5 Dietitian-Backed Strategies to Combat Winter Blues in Chicago: From Vitamin D to Mood-Boosting Foods

Posted January 30, 2024

Woman standing in cold.We all know it can be difficult to thrive in a cold climate like Chicago during the winter months. We do choose to live here for a reason, right? (even if you’re currently questioning that reason!). The good news is that your winter months can improve with some intentional support. Here are five tips from a dietitian for navigating the winter blues:

Seasonal Affective Disorder SAD Causes

Low Vitamin D levels have been shown to contribute to Seasonal Affective Disorder (often known as S.A.D). The importance of sunshine for health is two-fold: it signals to our bodies that we are awake and helps to reset our circadian rhythms to allow for better sleep, and in the warmer months, it allows for absorption of the sunshine vitamin – Vitamin D.

Research shows that in the winter months (around October through April), one cannot make and absorb enough Vitamin D from the sun. This is because the sun’s UVB rays, which are required for Vitamin D synthesis in the skin, are weaker. As a dietitian, I usually recommend a food-first approach over supplements. However, getting the daily suggested amount of vitamin D from food alone can take effort. The highest food sources are fatty fish (like salmon, sardines, and tuna), liver, cod liver oil, egg yolks, and irradiated mushrooms. If these are not common in your diet, supplementation is recommended.

Vitamin D supplementation

Most people do well with 1000-2000 IU of Vitamin D3 (rather than D2) daily throughout the winter months. I recommend checking that all your supplements are third-party verified (with a USP or NSF label) to ensure the product contains what it says it contains and is without harmful contaminants. Always check with your doctor first before starting.

Get Daily Sunlight Exposure

Get outside for at least 15 minutes during the daytime to get some sunlight. Getting outside during the daylight hours has proven benefits for mood and sleep. If you cannot get outside, consider light therapy – this involves exposure to bright light through a light box, which mimics the effects of sunlight and can, therefore, have the same mood-boosting benefits. These are increasingly available these days – consider asking your therapist or doctor for recommendations for affordable and effective options.

Focus on Omega-3 Rich Good Mood Food

Focus on eating sources of omega-3 fatty acids, such as fatty fish (see above), for their mood-altering benefits (if you are vegan, consider a good quality algae supplement with omega-3s). Aim for about 12 ounces/week of fatty fish to reap the benefits of these omega-3 fats. For sustained energy levels throughout the day, focus on foods with fiber, unsaturated fats, and lean proteins, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts/seeds, legumes/beans, avocados, dairy, and eggs.

Keep warm with hot drinks and hot food! Enjoy hot cocoa, tea, and hot soups and stews.  

Stick with a Daily Routine – Including Sleep & Wake Up Times and Movement

It can be challenging to keep a good routine with shorter days, but going to bed and waking up at the same time can be instrumental in managing the winter blues. Practice good sleep hygiene by maintaining a relaxing bedtime routine – try taking a warm bath or shower, practicing yoga or stretching, and avoiding electronic devices for at least 30 minutes (preferably closer to an hour) before bed.

Similarly, stick with a morning routine to get up simultaneously every day. If you are having difficulties waking up, try moving your phone across the room so you have to get up when the alarm goes off, or if you will just bring your phone back to bed with you (guilty!), consider an alarm clock that slowly wakes you up with gradual light, mimicking a sunrise, before the alarm goes off.

As mentioned above, try to get out during the daylight hours. Finally, consider a regular movement routine – whether it’s walking on the treadmill, biking, yoga, weightlifting, or group exercise classes – getting your blood flowing and your heart pumping will lead to mood-boosting endorphins and help you to feel tired at night to reinforce your bedtime.

Stick to Your Social Plans!

While it can be incredibly tempting to cancel plans when feeling down, it is even more essential to seek out and commit to regular plans with friends or family who you know tend to boost your mood. Try to stick with these commitments, even if it’s just for a short time, at least once a week. You will likely thank yourself once you get there and begin to engage in social connections with your loved ones.

Seeking More Support: CBT and/or Medication

If the above are not enough to get you out of the winter funk, you are not alone. You may be experiencing a more significant seasonal depression (S.A.D). If this is the case, it is important to seek further support from a therapist, psychiatrist, or both. You may benefit from CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) or medications that have been proven to help with S.A.D., such as SSRIs or SNRIs (which help to boost the good mood chemicals in your brain). There is no shame in needing extra support.  





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