Do thick winter clouds give you the blues? You’re not alone. Studies show that up to 20 percent of Americans suffer from some form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (appropriately abbreviated to ‘SAD’) every year. Chilly weather and a lack of sunlight lead millions to suffer endless bouts of the blues, unexplained fatigue and even more serious forms of depression.
This seasonal depression might feel debilitating when springtime is months away, but in truth there are plenty of natural strategies to help you conquer the melancholy mood. Keep reading to learn the best ways to cope with winter until the sun comes out again.
What Causes SAD?
Researchers aren’t entirely sure what causes seasonal depression, but they know it is intrinsically connected to natural light. Your body’s health and happiness is tied to exposure to sunlight because serotonin levels rise the longer you’re exposed to bright light. Shorter days, chilly weather that keeps you indoors and thick winter clouds all dramatically limit the amount of light you see every day, which negatively impacts your overall mood.
Vitamin D deficiency also has a role in seasonal depression. A lack of this crucial vitamin affects the functioning of your hypothalamus and disrupts the natural circadian rhythms that let your body know when to go to sleep. A circadian system that’s out of whack makes your body produce excessive amounts of melatonin, which is a hormone responsible for making you feel sleepy. This is why SAD sufferers struggle to move around and even get out of bed, which only limits their exposure to light even more and makes the problem worse.
Who’s Affected By It?
Seasonal depression is a common occurrence for people that live far above or below the equator. Women tend to be more susceptible than men, though there is a genetic component as well. Meanwhile, vitamin D is an increasingly common problem that affects a quarter of British adults and over 70 percent of U.S. children between the ages of six and 11. The problem only gets worse with age, as 95 percent of US seniors are deficient in vitamin D, which essentially gives them many of the symptoms of seasonal depression all year long.
What Are the Symptoms?
You might be suffering from seasonal depression if you have any of the following symptoms:
- Extreme lethargy and inability to follow your regular routine
- Sleeping longer each night, yet still suffering from low energy levels during the day
- Anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed
- Irritability and desire for social isolation
- Feeling of sadness and gloom, often for no obvious reason
- Increased appetite, especially for sugar and carbs
The telltale way to know if you are suffering from SAD or general depression is whether your symptoms disappear once the warm weather and longer days return.
Top Ways To Treat Seasonal Affective Disorder
Doctors have been recommending antidepressants like Prozac and Zoloft for treating seasonal depression for years, but before you start popping pills it pays to try some of these natural methods for banishing the blues. In many cases, these cures have proven even more effective than medication!
1. Lots of Light: A big trigger for SAD is lack of exposure to natural light, so finding ways to get some sunlight back on your face can make a big difference. Not only will light exposure reset your biological clock, it also increases the amount of hormones your body produces, which helps you regulate your happiness and appetite for sugar. Keep your work space as bright and sunny as possible and take the time to head outside, even on overcast days. Studies have shown that even an hour outside everyday can work to banish the symptoms of SAD. If the weather isn’t going to cooperate, a light box is a great alternative. Light therapy boxes mimic outdoor light, which triggers chemical changes in your brain that can lift your mood after just twenty minute a day. For best results, invest in blue light as it is especially beneficial for lifting your mood. Just be sure to avoid light therapy in the hours before you go to sleep, lest you inadvertently keep yourself up!
2. Plenty of Exercise: Exercise is great anytime of the year, but it’s especially helpful in the winter months. Find some ways to make working out part of your routine, whether you go jogging outside or join a class at the gym. Simply commuting to work on your bicycle can make a big difference in how the rest of your day goes. On sunny days, find every excuse to take a walk outdoors. Winter sunlight might not be as intense as summer rays, but it’s far more beneficial for you than any indoor light bulb.
3. Add Aromatherapy: Plants have more power than we give them credit for, and the proper use of essential oils can make a big difference in your mood and energy levels. By learning the basics of aromatherapy, you can learn what types of essential oils can help you relax and even make you happier.
4. Supplement your Vitamin D Levels: Vitamin D plays a crucial role in the health of your whole body, but natural sources of it are scarce when the sun is hiding behind heavy winter clouds. To combat this shortage, you can increase your natural vitamin levels through vitamin D supplements, time in a tanning bed, and as many walks in the sun as you can fit in your schedule.
5. Stay Away From Stimulants: Cold weather and lack of natural light makes stimulants like coffee and alcohol seem more appealing than ever. Unfortunately, these kinds of coping mechanisms do more harm than good. If you’re vulnerable to SAD, it’s best to cut out anything that forces your body into unnatural states, as the crash at the end will only heighten your negative symptoms. A better choice? Substitute your coffee for a lower caffeine green tea and fill your body with healthy, wholesome food that keeps you full without giving into sugary cravings.
6. Set Winter Goals and Follow a Daily Routine: It’s easy to while away the hours when darkness falls at 5pm, but feeling aimless only heightens the symptoms of seasonal depression. Instead, fill your time with concrete, manageable goals that are easy to monitor. Make these the kinds of goals that benefit your well-being. Try to get up and go to bed at the same time every day, vow to spend at least 30 minutes outdoors or set aside time to call long distance friends. Having tasks to complete will naturally boost your mood and help break up the long hours of darkness.
7. Use St John’s Wort: Now commonly used as a natural antidepressant, St. John’s wort is a highly effective way to naturally reduce your seasonal depression symptoms. St. John’s wort contains hypericin, a chemical that interferes with some of the hormones that contribute to depression. Best of all, St. John’s wort has few side effects so you can try it without risk. You can take it as a supplement or through a daily tincture in cold water that provides slow acting benefits for your mind and body.
8. Give Yourself an Early Bedtime: Your body is designed to sleep as soon as the sun goes down, so giving into this natural pattern helps you restore the natural biological patterns ingrained in your hormone cycles. In fact, a lack of sleep plays a huge role in depression. In one study, 87 percent of the patients suffering from depression experienced major improvements once they started to get to bed at a reasonable time. For maximum benefits, aim to get at least eight hours of sleep a night and go to bed early to ensure you naturally wake up as the sun comes out. This both maximizes the amount of natural light you are exposed to and ensures your circadian rhythms get back on track.
9. Focus on Health Foods: Your body needs a boost in the cold winter months and there’s no better way to provide what it needs than through your diet. Turn away from your sugary cravings and instead focus on healthy whole foods like beans, nuts, whole grains and leafy greens. Not only will these foods keep you full longer, they are also excellent sources of magnesium, an essential mineral for serotonin production. It also pays to boost your levels of omega 3 fatty acids, as studies have shown that SAD is rare among people that have plenty of these heart healthy fats in their diet. You can fill your diet with eggs, wild caught fish and unprocessed tofu in order to keep serotonin levels high.
Short of moving south, there’s not much you can do to change the fact that winter time leaves us all more susceptible to developing depression. However, there’s plenty you can do to alleviate your symptoms and ease your suffering. Try these natural methods for treating Seasonal Affective Disorder, and you’ll soon find yourself looking forward to the winter months rather than dreading them.