Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a condition which is estimated to impact about 20% of Americans each year. It’s a serious form of depression, which can range from mild to severe, and last anywhere from 3-6 months. While the direct cause of SAD hasn’t been proven, deficiencies in sunlight and vitamin D, and the disruption of our circadian rhythm that comes with wintertime are major factors in the development of SAD.
Since a lack of sunlight is a major part of SAD, it makes sense that more people are affected by the condition in the north; an estimated 10% of people in states like New Hampshire suffer from SAD, as opposed to only 1.5% in places like Florida. But we can’t all simply pack our bags and move south, can we? So what can we do about SAD without making a major life change?
I’m going to talk a moment about therapy and medication before we go any further, because while home remedies are wonderful, and can be truly impactful, it is imperative to know when to reach out to a professional for help. Since SAD affects your body and mind just like other forms of depression, it can be treated the same way. Antidepressants are incredibly helpful in balancing chemicals in the brain like serotonin, which makes us feel happier. In concert with activities like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), these treatments can alleviate even severe feelings of depression. If you are feeling hopeless, experiencing suicidal thoughts, or have other questions about SAD, it is always recommended to reach out to a health professional.
Okay! Now that we’ve covered that, let’s chat about what you can do at home. Because the main factors of SAD have to do with a lack of sunlight, a deficiency in vitamin D, and an out-of-whack circadian rhythm, all our tips aim to bring those needs back into line. Essentially, the more you can make your winter life look like your summer life, the better off you’ll be.
There are a few ways to utilize light therapy, also known as phototherapy. One way is getting outside more! I know that it’s often cloudy in the winter, but even weakened sunlight is helpful in fighting SAD. You can also open your blinds to let more light into your living or work space.
If that’s not possible, especially on those dark and stormy winter days, light therapy can also be achieved indoors! One easy thing you can do is make sure you have plenty of artificial light in your home; for treating SAD, fluorescent lights are recommended as much as possible.
If you want to take it one step further, talk with your doctor about purchasing a light box. Light boxes are manufactured specifically to help your body produce vitamin D, and they do so by emitting the same UV rays as the sun. They’re most effective in the morning, and easy to use: you just turn the box on and sit in front of it for 30 minutes or more, while your body works its magic. Your eyes need to be open for lightboxes to work; however, you don’t need to stare directly into the light.
It may sound too good to be true, but a study from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto found that light boxes have an 80% success rate in helping people deal with SAD. So fight the urge to curl up in the dark because light therapy can have a huge impact!
Food is another great way for our body to get vitamin D. Fish, including salmon and tuna, as well as animal by products including cheese and egg yolks are a great natural source of vitamin D. You can also find foods in the grocery store that have been “fortified” with this vitamin. The most common of these is cow’s milk, though you can also get a healthy dose of vitamin D in some orange juice and soy milk.
If you’re vegetarian, vegan, or have allergies to the foods listed above, try a vitamin D supplement. You can find these in your grocery store’s vitamin aisle, or at your local pharmacy. Remember, it’s better to take a specific vitamin supplement than a multivitamin, as multivitamins can put you at risk for vitamin toxicity if you’re getting too much of any one substance
Another reason to focus on a healthy diet has to do with lethargy. During the winter months, people often feel greater cravings for sugary foods and carbs. Don’t be fooled though, the relief from giving into that craving only lasts a little while. Afterwards, you may experience a crash in mood and feel even more tired… which might drive you to reach for sugar again.
Those feelings of fatigue and low energy can contribute to a depressed mood, exacerbating the effects of SAD. It’s a vicious cycle, and one you have the power to stop! Focus on eating lean meats, with lots of proteins, and a healthy helping of fruits and veggies. You’ll feel more energized, be less likely to reach for dessert, and it may even boost your mood.
Exercise is a great natural way to release endorphins into your system, and endorphins are our body’s natural way of giving us a good mood. That’s why you often feel great after an intense workout, even if you hate working out.
Walking outside is an excellent way to exercise and give you that much needed time in the sun. Another great double-whammy is yoga which works your body and eases mental stress through mindfulness and a calming practice. However, there are so many options for exercise, you can really choose what works for you.
A big factor in SAD is the disruption of our circadian rhythm, which occurs in large part because of the shift in daylight hours in the fall and winter. And for many people, this change, like any change, is a huge stressor. It can really throw your whole day off, making you feel anxious or upset, and increasing depressive feelings.
One of the biggest things you can do to mitigate this effect is maintain a scheduled routine. Go to bed and wake up at the same times each day (this can also help if you have issues with insomnia). Exercise around the same time; even eat around similar times. Everything you can do to alleviate the stress of major changes will help you fight off SAD.
Another great option for relieving stress is meditation. There are so many ways to meditate, but my favorite is guided meditation. I’m easily distracted by my own thoughts, so guided meditations help me stay on track to de-stress. Also, meditating doesn’t have to be a time-suck. Even a 5-10 minute meditation can help calm your mind, reset your intentions, and lift your spirits!
Contrary to what I just said, sometimes a break in the routine could be exactly what you need. There’s a general consensus among doctors that a vacation to a sunny place can help fight the effects of SAD. This is the time to hit the Caribbean, lay on the beach, and literally soak it in.
Going away also gives you the added benefit of escaping from all your daily stressors, whether they be work, friends, kids, or other responsibilities. And in case you feel guilty about wanting to get away, doctors really do recommend this. It has been shown to have a significantly positive effect. So pack your bags, hop on a plane, and if anyone asks, tell them it’s “doctor’s orders!”
The worst thing you can do about SAD is ignore it. SAD is different from your typical winter blues. It’s a serious condition that can have lasting effects on your mental health, your relationships, and your lifestyle. Whether you choose to pursue home remedies, or speak with a doctor about therapy and medication, being proactive is key. With a steady regimen of sunlight, exercise, healthy foods and stress-relieving activities, you can fight SAD and get back to enjoying life.
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