Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) affects more than 10 million Americans. But you don’t have to be diagnosed with seasonal depression to feel moody in the wintertime. A subclinical version brings subtler symptoms such as a desire to sleep in, a craving for carbs, and a lack of “umph.” At the heart of both conditions lie some inescapable facts. Like other mammals, humans evolved in response to the natural world, and those age-old connections show up in our biology and behavior.
Here’s how: Circadian rhythms, our internal clocks, are based on external cycles – the 24 hours it takes for the earth to rotate on its axis. These rhythms affect our eating and sleeping patterns, as well as our hormone production and body-temperature regulation. In other words, biologically speaking, the sun still rules our world.
In the winter the gap between our daily rhythms and those of nature widens, making even otherwise balanced people feel sluggish, empty and low. Longer nights encourage our brains to produce the “darkness hormone” melatonin at the expense of the “feel-good hormone” serotonin. But the primary triggers for the winter blues are the change in the timing of the sunrise and the fact that many of us wake up in the dark.
Thankfully, we can balance out the nature-culture disconnect and reset our rhythms, thereby lifting our moods. SAD and SSAD tend to respond readily to the very thing we’re missing this time of year: light! Learn how to get more of it from the steps below as well as discover the best foods, exercise and herbs to create your action plan for a brighter, happier winter.
Let There Be Light
For seasonal depression and the winter blahs “the treatment of choice is light,” says psychiatrist Alfred Lewy. For most of us, the easiest option is to purchase a light box outfitted with special bulbs that mimic the brightness of the morning sun. Light therapy works by getting our sleep-wake cycle to synchronize with an electric-powered “sun”, thereby resetting our circadian clock. We tend to feel our best when we wake with the dawn and the light box essentially helps you make your own sunrise.
Bring on the Night
You need a good night’s sleep – eight to night hours – in order to mitigate winter depression. Keep bedtime and waketime consistent. The best plan is going to bed between 10and 11 p.m. and rising between 6 and 7 a.m.
While light-box therapy remains the primary remedy for synchronizing your sleep patterns, supplementing with melatonin (the “darkness” neurotransmitter) may help, too. The brain’s melatonin levels rise to their highest level at night. People normally start secreting the hormone a few hours before bedtime, to prime the body for sleep. Taking melatonin supplements in the afternoon can help shift the circadian clock. Since melatonin can make some people sleepy, avoid driving as you figure out the best dosage. As always, consult with your physician first.
Eat to Feel Good
What we eat can affect our brain chemistry and our mood. To combat SAD focus on foods that increase and stabilize levels of serotonin, a mood-improving hormone that tends to decrease in the winter. We often crave high-carbohydrate comforts in winter, but it’s wise to resist the urge. Instead, eat a variety of complex carbohydrates such as brown rice, oats, and other whole grains. Other serotonin-enhancing foods include:
BEANS: garbanzo, black, pinto and kidney
SEEDS: pumpkin, sunflower, sesame, and flax
NUTS: almonds, walnuts, pecans, pistachios, and cashews
ROOT VEGETABLES: carrots, beets, sweet potatoes, and winter squash
Move and Stretch
Exercise helps (all types of depression) for many reasons. It boosts serotonin levels in the brain; it improves circulation (which gets more blood and nutrients to the brain); it increases energy and metabolism (even at the celleular level); and it improves glucose regulation (which also effects energy levels).
For those taking anti-depressant medication, exercise helps to improve the effectiveness of the drug – more of the medicine gets to the brain where it is needed and the body metabolizes the drug more easily, which reduces side effects
Mild aerobic exercise for 30 minutes can usually lighten your mood. It it’s not too cold, walking outdoors is a great option. Taking a yoga class in one of the Vinyasa styles to get both an aerobic lift and relaxation is another excellent form of exercise.
The nature of yoga also helps reduce stress hormones, which indirectly improves serotonin production. The inversion poses, such as headstands and handstands, prove particularly helpful in turning around winter depression. If you don’t have experience with these poses, please get instruction from a qualified teacher before attempting them on your own.
Several dietary supplements can help fill in any nutritional gaps and in turn may lift your mood.
VITAMIN D: Deficiency in this vitamin is extremely common and may contribute to both ordinary and seasonal depression.
MULTIVITAMIN: A good one includes plenty of B vitamins, as well as key minerals such as selenium and magnesium.
B-VITAMIN COMPLEX: These assist the brain in producing neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine.
OMEGA-3 RICH FISH OIL: Studies suggest that omega-3 fatty acids may help prevent and ease depression and other mood disorders. Flax makes a good substitute for vegetarians.
Take It Outside
Spending time outdoors helps us to reconnect with nature, thus healing a rift that seems to lie at heart of seasonal depression. If you combine serotonin-boosting exercise with your outdoor time your combatting the winter blues on two fronts.
During the summer, take advantage of the sunlight by spending 15 to 20 minutes a day in the sun without sunscreen (unless you are at risk of skin cancer). This will help build your vitamin D levels for next year.
Try Healing Herbs
Certain medicinal plants ease the winter blues. Try drinking an uplifting tea like tulsi, sometimes referred to as holy basil. Aromatherapy is another alternative. Since the smell of any citrus uplifts the spirit, add a total of 10 drips of any combination of lemon, lime, and orange essential oils to each ounce of lotion or massage oil. Use daily, or use these oils in a diffuser.
Don’t Go It Alone
As with any form of depression, working with a mental-health professional for SAD can be beneficial. If you experience suicidal thoughts or other serious symptoms, seek help immediately.