The onset of fall brings beautiful foliage, crisp days warmed by hot cider, and holidays celebrating the great pumpkin. Unfortunately, this season’s arrival also means shorter days and therefore fewer daylight hours, which can make everyone a little SAD.
SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, is characterized by feelings of depression or lethargy as a result of infrequent access to light. Symptoms include sadness, weight gain, an inability to focus, constant fatigue, and feeling “under the weather” without a direct cause. Though there isn’t a specific reason for why SAD strikes certain people as the seasons turn darker, there are a few possible instigators . For example, melatonin production rates (a hormone that makes us sleepy) tend to rise in the winter. Serotonin, a mood-elevating hormone, is connected to sunlight—with less sunlight comes a decrease in serotonin, which might cause drops in mood.
Luckily, there are simple steps we can take to avoid SAD. In fact, if we start incorporating the following tips into our daily lives now, before the days become even shorter, perhaps we can avoid the winter blues altogether.
Try Light Therapy
This is the one of the more common treatments for those afflicted with SAD. Individuals are placed in front of boxes that emit bright, fluorescent lights (which can range from 2,500 to 10,000 lux , or level of brightness) for a scheduled amount of time each day. However, those of us trying to avoid the mood disorder rather than eradicate it can try simpler methods, such as being outdoors as much as possible during daylight hours and letting light in through windows. If your daytime hours are confined to a cubicle with no nearby windows, make it a point to spend a few minutes outside or near natural light every hour or so. If your home hosts the same problem, try using brighter light bulbs. Even small bursts of access to the light, which can be as simple as taking a ten-minute walk break, can improve one’s mood.
Sweat It Out
Recently, a study was released claiming that exercise alone does not cure depression. However, doctors have been prescribing exercise as a potential mood booster for years, and there’s no denying that most people feel a little better after a good walk or jog. When we work out, oxygen is pumped into our brains and the result is increased feelings of alertness. Exercise is a great way to wake ourselves up from the tired feelings that come when the days get shorter. When it’s cold and getting darker much earlier, many of us just want to crawl into bed. Instead of reaching for our comforters, we should try reaching for our gym bags. We’ll feel better about ourselves, focus better, get a nice endorphin lift from the adrenaline surge that comes with exercise, and stave off those SAD feelings.
Ignore Comfort-Carb Cravings
People tend to put on a few pounds as the weather gets colder. It might have something to do with the rich, decadent foods that characterize the holiday season, but why are such foods so popular during dreary months? It’s possibly because of the serotonin decrease that comes with shorter days—because we’re not getting adequate serotonin production due to the lack of sunlight, our bodies look for the hormone increase through alternative sources, such as carbohydrate intake. And, if you’re feeling depressed, seeking solace in comfort food (read: carb- and calorie-rich dishes) like mashed potatoes, stuffing, and baked goods could lead to weight gain. A good rule to remember is to limit simple carbohydrates (those with white flour) and stick to whole grains. Remember to pair any carb with a good source of low-fat protein like lean meats, cottage cheese, beans, and tofu. Balancing the two promotes feelings of satiety and will eliminate the severe drop in energy (and mood) that comes after a simple sugar binge.
Seek Good Scents
Experts have long touted aromatherapy as a healthy way to replenish the mind and spirit. Supporters argue that because odors travel through the nose to the limbic system, the emotion-controlling part of the brain, what we smell has a profound effect on how we feel. There are various scents that can help alleviate or prevent SAD symptoms. Since certain smells can be very nostalgic, try using essential oils or candles that are reminiscent of spring and summer days. For example, lemon and honeysuckle scents always put me in a good mood because they remind me of childhood summers, even in the dead of winter. Those feeling anxious or stressed might be soothed by the smell of lavender. To increase alertness and encourage happier moods, try citrus, jasmine, or bergamot.
Take Your Vitamins
A lack of sunlight isn’t the only trigger for depression—a lack of essential vitamins can affect people in ways similar to SAD. Too few B vitamins in your diet, for example, can lead to depressive thoughts, sleepiness, and anxiety. Deficiencies in minerals such as iron, zinc, and calcium can also promote exhaustion and fatigue. Vitamin D levels, which need sunlight to work properly in the body, are on the low side during fall and winter months. Too-low Vitamin D levels can result in the aforementioned deficiencies. Incorporating multivitamins or vitamin-specific supplements into your diet now is an efficient way to avoid issues that might contribute to SAD. If the idea of taking pills seems unpleasant, eat foods that are rich in vitamins. Dairy products, whole grains, spinach, and nuts are all great sources of Vitamin B and calcium. To get the recommended amount of Vitamin D, try fish, eggs, milk, and fortified cereals.
Spend Time Socializing
One of the worst characteristics of SAD is the desire to isolate oneself and avoid social functions. Depression tends to inspire that in its sufferers, which only feeds the loneliness and negativity that keep people depressed. It’s a vicious cycle and one that can be avoided—or at least somewhat prevented—by making it a point to be social. Make dates with good friends, visit with family members, and keep “keeping in touch” on your list of priorities. Being around people who make you happy can be both inspirational and energizing. Ignoring calls and staying solo seems like a good solution when we’re in a funk, but what does that really do, other than keep us in that bad mood? When you’re feeling blue, call your funniest friend and share some laughs—they call it the best medicine for good reason. Think about joining a recreational sports team or a club that focuses on your favorite hobby. If you schedule social activities throughout the fall and winter months, it might help ward off SAD and its isolating nature.
If we start incorporating these recommendations into our daily lives at the beginning of autumn, when SAD symptoms begin appearing, we will be that much more prepared to combat the mood disorder in the coming winter months. SAD is a serious malady that affects both our physical and emotional well-beings and we should all take action to minimize its affects, particularly when such actions benefit us, like fueling our bodies with exercise and good foods and spending time with loved ones. When we start making our happiness a priority, there’s no reason to fear the winter blues.
Related Story: Winter Wellness: Prevent SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder
Updated January 5, 2011