As the buzz of summer slowly recedes and nights begin to grow longer and colder, good old winter blues will step out of the shadows to rear its dreary head. Some of us may only feel a small change in mood or energy, while others can fall into periods of prolonged depression brought on by the lack of natural light and all the awesomeness this brings. The clinical term for this is Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD - quite a fitting name, really!
The specific mechanisms of SAD are not really that well understood, but it's most likely a result of lower sunlight exposure during winter months. This can change body chemistry in various ways:
- Your biological clock (circadian rhythm). The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may cause winter-onset SAD. This decrease in sunlight may disrupt your body's internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
- Serotonin levels. A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
- Melatonin levels. The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body's level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
The severity of your symptoms will depend on how much your body is affected by the change in light levels. Most of us will experience more minor symptoms:
- Tiredness or low energy
- Problems getting along with other people
- Hypersensitivity to rejection
- Heavy, "leaden" feeling in the arms or legs
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
While others will, unfortunately, have much more extreme symptoms
- Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Having low energy
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Having problems with sleeping
- Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
How to Minimize SAD
1. Get more Light
The number one goal is to get more light reaching your eyes and skin. Be sure to open up all blinds at home and in your office, and also try to remove any shading objects from outside if possible (e.g., tree branches). If it's a sunny day, make sure you go for a walk - try to avoid wearing sunglasses because the lenses will prevent much of the light from reaching your eyes.
If you still can't get enough natural light, it might be worth supplementing with a SAD lamp. These specially designed units emit a spectrum that closely resembles natural light - more so than regular bulbs. They don't emit any UV radiation and are a non-toxic way to improve mood and energy levels. Studies have shown that they are an effective way to lessen SAD symptoms. However, they should be used consistently on a daily basis - especially in the mornings while it is still dark. Check out SAD Lights Review to compare models and prices.
The following list of supplements can all help with SAD:
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids: one of the main essential fatty acids in fish oil is DHA. DHA is present in high quantities in the brain and is necessary to help promote normal function of neurotransmitters.
- St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum): works well for improving symptoms of SAD. Although it is effective alone, it is more effective when combined with light therapy.
- 5-HTP: 5-HTP is a precursor to Serotonin. It may be helpful to improving Serotonin secretion when taken during the day. Serotonin is a precursor to Melatonin.
- Melatonin: Melatonin supplementation may improve SAD. It will increase brain melatonin and suppress cortisol secretion. Melatonin is best taken at night when levels are naturally elevated.
- Vitamin D: if your Vitamin D is low, supplementation with Vitamin D may help improve mood.
Exercise helps to battle depression and its symptoms. It is also great for improving sleep, helping to regulate mood and boosting our immune system. Three sessions per week of at least 30 minutes a day -- outdoors to gain exposure to sunlight -- will help to combat the winter blues. Walking, cycling and running are all recommended. There is also the option of winter sports such as skiing, ice skating and Nordic walking.
4. Create Mindfulness
The practices of Yoga and meditation can both be effective at reducing depression and improving overall energy and well being. While the physical nature of Yoga helps increase circulation and blood-flow to organs and the brain, the spiritual side of meditation can teach you about the workings of your “monkey mind.” This helps you learn how to handle dark feelings that might otherwise overwhelm you.
With its high levels of omega 3 and vitamin D, fish (particularly oily fish and seafood) helps to combat SAD and plays a significant role in mood regulation. Walnuts, hazelnuts and dark chocolate boost magnesium levels, helping us to battle tiredness and stress. Vitamins from fruit (citrus fruits rich in vitamin C) and green vegetables (particularly cabbage and spinach) will help you keep in good health and maintain your energy levels up throughout the winter.