5 Ways To Cope When The 'Winter Blues' Get You Down

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How Ayurvedic Medicine Works As Treatment Of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

As the winter envelopes the northern hemisphere, up to three percent of the general population — in particular, 10-20 percent of people with major depression and up to 25 percent of those with bipolar disorder — will experience symptoms of Seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

With such a noticeable percentage of the population affected, learning more about the causes of this mental condition and how Ayurvedic medicine — a branch of holistic medicine — could be the best treatment method for it, will help protect you against the "winter blues".

Why is Seasonal affective disorder it so common?

Modern living fails to recognize the cyclical patterns in nature that were celebrated for centuries before the industrial age.

In our tech-driven world of constant virtual connection and distraction, coupled with the expectation of unrelenting productivity, we ask ourselves to exhibit the same level of energy whether it’s summer or winter, and we wonder why it’s difficult to feel any motivation to get things done when the sun sets early in the winter months.

RELATED: What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder? 5 Things To Know About The 'Winter Blues'

This expectation of constant high-functioning, holiday shopping, hosting or visiting family, having so much to do and so many decisions to make, coupled with the increasing darkness outside leaves our fuel tanks running on empty.

What if the classification of seasonal depression is a representation of an evolutionary mismatch? What if our bodies’ rhythms for homeostasis and regulation just haven’t caught up to societal and cultural ideas of hyper-productivity and detachment from the environment?

The shifts that have occurred in the last two centuries in the advent of industry and technology are but a blink in the history of human evolution. Perhaps the conventional health industry has failed to understand this.

So how can we bring ourselves back into balance amid the challenges of the holiday season and descent into winter?

Enter Ayurveda, often called a "sister-science" to yoga, a time-tested, ancient practice of individualized behavioral and preventative medicine that empowers us to balance in body, heart, and mind.

What is Ayurvedic medicine?

According to WebMD, Ayurveda is "one of the world's oldest holistic ('whole-body') healing systems [ ... ] It’s based on the belief that health and wellness depend on a delicate balance between the mind, body, and spirit. Its main goal is to promote good health, not fight disease. But treatments may be geared toward specific health problems."

Ayurveda asks us to align ourselves with the cycles of nature to optimize our health by examining our lifestyle choices and including things like meditation, movement, proper diet, herbs, touch/massage, detox, and the regulation of emotion and examination of sensory stimuli into our daily lives.

The goal of this practice is to enliven our consciousness with proper use of the mind to heal the body.

Often touted as a system of care that "prevents and treats the diseases of civilization", we can receive a wealth of wisdom from this lifestyle medicine to bring us back into balance with our environment each and every winter.

Ayurveda operates on the theory of the five elements.

Each of us, and everything else that exists in the natural world, is composed of a varying combination of space, air, fire, earth and water elements. In Ayurvedic philosophy, these elements break down and pair off to create what is known as "doshas".

According to Wikipedia, "A dosha (Sanskrit: दोषः, doṣa) is one of three substances that are present in a person's body. [Ayurveda describes ... ] how the quantity and quality of these three substances fluctuate in the body according to the seasons, time of day, diet, and several other factors [ ... ] The central concept of Ayurvedic medicine is the theory that health exists when there is a balance between the three fundamental bodily bio-elements."

The three doshas are: “Vata” (air and space) , “Pitta” (fire and water) , and “Kapha” (water and earth).

So what do the doshas have to do with our experience of winter blues and stress? Vata governs movement, particularly in the realm of mental functioning, and as our movement increases with expectations of holiday shopping, hosting or visiting family, having so much to do and so many decisions to make, the old adage "I don’t even have a moment to breathe" starts to kick in for many.

The result can be a restless, anxious, saddened, and overall "spaced out" feeling that often looks like what we come to understand as Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Here are 5 ways to use Ayurveda as an effective Seasonal Affective Disorder treatment.

1. To ease your digestion

According to Ayurveda, balancing any part of our bodies (or lives) starts in the gut. If we’re not digesting food properly, the nutrients we’re eating are wasted instead of absorbed. Strong digestion keeps our immune system healthy and our brain happy. Recent advances in modern medicine are now mirroring through microbiome, vagal nerve, and "psychoneuroimmunology" research what Ayurveda has been teaching for thousands of years.

Our psychological resiliency is strengthened by our immunity and our immunity is strengthened by a strong psychological state, with a majority of our immune cells and serotonin production housed in the GI tract!

Try these simple tips:

  • Try drinking warm lemon water first thing in the morning upon waking. Hydrate before caffeinating or consuming your first meal. Vata governs air and space elements, and therefore we have less of the fire element in the environment and also within our own digestion. Warm or even hot water as opposed to cold water can build the hydrochloric acid the stomach needs to optimize digestion.
  • Eat the main meal of the day at lunch rather than at dinner. When we eat a large dinner, we are telling our body to do two contradictory things: deeply rest, but also maintain a higher metabolic rate to digest food.
  • Chew thoughtfully and take time to sit and enjoy a meal in a peaceful environment. According to Ayurveda, digestion doesn’t begin in the stomach, but rather in the mouth.

2. To balance your nervous system and pay attention to feelings

If we take time to check in with our emotions and our heart during this busy season, we can let go of unnecessary stress and choose to let go of unfulfilling obligations. What beautiful consequence would we have if we taught ourselves and our young to sit in examining our internal worlds as opposed to suppressing them?

Try these simple tips:

  • Ayurvedic healing herbal formulas can help us reclaim the calm from within. Integrate herbal sleep products from vpk® by Maharishi Ayurveda such as "Stress-Free Emotions", a great product for those who experience anger when under stress. For natural support of emotional stress and fatigue, this blend of whole herbal extracts, powders, and minerals nourishes and supports the immune system.
  • Restore balance instantly with a warm, nurturing cup of Organic Calming Vata Tea. A few sips of sweet, soothing Organic Vata Tea will settle a whirling mind and help our body relax. Licorice, cardamom, ginger, and cinnamon combine in this organic herbal tea to aid digestion, promote a healthy appetite and relieve occasional stomach discomfort.
  • Try the herbal supplement "Worry Free", a great product for those who experience worry, indecision, or spaciness when under stress. Supporting a healthy emotional response, worry-free helps us step up to the challenge of modern life.

RELATED: 8 Ways To Fight Seasonal Depression (When Winter Blues Have You Feeling Sad)

3. To improve your sleep

Our body heals itself during sleep, which is why quality sleep is essential to maintain balance. Ayurveda recommends turning in before 10:00 pm, during Kapha time when our body naturally supports rest. After 10:00 pm, a more active, Pitta-quality sleep sets in (think brain activity that supports REM and dreaming!).

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So, if we can fall asleep before then, a more restful Kapha-quality sleep takes hold. If turning in before 10:00 p.m. seems unrealistic, there are simple ways we can at least improve the quality of sleep we’re getting.

Try these simple tips:

  • If you frequently find yourself not feeling tired by bedtime, try slowing down a half hour before lights out and power down all electronics in the bedroom.
  • Try incorporating the herbal sleep product "Deep Rest", for uninterrupted deep and restful sleep, and this synergy of herbs promotes sleeping through the night and supports the overall quality of sleep while helping to calm the mind, senses and nervous system. Another good choice is "Blissful Sleep", which produces a calming, balancing effect on the mind, senses and nervous system. If you're worried or agitated before bed, your mind stays connected to the senses, keeping them active. That’s when falling asleep becomes a challenge — or if you do, our sleep is light and restless. It’s when the mind is relaxed, and disconnects from the senses, that sleep is sound and deep.

4. To create balance in your mind and relax your nervous system

This is the time of year to make time to go to your favorite yoga class. Focus on grounding standing postures like tree pose, as well as seated forward folds that promote a tuning in.

Can’t make yoga regularly? Try practicing “Alternate Nostril Breathing” each morning or before retiring to bed. This is a grounding and Vata-balancing breath practice that balances the hemispheres of the brain and induces a relaxed nervous system response.

Sit tall with a straight spine and relax your left hand on your thigh. Release your index and middle finger pads down to the palm of your right hand, keeping your right thumb, ring and pinky fingers extended.

Begin by plugging the right nostril with your thumb, breathing in through the left nostril. Fill to the top of the inhale, hold briefly, and switch on the exhale by placing pinky and ring fingers to the left nostril while you exhale out the right. Inhale fully through the right nostril, filling to the top of the inhale, holding briefly, and switching on the exhale. Continue for 3-5 minutes.

Sit restfully and observe your mental state upon completion.

5. To ground yourself

Think of essential oils as your best friends this winter. Essential oils are composed of some of the finest medicinal molecules you could get your hands on.

Distilled from plants, flowers, herbs, and trees, these powerhouse oils can be diffused and inhaled aromatically, used topically on the skin, or in some cases ingested for mental, emotional, and immune support.

Try these sweet, warm and grounding singles and blends:

  • Frankincense
  • Geranium
  • "Stress Away" (blend by Young Living)
  • Clove

This winter, when feelings that are less than desirable rise to the surface, take the time to explore a new paradigm of how to be well. Namaste!

RELATED: 6 Tips For Surviving The Winter If You Suffer From Seasonal Depression

Tierney Farry is a counselor, teacher, and consultant who is certified in Aroma Freedom Technique. Visit her website to learn more.