Do you feel like your energy level declines significantly and you have the urge to sleep more starting in the late fall? Or do you feel irritable or blue, or crave sweets and gain weight like clockwork starting every year around this time? If so, you probably suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a condition that affects millions worldwide. It is especially prevalent in individuals who live in northern latitudes, and tends to affect women and children more than men.
Although experts aren’t certain what causes SAD, it’s believed to be associated with a lack of sunlight, which leads to changes in the sleep-wake cycle, and decreased production of the brain chemical serotonin. In northern latitudes like Boston, the daylight in June may be 16 hours long, almost twice the length of daylight in December. The intensity of our summer sun is also almost 100,000 times greater than in the winter, and these drastic changes in natural light can bring on the mood changes associated with SAD. The symptoms improve dramatically just as quickly as they come on, usually by April, when the daylight hours become longer. Short of packing up and moving south, there is no guaranteed way to prevent SAD, but there are some things you can do to alleviate the symptoms.
Make Sure Your Tank is Full
Just as your car runs better with the right gas and oil, your body will run better, and in turn feel better, when you feed it a healthy, balanced diet. A deficiency in any nutrient can leave the body stressed and susceptible to illness, which can increase feelings of fatigue or depression. In addition, several studies have linked low levels of B vitamins (B-6, B-12, and folic acid) to higher rates of depression. Good sources of these vitamins include many fruits, leafy green vegetables, whole grain breads and cereals, legumes and low fat animal foods like fish, chicken, 1% milk and yogurt. Taking a multivitamin during the fall and winter can also give you some added protection, but try to get your vitamins from foods first.
Get Some Vitamin D
Vitamin D affects many aspects of health, and researchers keep finding more benefits for this vitamin. At least 2 recent studies found that individuals with low levels of vitamin D who were suffering from depression (including SAD) tended to improve as vitamin D levels increased. Food sources of vitamin D include fish, fortified orange juice and milk (but not most other dairy products), as well as eggs, but this is one vitamin that’s hard to get enough of from foods alone. It’s known as the “Sunshine Vitamin” because much of our vitamin D is produced in our skin by the sun. If you can get outside for 30-45 minutes in the middle of the day when the sun is strongest, it can help, but the reality is most of us don’t get adequate sun exposure during the winter months, so it might be wise to supplement. If you take a multivitamin, make sure it has the recommended daily requirement of 600 IU. Many calcium supplements also contain adequate amounts of vitamin D. Check with your health care provider to see if you should have your vitamin D level checked at your next physical.
Add Omega-3 To Your Diet
Have you ever heard that fish is brain food? That’s because it’s a rich source of the omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, which not only benefit the heart, but they are also important for brain function. Many studies have confirmed a link between low levels of omega-3 fats and depression, and subjects tend to improve when given supplements. Eating fatty fish like salmon, herring, or sardines at least twice each week is the best way to get enough omega-3. If you don’t eat fish, consider taking an omega-3 supplement (1000-3000mg) each day. Check with your health care provider before taking this supplement, as it can interact with certain medications, like blood thinners.
Eat (Smart) Carbs
There is a good reason that many people crave carbohydrates like pastries, pasta, and potato chips more in the fall and winter, and it has to do with the mood-boosting brain chemical, serotonin. Serotonin levels in the brain tend to drop with less sunlight, but eating carbohydrates can raise the levels and produce a calming effect. Unfortunately, eating too many of those refined carbohydrates causes your insulin to work overtime, and leads to excess weight gain. Allow yourself some occasional treats, but make most of your carbs smart choices like whole grain breads and cereals, legumes, fruits and vegetables, which will actually make you feel better for longer.
Boost Your Endorphins
You don’t have to be a runner to experience “runners high”. A good dose of any form of exercise will increase production of the feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain known as endorphins. Regular exercise can also help you to sleep better at night, while keeping you more alert during the day. Try to get some exercise most days of the week, and for an added bonus, exercise outside whenever it’s sunny, to boost your D and serotonin as well.
Turn the Light On
If you think you have SAD, talk to your health care provider, who may suggest buying a light box. A light box mimics natural light and can be an effective treatment for SAD. You have to be consistent and use it for approximately 30 minutes each morning. The best results are achieved by sitting approximately 20 inches from a light box, which provides 10,000 LUX, and gazing up at it every minute or so. Light boxes help to reset the body’s clock and increase serotonin levels, and most people feel improvement within a week. While light therapy has been shown to be effective for many, it should be discussed and possibly monitored by your health care provider, especially for individuals with certain eye problems, or bipolar disorder.