Dear Dr. Peacock,
Winter is not my friend. In general, the cold bothers me but it’s really a lot deeper than that. I start to feel sad more often and usually spend my whole winter looking forward to spring. As soon as spring comes I begin to feel better in every way. What can I do to help combat those winter blues?
—Melancholy in Maspeth
I hear you. It’s dark. Really dark. And quite cold. In a typical work day, it’s not uncommon to see just see a few minutes of daylight, as the night seems to descend just after lunch in December. All that darkness and cold weather can really start to affect our mood in profound ways.
Having said all that, as Grace Jones preached in 1985, we truly are a “Slave to the Rhythm.” Our daily humdrum can leave us forgetting the nuts and bolts of how the world is moving and turning. If you take a step back and look at the daily cycles, and then the seasonal cycles and how our bodies respond to it, it can feel like a wild ride in which we have no control. Well, the reality is that we actually don’t have much control, but we can find ways to surf the wave and use the ride to our advantage.
From a Chinese medicine perspective, Yin and Yang are the two different aspects of Qi, our life-force. Yin refers to the functions of the body that are nourishing and cooling and Yang refers to the ones that are activating and warming, and they are constantly in dynamic balance. Yin and Yang theory is totally my jam and there is no finer example than the seasons here on planet earth. Right now we are sitting in what would be considered the most “yin” time of year, as it is very dark and cold. So, what can we do to feel more in harmony with all that is going on in the natural world?
First, begin to make friends with the idea of “surrendering.” It is perfectly normal to need a bit more sleep and more downtime when the nights are so long. In contrast, the opposite is true for the longest day (which is at the end of June, by the way). Carving out space for an extra hour of sleep is key to feeling rested in relation to our atmospherical happenings. In my clinical practice, I see a ton of folks who won’t give up the morning bootcamp class. My advice? Tell Barry you’ll be back in spring but for now you need to “vibe with the deep dark yin.” There will be a time and place for this when the sun hangs high in the sky till 7 pm but those days are not now. Instead, lean into more restorative practices like yin yoga, tai chi, and breathwork.
Next, I’d like you to take note of all the really interesting winter foods. When we talk about seasonal harmony, I think it’s helpful to consume more fruits and veggies that are in season. So, right now that includes a lot of yummy root vegetables and squashes. (Do yourself a favor and try a purple sweet potato! It seriously tastes like cake). Foods ripen when sweet Mother Earth wants us to eat it. She’s making the decisions easy and she always knows best. Your nutritional requirements are being met if you reap what is being harvested locally in this season.
Also, have you gotten your vitamin D levels checked? If not, I would encourage you to do so. There is a growing body of research suggesting that vitamin D deficiency may contribute to depression (among other things). Vitamin D (aka the sunshine vitamin) is made by our bodies when our skin is exposed to sunlight. It makes sense that many of us would become deficient in the winter months. It’s not a great idea to take a large dose supplement unless you are confirmed deficient because vitamin D is fat-soluble, which means that you won’t urinate out the excess. Ask your doctor for a vitamin D blood test and if you are deficient, use this calculator to decide what dose to take in order to achieve and maintain levels.
It’s worth noting that each day following the Winter Solstice (December 21st) gets a little bit longer. It’s slow-moving but we begin heading in the right direction, at least.
I hope this helps Melancholy. Wishing you a warm, cozy winter with lots of restorative healing yin.
In good health,
Dr. Christopher Peacock
P.S. I’d like to take just a moment to recognize the seriousness of clinical depression (and all other issues with mental health also). This column is not meant to replace mental health services or medication. Please reach out to a mental health professional if symptoms are more than a garden variety low-level slump.