Simple, healthy choices can decrease the risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
The shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, is a marker that the darkest days are behind us and the sun is going to be shining longer each of the coming days as we end one year to begin another. Unfortunately, by the time that we reach this milestone and a promise of a less distant Spring, your body may still be suffering ill effects from the recent weeks of decreasing periods of sunlight as well as exhaustion from all of the pre-holiday preparations that so many of us allow to suck up too much of our time.
Staying “Merry and Bright” Takes a Lot of Energy
It makes sense that the human response to the naturally increasing darkness is to fill it with light and activities to combat the gloominess of the late autumn and early winter days. In November, when we really notice that daylight is shifting its balance with the night sky, we are beginning the preparations for family gatherings and keeping the oven humming and the sideboard groaning with rich and decadent foods. We’re eating more simple carbohydrates, often increasing alcohol intake, and spending less time engaged in outdoor activities. Workout regimens also may be more frequently disrupted by lack of motivation or schedule conflicts. Many find it easier to expend calories baking or reaching for another treat than to show up at the gym. And once motivation starts falling, it can take a lot more energy to build it back up than if it had been maintained all along.
The Winter Doldrums Are a Real Thing
The onset of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is ushered in as the level of natural sunlight available each day decreases. Many species in the animal world adapt to this change with hibernation periods. In the US, many humans adapt to this change by spending winters as far south as they can to avoid the bitter cold and the darker days.
Essential Cycle: Sunlight to Serotonin to Melatonin to Sleep to Peace and Contentment
The shortening of our daylight hours can wreak havoc on our Circadian rhythms. Exposure to sunlight positively influences our brain’s production of neurochemicals that keep our moods balanced. Sunlight cues our bodies to produce Vitamin D, which is often found to be deficient in individuals who suffer from depression (Cuomo, Giordano, Goracci, & Fagiolini, 2017). Serotonin production is helped along by natural light exposure and serotonin leads to melatonin production, which helps ensure our sleep-wake cycle stays organized. When there’s less light, there’s less serotonin, which leads to less melatonin, which leads to less sleep, which can lead to feeling tired, cranky, and depressed. Our brains are amazing machines that do their best to keep up with the rapidly changing world, but when we try to force our brain chemistry to respond to unnatural, controlled environments such as work schedules that don’t shift with the seasons, exposure to non-stop electronic entertainment/bombardment, and other treats/risks of modern life, we can end up having to “treat” problems that might not occur if we were able to follow the natural order of things.
Finding the Right Balance/Light Balance
While sunlight encourages the production of serotonin, it’s also tangentially increasing the production of melatonin, the chemical that regulates healthy sleep. One way to handle SAD is to integrate light therapy (bright natural light; lightboxes; high quality, non-flickering fluorescent light bulbs; sunlight-mimicking bulbs) at the start of your morning. This jumpstarts the brain into producing the feel-good, do-good neurochemical serotonin.
While serotonin production is ramping up through light exposure, the production of natural melatonin is kick-started, too. At the end of the day, when you are preparing for sleep, you can take a melatonin supplement to help re-regulate your Circadian rhythm. As the brain’s chemistry is getting back on schedule, your mood will also reflect the balance and symptoms of depression should ease up.
Eat Healthy to Decrease Depression
Avoid simple carbohydrates, processed foods, and sugar. All of these can upset your brain’s delicate neurochemical symphony. Stick to complex carbohydrates that provide better “fuel economy” to your body than junk food can. In fact, a healthy diet has been linked to stronger feelings of optimism (Kargakou, Sachlas, Lyrakos, et al., 2017). Avoiding preservatives and choosing fresh foods will be better for your body and your attitude. Depression is marked by feelings of hopelessness; this suggests that the optimism borne of a healthy diet is worth the effort.
Keep Hydrated with Water, Not Lubricated with Alcohol, or Hopped Up on Caffeine
Dehydration can mimic symptoms of depression, so make sure that you’re taking in an adequate supply of water (Pross, Demazieres, Girard, et al., 2014). Avoid or limit caffeine, alcohol, and other high-sugar or artificially sweetened beverages. These beverages affect sleep, too, which affects mood. No component of our amazing body works independently of any other system – simply being alive is the production of a symphony made up of many players and many well-calibrated movements of every cell.
Out-Run, Out-Stretch, and Outsmart the Winter Doldrums
Physical activity, rather than couch-potato sitting, will help you get through the darkest winter day with as bright a mood possible. Aerobic exercise is especially helpful in getting your brain on track with the production of serotonin and endorphins (Munuswamy, Preetha, & Priya, 2018). Walk the dog, park far away from the grocery store or after-holiday sales, or get on the treadmill. All of these can help stimulate the body’s natural mood-balancing techniques.
Meditation and Yoga balance Moods
Aside from the heavy-duty physical work-outs, you can also exercise your mind and body through more gentle means that can lead to a balanced mood state (Travis, Valosek, Konrad, et al., 2018). Mediation has been proven to enhance well-being and bring calm even in times of catastrophic illness and stress (Lemanne & Maizes, 2018). When your brain is in a meditative state, you’re actually quieting the regions of the brain associated with stress and worry while providing greater opportunities for the work of the regions associated with healthy psychological and physical functioning. Tai Chi is another gentle method for combatting feelings of depression (Zou et al., 2018). Activities that bring a balance between mind and body are highly effective in bringing balance to all aspects of your life.
Hopefulness about the Future
The frenzy of the winter holidays can lead to an overall post-holiday, gloomy January funk for many. Comparing the “blah” of January with the “bling” of December is not a pleasing thought. Add in a couple of quickly failed New Year’s resolutions and the days seem even more depressing. Recognize that what you’re feeling is a normal reaction to what’s going on around you. Also, recognize that you have the tools needed to ensure that you don’t fall too far into a bout of SAD. For protection against SAD, eat right, drink plenty of healthy fluids, and get active. If you are suffering from seasonal depression, research shows that light therapy is as effective as psychotherapy such as CBT might be (Meyerhoff, Young, & Rohan, 2018). Not only that, light therapy provides more rapid relief to symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety, hypersomnia, and social withdrawal. Make healthy choices, keep your body moving, and find the light and you’ll be well prepared to tackle the winter blues.
Feeling hopeful about the future is key to feeling better about the now.
Cuomo, A., Giordano, N., Goracci, A., & Fagiolini, A. (2017). Depression and Vitamin D deficiency: Causality, assessment, and clinical practice implications. Neuropsychiatry, 7(5), 606-614.
Kargakou A., Sachlas A., Lyrakos G., Zyga S., Tsironi M., Rojas Gil A.P. (2017) Does Health Perception, Dietary Habits and Lifestyle Effect Optimism? A Quantitative and Qualitative Study. In: Vlamos P. (eds) GeNeDis 2016. Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology, 988. Springer, Cham.
Lemanne, D., & Maizes, V. (2018). Advising Women Undergoing Treatment for Breast Cancer: A Narrative Review. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 24(9/10), 902–909. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2018.0150
Meyerhoff, J., Young M. A., & Rohan K. J. Patterns of depressive symptom remission during the treatment of seasonal affective disorder with cognitive‐behavioral therapy or light therapy. Depress Anxiety. 2018;35:457–467. https://doi.org/10.1002/da.22739
Munuswamy, S., Preetha, S., & Priya, J. (2018). A study on the effects of aerobics on depression. Drug Invention Today, 10(11), 2169–2171. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=132173465&site=ehost-live&scope=site
Pross, N., Demazières, A., Girard, N., Barnouin, R., Metzger, D., Klein, A., Perrier, E., … Guelinckx, I. (2014). Effects of changes in water intake on mood of high and low drinkers. PloS one, 9(4), e94754. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0094754
Travis, F., Valosek, L., Konrad, A., Link, J., Salerno, J., Scheller, R., … Konrad, A. 4th. (2018). Effect of meditation on psychological distress and brain functioning: A randomized controlled study. Brain & Cognition, 125, 100–105. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bandc.2018.03.011
Zou, L., Yeung, A., Li, C., Wei, G.-X., Chen, K. W., Kinser, P. A., … Ren, Z. (2018). Effects of Meditative Movements on Major Depressive Disorder: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 7(8), N.PAG. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm7080195
How Can You Cope With Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Does winter bring you down every year? We give you some tips on how to manage seasonal affective disorder.
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that comes and goes with the four seasons, typically manifesting during the cold autumn and winter months, when the days are shorter, darker, and chillier.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, the main risk factors for SAD are age, sex, distance from the equator (since regions farther to the north and south tend to have shorter days and less sunlight in winter), and a history of depression or other mood disorders.
Studies have shown that “young adults and women are most likely to experience SAD with the reported gender difference ranging from 2:1 to 9:1.”
People with SAD can experience a range of symptoms, but some of the most commonly reported ones include a sense of fatigue paired with oversleeping, chronically low moods, and strong cravings for carbohydrates, which can lead to excessive weight gain.
SAD can seriously impact productivity and day-to-day lifestyle, as the symptoms — if severe — can prevent individuals from going out, seeing other people, and engaging in some of the normal activities that they would otherwise pursue.
So what can you do if the winter months are getting you down? How can you cope with the lack of motivation, feelings of hopelessness, and debilitating fatigue? Here, we give you some tips on how to tackle SAD head-on.
Hunt down that light
Lack of exposure to natural light is one of the apparent reasons behind winter SAD, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that light therapy — also known as “phototherapy” — would be beneficial in keeping the symptoms at bay.
light box for phototherapy
Many studies have indicated that light therapy is usually helpful in treating this seasonal disorder, and for this purpose, you can use one of the many dedicated light boxes that are now available on the market.
But to be effective, you should make sure that the light box generates at least 10,000 lux — 100 times stronger than a normal lightbulb, meaning that a regular desk lamp won’t do — and that it has white or blue (not yellow) light.
Also, check that the light box was especially made to treat SAD, depression, and other mood disorders, and that it’s not made for a different purpose (such as treating psoriasis or other skin conditions).
Light boxes for skin treatments are another kettle of fish altogether, as they emit ultraviolet (UV) B, which is not safe for the retina. Instead, dedicated SAD treatment light boxes filter out UVs, so they’re safe to use.
Dr. Norman Ronsenthal — who first described SAD’s symptoms and pushed for it to be recognized as a valid disorder — offers some advice on how to use light therapy in his book, Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder. He writes:
- Obtain a suitable light box.
- Set the light box up in a convenient place at home or at work, or both.
- Sit in front of the light box […] between 20 and 90 minutes each day.
- Try to get as much of your light therapy as early in the morning as possible.
- Be sure to sit in such a way that the correct amount of light falls on your eyes. [Dr. Marlynn Wei says it should be placed at eye level or higher, 2 feet away from you.]
- Repeat this procedure each day throughout the season of risk.
At the same time, you can add to the beneficial effects of light therapy by making a little extra effort to “hunt down” natural daylight, if possible, and take advantage of it as much as you can.
You could do this by waking up earlier in the morning and going outside where the sunshine is, for as long as it lasts, to allow yourself to feel as though you’re soaking in the light and taking advantage of the whole day.
Eat well, and watch out for the carbs
Research has shown that individuals with SAD tend to eat more carbohydrate-rich foods, especially sweets and starchy foods. They also have a tendency to overeat during these periods of “seasonal lows,” so it’s important that they look after their diets in order to feel more energized.
vegan suitable food
Over the winter months, as we get less and less sunlight, vitamin D is insufficiently produced in our bodies. Research has also suggested that ensuring we get enough vitamin D may help to prevent and manage depression.
To make sure that you’re getting enough vitamin D during autumn and winter, you could take dietary supplements. Vitamin D is also found in a range of foods that you can easily incorporate into your daily meals.
Salmon, for instance, is naturally rich in D-3, though some studies suggest that wild-caught salmon contains much larger amounts of the vitamin than farmed salmon.
Eggs are a good source of the vitamins D-2 and D-3, and mushrooms also have a high D-2 content, though research suggests that we should stick to wild mushrooms rather than cultivated ones.
Some studies also suggest that people with mood disorders may have an omega-3 fatty acid deficit, and so supplementation of this nutrient may help to keep symptoms in check.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), some good food sources of omega-3 include various types of fish (salmon, herring trout, and mackerel), chia seeds, flaxseed, and soybean.
Also, research published last year in the American Journal of Public Health points to fruit and vegetables as the foods of choice when it comes to increasing happiness and well-being.
“Eating fruit and vegetables apparently boosts our happiness far more quickly than it improves human [physical] health,” notes study co-author Prof. Andrew Oswald.
The psychological benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption were confirmed by a recent study, from February this year, which focused on the positive effect of a “green” diet on young adults — one of the groups most at risk of SAD.
Make an effort to stay active
Precisely because some of the main symptoms of SAD are fatigue and lethargy, specialists advise that making an effort to stay physically active can offer a boost of energy and improve mood.
A review of existing studies surrounding SAD and the effects of exercise on this disorder suggests that the low moods and other symptoms involved in it may be caused by disruptions to the body’s circadian rhythm. The circadian rhythm regulates our sleep, eating, and activity patterns according to day-night cycles.
Review author Benny Peiser — from the Research Institute for Sport and Exercise Sciences at Liverpool John Moore University in the United Kingdom — explains that taking part in regular physical exercise during the autumn and winter months can help to maintain an appropriate circadian rhythm, thereby keeping SAD symptoms at bay.
A study recently covered by Medical News Today also demonstrates that even low-intensity exercise done for as little as 1 hour per week can effectively counteract depression.
Don’t give in to reclusiveness
On those dark, cold days, you may be sorely tempted to just stay inside and hide from the weather and world alike. If you have more severe SAD symptoms, going out may seem unachievable, but if you want to keep the low moods and lethargy at bay, then you should do your best to resist these solitary tendencies.
Try not to give up on seeing people and doing things.
Much the same as light exercise, studies show that a leisurely walk in the great outdoors can improve your mood and well-being.
Just taking one moment every day to notice a detail in your natural surroundings, and asking yourself what feelings it elicits, can make you feel happier and more sociable, according to research from the University of British Columbia in Canada.
The American Psychological Association advise that you keep in touch with friends and family, go out with them, and speak to trusted people about what you’re experiencing. Enlisting someone else’s help in keeping you active, and helping you get out of your shell during the cold months, may make it easier to cope with the effects of SAD.
Advice regarding how best to cope with SAD from Johns Hopkins Medicine also includes finding a winter-appropriate hobby that will both keep you busy and give you pleasure, such as a DIY project or a winter sport.
Moreover, don’t forget that there is help available for people who experience SAD. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been proven to be effective in the treatment of this disorder, and a specialist will be able to recommend antidepressants if you find yourself struggling.