Every year, I feel pretty much myself until mid-January.
At this point it's been months since we've lived our largely-outside Colorado lifestyle, and I feel a touch of the “winter blues” set in.
In my case, it's nothing alarming, or requiring treatment, but I have that flat feeling occasionally. I suspect you've experienced this as well!
But if the winter doldrums really sap your energy and make you feel truly depressed, you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
What is SAD … and why does it happen?
According to the National Institutes of Health, SAD is a mood change experienced my many people due to a lack of natural sunlight.
SAD is no laughing matter. In fact, it's classified as a type of major depression … one that comes and goes seasonally.
Scientists believe that the change in daylight upsets your body's “biological clock” and affects levels of serotonin in the brain, which is responsible for regulating mood.
Michelle Lee is a writer and avid home chef, with 20 years of experience focusing on healthy lifestyle, diet and the home kitchen.
When not playing around with words, she loves to cook, spend time with her two children, play cribbage with her husband, and tackle The New York Times crossword puzzle
Seasonal affective disorder impacts some 10 million Americans pretty seriously, and another million or two suffer from milder forms.
SAD is more common in women than in men, and the symptoms typically appear around age 20.
The symptoms of SAD include:
- Irritability, restlessness
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Fatigue and decreased energy
- Sad, anxious or “empty” feelings
- Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions
Some SAD patients suffer symptoms get severe enough to affect quality of life, and about five percent of those require hospitalization.
For most sufferers, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) naturally lifts in the spring and summer, when longer days return and we spend more time outdoors.
But oddly, some people experience SAD in spring and/or summer … which seems less related to lack of sun exposure … though some sufferers may get it because they spend too much time indoors.
The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body's level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood, and this may be the trigger for spring-summer SAD.
Five ways to safeguard your mood
If you have severe symptoms that go on for days, you should talk with your doctor right away.
However, if, like me, your feelings of the “winter blues” are manageable, there are natural steps you can take to manage your positive mood at home.
Here are 5 natural ways to help lift your mood ... and possibly banish the winter blues!
#1 – Natural light therapy
The most obvious therapy is getting more sunlight during winter days.
Exposure to the morning sun, in particular, can help to counteract the symptoms of SAD and keep your biological clock well regulated.
However, for many people, a light therapy box is a more efficient, practical, and effective solution.
A Columbia University review of existing research on light therapy found that exposure to ultra-bright, full-spectrum light can be effective at treating SAD with daily sessions as short as 15 minutes.
Light therapy is simple: bright, full-spectrum bulbs are installed in a box with a diffusing screen, and set up on a table or desk top.
Side effects are very minimal, and benefits are generally noted within a week of use. (Click here for Columbia University's light therapy Q&A page
Light therapy boxes are widely available for purchase, and can be brought out each winter when the days become short.
#2 – Mind-body techniques
There's substantial evidence that various mind-body practices can enhance mood and even help relieve depression symptoms:
- Guided imagery
- Massage therapy
#3 – Nutritional support
Foods and dietary supplements can help regulate mood and give us a lift.
Befitting its connection to sunshine, vitamin D may help maintain a lighter, healthy mood during darker days.
Among other possible reasons, vitamin D is key in the creation of serotonin and dopamine … two brain chemicals linked to mood regulation.
A recent study from the University of Georgia supports suspicions that vitamin D can help guard against SAD.
In their review of over 100 studies, the Georgia group found a strong relationship between vitamin D levels and seasonal depression.
Scientists believe that the lower vitamin D levels, caused by the season's shortage of sunlight, may trigger or worsen seasonal depression.
A very few foods are genuinely rich in vitamin D3 (the “active” form), with wild salmon (especially sockeye), tuna, and sardines topping the list.
And vitamin D3 supplements can also help to replenish levels when days grow short and dim.
The Mayo Clinic cites four supplements commonly used for supporting a healthy mood, including:
- Seafood-source omega-3 fatty acids
- Melatonin (a hormone that regulates sleep and mood)
- St. John's Wort (an herb that may help ease mild depression)
- SAMe. (a body chemical that's used in Europe as a prescription antidepressant)
Significant research indicates that the omega-3s in fish oil support a healthy mood, while people with low mood often lack omega-3 fatty acids.
For example, one British study found that a daily dose of omega-3 EPA lead to a 50% reduction in symptoms of depression in two-thirds of the study group.
#4 – Get moving!
It seems simple, but it's powerful and true. Just 30 minutes of exercise a day can make a huge impact on your mood.
According to WebMD, “Research has shown that exercise is an effective but often underused treatment for mild to moderate depression.”
Every time you work out, your body release endorphins, chemicals that create a positive feeling and help to reduce pain.
Endorphins are responsible for that “healthy high” you feel after exercise.
Studies show that regular exercise, four to five times a week, can have a powerful effect on mood.
Move your workouts outside, and you get the added benefit of a little natural light therapy.
#5 – Get help when you need it
While SAD can be managed at home by many, it's critical to seek expert advice for serious depression.
Like other forms of depression, untreated SAD can get worse and lead to problems for some, including social withdrawal, problems at work or home, substance abuse or suicidal thoughts.
Psychotherapy with or without anti-depressants can help you get a handle on depression before it gets worse.
Your doctor can help you determine whether to try managing your low mood with natural remedies, or if you need the support of medical tools, including talk or cognitive therapy and antidepressant drugs.
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- Freeman MP, Hibbeln JR, Wisner KL, Davis JM, Mischoulon D, Peet M, Keck PE Jr, Marangell LB, Richardson AJ, Lake J, Stoll AL. Omega-3 fatty acids: evidence basis for treatment and future research in psychiatry. J Clin Psychiatry. 2006 Dec;67(12):1954-67. Review. Erratum in: J Clin Psychiatry. 2007 Feb;68(2):338.
- Lam RW, Levitt AJ, Levitan RD, Enns MW, Morehouse R, Michalak EE, Tam EM. The Can-SAD study: a randomized controlled trial of the effectiveness of light therapy and fluoxetine in patients with winter seasonal affective disorder. Am J Psychiatry. 2006 May;163(5):805-12.
- Lurie SJ, Gawinski B, Pierce D, Rousseau SJ. Seasonal affective disorder. Am Fam Physician. 2006 Nov 1;74(9):1521-4. Review.
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- National Institutes of Health. Seasonal Affective Disorder. Accessed at http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/seasonalaffectivedisorder.html
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- Rastad C, Ulfberg J, Lindberg P. Light room therapy effective in mild forms of seasonal affective disorder--a randomised controlled study. J Affect Disord. 2008 Jun;108(3):291-6. Epub 2007 Nov 28
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- University of Georgia. Vitamin D deficiency, depression linked in UGA-led international study. December 2, 2014. Accessed at http://news.uga.edu/releases/article/vitamin-d-deficiency-depression/
- WebMD. Exercise and Depression. Accessed at http://www.webmd.com/depression/guide/exercise-depression