Many of us drag our way through winter, finding it hard just to get out of bed – never mind starting the day, making breakfast, fighting traffic to go to work, or getting out for some exercise and social time. The days are short, it is dark, and depending where you live – it might be cold and bleak. From the time we leave for work in the morning until we return home at night, some of us may not see the sun at all. Motivation is gone, inspiration is lacking, and we might feel stuck in a huge rut. If you have been feeling like this, you may be asking yourself: ‘What is wrong with me’?
It could be Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which the Mayo Clinic (2016) defines “as a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year”. SAD – more commonly known as ‘winter blues’ or ‘seasonal depression’ – affects a lot of people although it is more common in women and young adults. It is associated to the variations and reduction in sunlight through the winter months particularly in countries far from the equator, both north and south. Symptoms may include a number of feelings and reactions such as:
- Depression, apathy and mood swings
- Anxiety, stress and tension
- Apathy, lethargy and insomnia
- Overeating, weight gain or weight loss
- Avoiding social contact, difficulty concentrating and loss of interest in normal activities
- Despair, hopeless and loss of libido
- Thoughts of disaster, suicide or death
Although there are a few more weeks of winter, there are some things you can do to alleviate the symptoms of SAD. Managing the symptoms of SAD will help you get a head start and jump into spring. Here are 7 ways in which you can fight SAD.
1. Do phototherapy with light boxes and dawn simulators – A researcher at Harvard Medical School hypothesises that “If lack of sunlight causes or contributes to seasonal affective disorder, then getting more light may reverse it” (Miller, 2012). Dr Miller suggests sitting beside a light box that mimics natural outdoor light for at least 30 minutes in the morning every day. Another option is a dawn simulator that slowly increases the light in your bedroom simulating a summer dawn.
2. Increase Tryptophan – This is an amino acid needed by the body to make the neurotransmitter Serotonin, which is often called the happiness hormone. Lower levels of Serotonin may impact your mood, impair your sleep, affect your body’s ability to control pain and inflammation, as well as heighten or influence feelings of aggression. Foods that are high in Tryptophan include poultry, fish, nuts and nut butters, eggs, milk, and soy. If you struggle to include these in your diet, supplements are also available, but discuss any potential side effects or pharmaceutical complications with your doctor before taking them.
3. Avoid alcohol or caffeine – Even though drinking alcohol may seem to improve your mood in the short term, research indicates that in the long run it can make it worse as it may lead to depression, stress and anxiety, and it can even exacerbate SAD symptoms. You might rely on caffeine when you feel low in energy and motivation because it is a stimulant. However, this interferes with sleep and suppresses Serotonin levels, both of which will have a negative impact on your mood.
4. Work out – engaging in regular aerobic exercise provides many health benefits and improves mood while relieving symptoms of depression. If possible, try to get outside and go for a walk, run, skate and aim for at least 30 minutes.
5. Eat healthy foods – besides the foods listed above that contain Tryptophan, a diet rich in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and lean proteins will not only improve your health and mood, but may help you lose weight too. Avoid foods that are high in sugar, fried or processed.
6. Take vitamin D – Vitamin D is a key nutrient in our bodies for healthy teeth and bones, immunity, and reducing inflammation. Vitamin D deficiency also affects the hormone Melatonin, which controls our sleep cycles or circadian rhythms, and may interfere with Serotonin levels. One of the main sources of Vitamin D is exposure to the sun. Foods high in Vitamin D include milk and fortified cereals, butter, eggs, and fatty fish.
7. Do activities that make you happy – It may be reading, writing, watching movies, playing games or taking the dog for a walk. Bring some plants into your home. You might also feel better if you try something completely new – say indoor rock climbing. Other options are getting a massage, facial, pedicure, or acupuncture. The key is to reignite some passion, facilitate reconnecting with your inner child, and find solace so that you are ready to jump into spring.
If your condition does not improve or gets worse, then seek out the services of a medical practitioner.
Mayo Clinic. (2016). Seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Diseases and Conditions. Retrieved from: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/seasonal-affective-disorder/basics/definition/con-20021047
Miller, M.C. (2012). Seasonal affective disorder: bring on the light. Mental Health Publishing, Harvard Health Publications. Retrieved from: http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/seasonal-affective-disorder-bring-on-the-light-201212215663