Seasonal affective disorder or SAD, is a form of depression that affects 25 million Americans, mostly women. It occurs around the same time every year. And for most, it is around the fall and winter months. The lack of light in wintertime can result in lower levels of serotonin, the mood-enhancing chemical that regulates hunger and the feeling of well-being. Serotonin production increases with light, meaning that gray gloom creeping in the window is not kicking the production of feel-good chemicals into action.
SAD saps your energy, causes mood swings and diminishes levels of excitement, happiness and overall motivation. If this sounds familiar, you may be wondering what you can do to help the problem without relying solely on medication. Truth be told, diet and other lifestyle adjustments can be a powerful tool in changing your mood and overall mental health.
First let’s talk about signs and symptoms
- Feeling depressed
- Tendency to oversleep or Marathon napping
- Low self-esteem
- Obsessiveness over little things
- Irritability or anxiety
- Panic attacks
- Difficulty in concentrating
- Avoidance of social situations
- Weight gain
- Change in appetite, especially a craving for sweets or starches
- Increased sensitivity to social rejection
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Symptoms can range from mild to severe, and people generally recover completely around April or May – once the days become longer.
Food and Drinks:
According to Kathleen DesMaisons, author of “Potatoes Not Prozac”: Your relationship to sweet things is operating on a cellular level. It is more powerful than you have realized….What you eat can have a huge effect on how you feel.” Too much sugar and starchy items that turn to sugar make you feel lousy.
Depressives and addicts need to be especially careful with sweets because the addiction to sugar and white-flour products is very real and physiological, affecting the same biochemical systems in your body as other drugs like heroin.
Limit: surgery foods such as desserts and candy, surgery drink such as pop, Gatorade and fruit juices, starchy foods such as Bread, pasta, rice and potatoes.
2. EAT MORE COMPLEX CARBOHYDRATES
You might crave junk food and greasy comforting things like pizza and mac ‘n’ cheese during the sluggish, cold winter months, but stuffing yourself with sugar and refined flours will only make you feel even grosser.
Complex carbs take longer to digest, which means they don’t cause spikes in blood sugar that can create roller-coaster moods; they also increase levels of serotonin in the brain. Opt for whole grains and complex carbs like spinach, yams, broccoli, beans, zucchini, lentils, skim milk, and more, which will fill you up while also providing long-lasting nourishment.
Popcorn,Oatmeal (original, not instant -dessert kind with added sugar), Nuts, Egg whites for omelets, Peanut butter, Almond butter, Humus, Prewashed veggies, fruit, whole grain crackers, deli turkey, cottage cheese, beans (raw or canned)
3. Eat more foods with Omega-3’s.
Recent studies have shown the effect of omega-3 fatty acids and lower levels of depression. When we think of high omega 3’s we think fish but other foods have omega 3 as well or is added to food products.
Other food sources: Soymilk, yogurt, Flaxseed, Pumpkin and Chia Seeds and nuts.
Foods fortified with omega-3 fatty acids: eggs, margarine, milk, Peanut butter, Oatmeal
Fresh Produce With ALA Omega-3s: Brussels sprouts, kale, mint, parsley, spinach and watercress.
Vegetables, especially green leafy ones, are rich in ALA, one form of omega-3 fatty acids. Although ALA isn’t as powerful as the other omega-3 fatty acids, DHA and EPA, these vegetables also have fiber and other nutrients, as well as omega-3s.
Oil With ALA Omega-3s: Canola oil, cod liver oil, flaxseed oil, mustard oil, soybean oil and walnut oil
4. Limit your caffeine intake.
Soda with caffeine spikes your insulin levels and drops blood sugar levels, contributing to a sense of fatigue. All of that caffeinated coffee and tea can be dehydrating too.
5. Avoid Alcohol for a Season
Alcohol is a depressant, a downer. If you’re struggling with depression, stop drinking for a time and see if it makes a difference in your moods and emotions.
Bright-light therapy–involving sitting in front of a fluorescent light box that delivers an intensity of 10,000 lux–can be as effect as antidepressant medication for mild and moderate depression and can yield substantial relief for Seasonal Affective Disorder. Light therapy has been reported to work in 80% of all cases of SAD. Some research shows that blue light may be slightly more effective at reducing seasonal affective disorder symptoms than other types of light. Doctors recommend sitting near your light box for 30 minutes each morning. On Amazon.com $40.00
7. Make your house brighter.
It’s all about getting as much natural light into your house or apartment as possible. Keep your blinds and curtains totally open during the day, and if necessary, trim the bushes around your windows. Use bright colors on your walls and light-colored upholstery. Even making an effort to sit by a sunny window for at least 15 minutes every day, greatly increase your mood. Clutter can be mentally discouraging, so clean your room and house as often as possible.
8. Force yourself outside.
Try to go outside within two hours of waking up to achieve the most benefit by starting early in the day. Even on cloudy and overcast days, your mood can benefit from exposure to sunlight. Midday light, especially, provides Vitamin D to help boost your limbic system, the emotional center of the brain. And there is something so healing about connecting with nature, even if it’s covered in snow.
Take the best preventive action next fall—before winter begins. Between October 1 and October 15, go somewhere with a lot of sun and spend time outside four hours a day, four days in a row. Studies indicated that this works.
Granted, this solution isn’t free, but if you plan ahead every year to take your vacation in the first part of January or February it helps breaks up your winter. If you can’t stand the cold, a trip to Florida or California can be just what you need to make it through the brutal sleet ‘n’ snow season. Or if snow is kind of your fancy, escape to a cabin or make a skiing trip. Getting a change of scenery in the winter is seriously underrated! And…. helps get you through those depressing weeks following the holidays.
Get more active:
10. Join the gym or get more active.
Don’t let the cold weather be an excuse not to sweat. We have centers today called “gyms” where people exercise inside! Granted, it’s not the same–watching the news or a show as you walk on the treadmill as opposed to walking along wooded paths with a view. But you accomplish the goal: getting your heart rate up.
Physical exercise is a proven depression buster, so don’t use winter as an excuse to miss out on all those awesome mood-enhancing endorphins and neurotransmitters.
11. Give back
Gandhi once wrote that “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Positive psychologists like University of Pennsylvania’s Martin Seligman and Dan Baker, Ph.D., director of the Life Enhancement Program at Canyon Ranch, believe that a sense of purpose–committing oneself to a noble mission–and acts of altruism are strong antidotes to depression. Volunteer to coach kid’s sports, help children with reading, sort clothes or items for the local DAV, church activities, clubs or other organizations. You will get more active and feel better when you give back.
12. Hang out with friends.
This seems like an obvious depression buster. Of course you get together with your buddies when your mood starts to go south. But that’s exactly when many of us tend to isolate. I believe that it takes a village to keep a person sane and happy. That’s why we need so many support groups today. People need to be validated and encouraged and inspired by persons on the same journey.
And with all the technology today, folks don’t even have to throw on their slippers to get to a support group. Online communities provide a village of friendship right at your computer. Though it’s tempting to hibernate and avoid going out completely in the winter — it gets dark at 4 p.m.! — force yourself to go to parties and maintain your favorite social activities. Lolling around on your couch marathoning on the Movie channel feels good in the moment, but in the long run being around your friends will brighten your mood way more.
There’s no time like winter to start a home project, like DE cluttering the house or purging all the old clothes in your kids’ closets. When a friend of mine was going through a tough time, she painted her entire house–every room downstairs with two different colors. And it looked professional! Not only did it help distract her from her problems, but it provided her with a sense of accomplishment that she desperately needed those months, something to feel good about as she saw other things crumble around her. Projects like organizing bookshelves, shredding old tax returns, and cleaning out the garage are perfect activities for the dreary months of the year.
14. Challenge yourself.
My mood can often be lifted by meeting a new challenge–an activity that is formidable enough to keep my attention, but easy enough to do when my brain is muddied. I try to stretch myself in a small way every winter–whether it is taking an online class, researching for my weekly Healthy Living Class topics, or working on my website. It keeps my brain from freezing, like the rest of my body.
I typically schedule a spa day with a girlfriend midwinter to help with the blues. Other relaxing things I love are long baths with scented bath salts or an old fashion bubble bath. Starting a fire in the fireplace feels good in the dead of winter along with lighted scented candles. One year we splurged and bought a real Christmas tree. I love Christmas lights as well and something about plugging in those Christmas lights and the fresh smell of pine instantly brightened my mood. Valentines day is another time to add a spot or two in your house of bright red or pink to brighten your day.
16. Wear bright colors.
There is probably no research supporting this theory, but I’m quite convinced there is a link between feeling optimistic and sporting bright colors. It’s in line with “faking it ’til you make it,” desperate attempts to trick your brain into thinking that it’s sunny and beautiful outside–time to celebrate Spring!–even though it’s a blizzard with sleet causing some major traffic jams.
Personally, I tend to wear a lot of black, it’s supposed to make you look thinner and it is part of my favorite sports team the “Shockers”. But the result is that I appear as if and feel like I’m going to a funeral every afternoon between the months of November and March. This isn’t good. Not for a person hardwired to stress and worry and get depressed when it’s cold. So I make a conscious effort to throw in a bright yellow, blue, and pink, and sometimes–if I’m in a rush–all of them together! It makes me feel better.
17. Watch only Funny Movies
Laughter is literally healing for the soul. When you laugh it actually changes the chemistry in your brain, releasing happy hormones. Laughter is a drug free antidepressant. Go watch Brides maids, anchor man, Airplane, dumb or dumber or my favorite “Rat Race”.
Sleeping until noon on winter Saturdays feels heavenly, but if you can, try to adhere to a regular sleeping schedule. Because face it, spending a whole day in bed only makes you feel guilty about all that stuff you should be doing. Right? Right.
19. Make your bed every day.
It’s a simple way to feel accomplished. Bonus: It will keep you from getting back into it!
20. If your symptoms are persistent, visit your primary care practitioner.