The decreased amount of sunlight throughout the fall and winter months tells us that a season of change is here. Several animals go into hibernation— bears, bees, skunks and snakes are a few to name. Although we don’t hibernate like animals, season changes can have a profound effect on our body.
The short, dark days of winter can cause many individuals to struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also commonly referred to as “winter blues”. The acronym SAD is fitting for its effects— some individuals experience feelings of sadness, along with lack of energy, throughout the months of December all the way to February.
Have you experienced SAD? While it affects both men and women, one study suggests that SAD affects women four times more than men. In addition, the age of onset is between 18 and 30 years, and apparently those who live closer to the equator are also more likely to experience the effects of SAD. I found that quite interesting!
Another study found that up to 20 percent of people are affected by SAD, this same study also determines that sunlight plays a critical role in the symptoms associated with SAD— decreased serotonin activity, increased melatonin production, disrupted circadian rhythms, and low levels of Vitamin D. Other symptoms of SAD include depression connected to fatigue, moodiness, social withdrawal, and a decrease in mental clarity. Studies have determined that lack of sunlight is associated with hormonal problems. Exposure to sunlight can activate the the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin— the hormones that make us feel good! Essentially, less sunshine means less feel-good hormones.
Since we can’t go and hibernate like animals, it is important to find ways to combat the effects of SAD so we can get through these months feeling our best.
1. BRIGHT LIGHT THERAPY
60 to 80% of individuals who suffer with the effects of SAD showed improvements when using bright light therapy (AKA phototherapy) as a treatment. Research has shown that phototherapy is an effective treatment for SAD. In addition, spending time outside during the day time hours can also be effective as it will help increase sunlight exposure. Even when its cloudy the effects of daylight are still beneficial.
The time you use light therapy does play a role in your response. Some recent studies have found that morning light therapy for 15 to 30 minutes every day is most effective, as opposed to evening light therapy. Light therapy late in the day can result in insomnia. Some people show improvement between 2 and 4 days after treatment, however, the symptoms of SAD can return quickly, therefore, the light therapy should be used consistently throughout the season.
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You guys, food is HEALING. It all comes down to food. People with SAD crave comforting foods, such as starchy carbs and sweets— which will only make you feel worse, especially when consumed in high amounts. If you are craving starchy carbs, choose nutrient-dense complex carbohydrates (slow digesting), such as whole grains, as opposed to nutrient-deficient simple carbohydrates (quick digesting), such as white breads.
Eat a well-balanced diet that is rich in vitamins and minerals— especially vitamin D! A balanced diet will help you feel more energized. Lean sources of protein, leafy greens, and fish all can be beneficial for keeping your hormonal health in check. Sockeye salmon contains an excellent source of vitamin D, and omegas! Vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin) has been associated with depression. Individuals with SAD often show lower levels of vitamin D. The research behind the impact of vitamin D on mental health is not fully clear. Having said that, it’s worth having your doctor check your vitamin D levels to make sure they are adequate. While vitamin D deficiency is most common in the elderly population, some studies suggest that SAD is associated with reduced levels of vitamin D, therefore, supplementation with vitamin D may help reduce the effects of SAD. A number of trials have determined that vitamin D can play a role in treating depression, however, dosing is crucial as sun exposure and dietary intake of vitamin D might be low— high doses under professional guidance might be required. Always consult with a practitioner before diving into a supplement for therapeutic reasons!
Aim for 30 minutes per day of exercise, at least 3 days a week. Physical activity can increase the production of those feel-good neurotransmitters I mentioned above. An increase in these neurotransmitters helps ease feelings of depression and increases mental clarity. One study found that just 30 minutes of treadmill walking for a duration of 10 consecutive days showed significant results for reduced depression. Moreover, studies have also found that the frequency and consistency of exercise has shown the most positive effects, as opposed to intensity and duration.
4. SUPPORT SYSTEMS
Stay involved with your social group. Having people to talk to and go spend time with can really help support you during the times you feel affected by SAD. It is easy to go inward and close yourself off— try to avoid this as much as possible. Join a group fitness class, it’s a great way to surround yourself with others in a good atmosphere, plus it can help keep you accountable for getting your exercise in which will help boost your mood!
There are always fun festive activities that go on throughout the fall/winter months— Christmas markets, Chrismtas light displays, musicals, etc… Grab a friend, family member, or loved one and set a date to go be festive and have some fun! Other fun group activities include cooking classes, painting classes, nature walks, movie nights, cafe meet ups, brunch dates, etc…
5. SEEK PROFESSIONAL GUIDANCE
If you have tried everything there is to try, and nothing seems to help as much as you might need it to, consider consulting with a mental health professional who is trained in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). What is CBT? It is a type of psychotherapy that can help change unhealthy habits of feeling, thinking, and behaving. This kind of therapy can ultimately help alter your thoughts and help you focus on solutions that are more positive.
Thank you for reading today’s post! Do you suffer with SAD? What are some ways you overcome it? Comment below to share. I hope you have an amazing day!
Photo credit: Brittni Rose Image