles, and finding creative ways to present the ideas to a general audience. Aside from writing blog posts, she also writes health news and peer-reviewed articles.