For you, does the conclusion of the holidays and end of the year always signal the beginning of the blues? You may actually be suffering from a condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression triggered by the change of seasons, primarily with the onset of winter. It stems from the shorter daylight hours and decreased sunshine that throw off our biological clocks.
SAD varies from person to person. Some feel mildly depressed, while others experience energy levels so low that they can’t go about their usual activities, even requiring hospitalization. Repercussions of SAD include work and school problems, social withdrawal, and substance abuse. The good news: it’s possible to stem the symptoms of SAD and keep your energy and emotions on an even keel throughout the year.
SAD was recognized in 1984 at the National Institute of Mental Health. Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal (who himself suffers from SAD) led the team that made the association between the shorter, darker days of winter and the onset of seasonal depression symptoms. SAD is now included in the primary diagnostic manual for mental health conditions (Learn more about Dr. Rosenthal’s interesting and informational findings regarding SAD on his website normanrosenthal.com. You can also explore his highly insightfull book on the subject Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know to Beat SAD).
Are you experiencing these symptoms of SAD?
• Sleeping more but not feeling rested
• Lack of patience
• Memory loss
• Severe mood swings
• Feeling unproductive or unmotivated
• Craving for carbohydrates or sugar
• Difficulty concentrating
• Anger, nervousness, anxiety
• Lowered sex drive
SAD and the Body
The exact cause of SAD is unknown, but it’s believed that the reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter disrupts our biological clock (otherwise known as circadian rhythm). That disruption decreases our body’s production of serotonin (the brain chemical that lifts mood) and increases our production of melatonin. Melatonin is the hormone that regulates hibernation in animals, and humans have more of it in the bloodstream in winter than in summer. Our bodies produce more melatonin during nighttime hours. The imbalance between our serotonin and melatonin levels helps trigger SAD.
What can you do if you are a SAD sufferer? For severe symptoms, traveling to or relocating to an area within about 30 degree latitude of the equator could be the answer. However, if becoming a snowbird or taking an extended warm weather vacation isn’t an option, there are fortunately many simpler steps you can take to feel better.
Discuss it with a doctor
The signs of SAD closely resemble that of other types of depression. That’s why it’s important to begin by reviewing your own symptoms with a doctor to ensure that you receive the right diagnosis and the proper treatment plan. Health issues, like an underactive thyroid, can mimic SAD’s symptoms, so you should begin with a medical exam. If your doctor rules out physical factors for your SAD symptoms, your treatment plan will probably include light-box therapy, dawn-simulator therapy, and possibly antidepressant medication to help you feel better.
Light therapy boxes work by giving off light that resembles sunshine, stimulating the body’s circadian rhythm, resetting its internal clock and suppressing its production of melatonin. One thirty to sixty minute light therapy session per day through the winter is the average needed to be effective. For best results, you should have sessions at the same time each day, preferably in the morning. You can do light therapy while going about other activities like eating, using the computer, or watching television. Dawn simulators are alarm clocks that wake you up with light rather than noise. Light therapy boxes and dawn simulators come in many different models; your doctor can recommend one that’s right for you. Some people believe that tanning beds can help ease SAD, but this hasn’t been proven. Tanning beds release UV light, which is not the same kind used in light therapy.
In addition, keep your work and home surroundings as light and airy as you can. Open drapes and blinds, and sit near windows when you’re indoors. Clear grime off windows and trim hedges to allow the maximum amount of natural light possible to reach inside your home.
Feed your metabolism
Some of the best tools for combatting SAD are right in your kitchen. Look for these mood and energy boosters:
Folic acid: Has been linked to the creation of serotonin. Foods high in folic acids are leafy greens, oatmeal, soybeans, and oranges.
Vitamin D: Found in milk, egg yolks, fish oil.
Vitamin B12: Get it in lean beef, cottage cheese and yogurt.
Omega-3 fatty acids: Sources include walnuts, cold-water fish like salmon and tuna.
Tryptophan: Contained in turkey and bananas.
Avoid alcohol and caffeine
While both may seem soothing in the short run, alcohol is in itself a depressant, which may only continue to lower your mood, and caffeine interrupts sleep and circadian rhythms. Instead of loading up on the lattes, choose decaffeinated herbal tea when you want something warm – it’ll also help banish the carbohydrate cravings that go with SAD.
Stay physically active
Snowball fights and sledding aren’t just for little ones! When it snows, join your family outside and get the dual benefits of exercise and light exposure. Cheering from the stands as local teams play outdoor sports is another fun way to catch some rays. Shovel walks and driveways during daytime hours so you can get sun exposure at the same time.
Keeping warm outside in chilly temperatures no longer means packing on so many layers that you can’t put your arms down, like Ralphie’s little brother Randy in A Christmas Story. Today’s lightweight, easy care outerwear allows you to stay comfortable without restricting your movement, so get outside and enjoy that winter weather!