Our mood tends to mimic nature: When it's sunny and warm outside, we're prone to feel like a weight off our shoulders. The same is true with autumn and winter; we're more likely to be introspective and slightly downtempo with the change of season. Though somewhere deep in the crevices of your mind you know that autumn's fallen leaves will fertilize the soil for new growth in the spring, you can't help but feel worried about the pending undesirable mood shifts that often befall you this time of year.
Your symptoms may vary, but for the most part you're likely experiencing some combination of:
- having a harder time waking up in the morning
- plummeting energy levels
- craving sweets and processed foods
- weight gain
- decreased concentration and desire to socialize
And then, after about five months, when the weather improves and the sun comes out, your symptoms magically disappear.
If this hits home and you are someone who gets down or depressed during the fall and winter season and feels better in the spring and summer, you likely suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD)—and you are not alone.
How many people actually have SAD?
SAD affects 6 percent of the U.S. population, and anywhere from 10 to 20 percent have recurring seasonal depression called "winter blues." In Canada, 15 percent have the blues, and 2 to 6 percent experience SAD, while in England, 20 percent experience the winter blues, and 2 percent experience SAD. The common denominator is that prevalence tends to be higher in regions that are farther from the equator and in northern latitudes.
There are different theories for why SAD may occur, including genetic factors, poor regulation of serotonin—a neurotransmitter that has been found to be lower in the winter in individuals with SAD—and higher melatonin levels, which in combination with low serotonin, wreaks havoc on the natural circadian rhythm and the sleep-wake cycle.
Having SAD or the winter blues is likely more common than reported, especially with the advent of computers and smartphones that have negative effects on melatonin—a hormone that regulates sleep—and serotonin levels. Screen time in general has also been found to increase fatigue, stress, and depression.
If you're feeling more blue than usual this winter, here are a few natural and holistic ways you can help uplift your spirits. And of course, should symptoms persist, we encourage you to see your doctor, naturopath, or therapist who can help with more individualistic treatment.
1. Don't give in to "comfort sugar."
The sweets and processed foods that are high in hydrogenated fats give you comfort, the effect is temporary, and the end result is to depress your positive neurotransmitter levels even lower than before you had the sugar and cause more inflammation, making you feel worse overall. Nurture yourself with healthy foods loaded with antioxidants found in dark leafy greens, colorful vegetables, and fruits, especially berries.
2. Try light therapy.
Light therapy has been found to be efficacious for the majority of people suffering from SAD and involves sitting in front of or near a light therapy box that emits 10,000 lux of brightness, for approximately 30 minutes, with eyes open, but without looking at the light. It appears it is best to do it as soon as you awaken in the morning. Start in the fall or early winter to get a head start. (Also check with your doctor if you are on antipsychotic medication, melatonin, lithium, and certain antibiotics, have other mental health conditions, or glaucoma or any eye damage as there may be negative side effects).
3. Move your body.
We know that exercise is as good or better for treating depression as antidepressants, so the same goes for SAD. If you can, try to get outside and go for a brisk walk first thing in the morning, which will not only get you the exercise you need but exposure to the morning light.
4. Take vitamin D.
As lower levels of vitamin D have been associated with depression and altered mood, and many individuals living in northern climates are vitamin D deficient, you want to consider taking a supplement daily, especially during the winter months of at least 1,000 IU (international units) a day. Have your levels checked, and if your vitamin D levels are indeed low, you will need to take a much higher dose and want to check with your health care provider for dosing and a possible prescription.
5. Sleep and meditate.
The less sleep you get, the more depressed you can become. The problem with SAD is that often sleep cycles are off kilter. As such, you want to start yourself on a sleep routine in the fall, making sure you go to bed at the same time every night and awaken at the same time in the morning. As computer screens and smartphones can have an added negative effect, keep all electronics out of the bedroom and rather than playing on one of these gadgets, relax yourself to sleep with a mindful meditation, which in itself has been shown to improve mood and outlook.
If any of these feel tough or unnatural, try to stick with it! Winter is a natural time of introspection, and coupled with these healing techniques, this year can be the one winter you use to your advantage. What will you do with your extra energy and downtime?