Every year around November, I start to feel a shift in my mood. The days of spending time in the sun a distant memory. I’m not necessarily an outdoorsy person but I like being able to pop outside whenever I feel like it and fuel up on vitamin D. But the cold temperatures and short days make it very difficult to get outside.
Some people notice absolutely no difference in their mood during the colder months but for others, the lack of outdoor time and diminished daylight can contribute to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
So this is what we’re talking about today. We'll explore what Seasonal Affective Disorder is and what you can do to work through the cold and dark months of winter while keeping your mental health in check.
Causes Seasonal Affective Dissorder
The jury is still out as to the exact cause of the change. Some have attributed it to decreased daylight that could alter brain chemicals such as serotonin and melatonin, which regulate sleep and mood. Others have blamed it on the decrease in vitamin D. Seasonal Affective Disorder affects about 10-20% of the population and tends to affect women more often than men.
While research is still trying to pinpoint the exact cause, I want to focus on what we can do to help mitigate some of the symptoms associated with SAD.
No one loves talking about depression but I'm going to talk about it. It feels horrible. For years I was not aware of what this thing was that seemed to take hold of me in the fall and not let go until about March/April when longer days and warmer weather would bring me back to myself.
Since Seasonal Affective Disorder doesn't start until after the age of 20, it can easily sneak up without much warning. For me, this was the case when I was in my early 20s. I was hit square in the face with this beast. Though not everyone will experience all of these symptoms, those who suffer from SAD can agree that they're affected by some of these.
Symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder
loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
reduced sex drive
changes in appetite
sluggishness or agitation
7 ways to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder
Light Therapy - This treatment has shown to be the best way to minimize symptoms of SAD. These are much stronger than regular light bulbs and the light is delivered at different wavelengths. Spending 20 minutes a day exposed to strong artificial light can help reset circadian rhythms by suppressing the body's melatonin release. "We conclude that immediate improvement in mood can be detected after the first session of light with exposures as short as 20 minutes" These boxes range in price but some are fairly inexpensive and effective. This is the one I own.
Dawn Simulator - I have to admit I've never heard of this before starting this research. It's a really cool concept and I was eager to get one myself. The idea is that bright light will gradually wake you up and suppress your body's melatonin production, increasing cortisol and helping you to naturally rise. Research concludes that "dawn simulation is similarly effective to bright light in the treatment of winter depression”. Check this one our here.
Tryptophan - I've talked about serotonin at length in this post but one of the ways to increase serotonin naturally is by consuming foods rich in tryptophan, which is a pre-cursor to serotonin. Simply put, eat food rich in tryptophan and an hour or two later consume a carbohydrate. Carbohydrates are the means to deliver tryptophan which is converted to 5-HTP in the liver and then ultimately converted to serotonin. Foods rich in tryptophan are:
- nuts such as walnuts, almonds, cashews and peanuts
- seeds such as pumpkin, flax and sunflower
- sea vegetables such as seaweed, blue-green algae, spirulina and kelp
Vitamin D - The body is unable to produce its own vitamin D without assistance from sunlight and food. One of the drawbacks of reduced sunlight is reduced vitamin D. In order to ensure proper levels of vitamin D, we have to focus on nutrition and perhaps supplementation. I've written about vitamin D in this post if you want a more in-depth look. Some of the best vitamin D rich foods are:
- raw milk
Get outside - Yes, it's cold but bundle up and get outside as much as you can. If you work in an office all day long, try and get outside during lunch, when the sun is brightest. "Sunlight plays a critical role in the decreased serotonin activity, increased melatonin production, disrupted circadian rhythms, and low levels of Vitamin D associated with symptoms of SAD". Going outside for a walk will not only expose you to nature and sun but will also lift your mood. More reason to make it a regular part of your day.
Take a vacation - Even if it's for one day, get out of your routine and go spend time outside wherever you can. Even if this means driving to a near by body or water or going skiing, etc. If you're fortunate enough and are able to get away for a week or more, do it. It's undeniable that vacations are always good but vacation can have a significant impact on those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Essential oils - I'm not an essential oil expert but I've started incorporating them into my life in recent months and have noticed an improvement in my sleep and mood. Research has gotten behind the olfactory sense and its impact on mood and depression. "Most studies, as well as clinically applied experience, have indicated that various essential oils, such as lavender, lemon and bergamot can help to relieve stress, anxiety, depression and other mood disorders." Here are some essential oils used for specific symptoms. You can find a more in-depth read here.
For anxiety: marjoram, clary sage, chamomile, linden berry, celery seed, lavender and rose
Mood lifting: peppermint, rosemary, ginger, lemon, basil and tea tree
For social connection: sandalwood, frankincense, cedarwood, ylang ylang, neroli and jasmine
Apathy: ginger, cinnamon, cloves, allspice and nutmeg
Increase libido: jasmine, neroli, sandalwood, patchouli and ylang ylang
Reducing over eating: juniper bergamot, lavender and celery seed oils.
So as we're getting closer to the shortest day of the year, some of these suggestions may come in handy.