For some people, when winter hits, it can feel like there will never be daylight again. Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) is more than just a dark cloud hanging overhead; there are brain chemical, environmental, nutritional and social components. Use these simple tips to adjust your brain chemistry and regulate your mood for a sunny disposition all winter long.
Symptoms of S.A.D. can include difficulty in waking up in the morning, cravings for comfort foods, feeling cold all the time and social withdrawal. In the Northern hemisphere S.A.D. typically strikes between September and April.
The main culprits in S.A.D. are serotonin and melatonin, vital chemicals that regulate mood and sleep. When the nights grow longer and the sun is in short supply production of these two important chemicals dwindles.
Serotonin is produced by the pituitary gland and is responsible for modulating mood, emotion, sleep and appetite. Melatonin regulates your body’s circadian cycles of sleep and waking. When melatonin is too high, it disrupts sleep.
How do you know the difference between S.A.D. and regular depression? People who feel depressed in wintertime but feel more energetic and happy in springtime and summertime may be experiencing S.A.D.
Happily, most of its symptoms are easily addressed with light therapy, exercise and diet.
6 Easy Ways to Beat the Winter Blues
- Get More EFAs
S.A.D. is mostly about insufficient light, however, Omega-3 fatty acids also play a crucial role in brain function and mood disorders. Make sure you are getting enough Omega-3, including Vitamin D, in your diet during the winter.
When you have enough EFAs in your system you think more clearly. Omega-3 oils improve cell membrane function and helps serotonin levels. Good sources of Omega-3 include cod liver oil, salmon, mackerel, nuts and seeds.
- Take the Right Supplements
Studies show Vitamin D correlates with higher incidences of wintertime depression and that people who have S.A.D. see significant improvement in their symptoms when they get at least the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin D. Check with your healthcare provider to determine the best levels for you.
Melatonin supplements before bed can also help those whose S.A.D. symptoms keep them from getting a full night’s sleep by modifying its production in the brain.
Exercise warms you up, improves your mood and increases your production of phenylethylamine (PEA), a natural chemical that has been linked to the regulation of physical energy, mood and the ability to focus. A warming, mood brightening exercise is bowing meditation.
Bowing is a moving meditation that is very similar to Hatha yoga’s Sun Salute. After just a few minutes of bowing your mind becomes focused, your thinking clearer and your body warm and energized.
- Alter Your Diet
Winter darkness and cold makes us crave comfort foods which are usually high in sugar, salt and fat. Dark chocolate or raw cacao however contains tryptophan, which is a precursor to serotonin, and PEA. So, next time you're craving a triple helping of mac and cheese on a dark winter’s night, have a couple squares of decadent dark chocolate instead, guilt free!
- Stay Socially Active
Social withdrawal is a common reaction to the stress of depression. Feelings of isolation, in that circular logic of the depressed mind, tend to make us crave more isolation.
Accepting invitations to parties, volunteering for charities, even taking a seasonal part-time job doing something you’d never normally do, like bell ringing for the Salvation Army, are all good ways to be out and about and among people.
- Use Full Spectrum Light
Lack of exposure to sunlight is the key cause of S.A.D. On a sunny day you are exposed to nearly 70,000 lux (units of light). On cloudy days light levels can decrease to 5,000 lux. Fluorescent lighting, in your home or office, only provides 15-200 lux.
Full spectrum lighting simulates natural sunlight. Researchers believe this type of light causes a chemical change in the brain that lifts your mood and eases the symptoms of S.A.D. Exposure to a light box for a minimum of 30 minutes each morning is usually enough for most people to feel the benefits throughout the day.
There are a variety of natural or full spectrum lights, from desktop units to individual light bulbs that are very effective for S.A.D. symptoms. Light box therapy alone may be effective, but can also be combined with any of the other remedies listed here.
Adopting these new habits will not only help you make it over the winter slump, but may also improve your overall physical and emotional health year-round.