While winter holds much joy and beauty (just take a look at a fresh snowfall!), it can also be overwhelmingly cold, dark and dreary. Many of us get huge energy slumps, anxious, irritated, and much more, all because we hit the fourth and final season of the year. It’s called Seasonal Affective Disorder.
The full list of symptoms from Mayo Clinic include:
Irritability Tiredness or low energy Problems getting along with other people Hypersensitivity to rejection Heavy, "leaden" feeling in the arms or legs Oversleeping Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates Weight gain Feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day Feeling hopeless or worthless Having low energy Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed Having problems with sleeping Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight Feeling sluggish or agitated Having difficulty concentrating Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
Got one or more of these symptoms? Don’t worry, you don’t need to down Prozac to get over your SAD speed bump. There are plenty of gentle, natural remedies that you can start trying ASAP. Here are a few of them:
- Light Therapy
Use the light to battle your inner darkness! Dramatic statement aside, upping the amount of natural light you are exposed to during the day really is a great tip (power hours are 6 am and 8 am; wakey wakey!). You can do anything from going for a walk outside to just sitting by your windowsill.
If you live in a perpetually-dark area, you can try a more technical route that’s available to you. A specially designed light box, one that provides enough intensity of light can positively affect SAD symptoms (the light needs to be at least 10 times the intensity of regular household or office lighting). Two variations on the basic light box are also available: a special light visor (you want the particles of light from a light device to actually enter your eyes) and a “dawn simulator,” which is a light box that simulates sunrise by switching on when you awaken and growing brighter and brighter as the morning wears on. The amount of exposure time required each day can be as little as a half hour to as much as several hours, although you are encouraged to go about normal activities such as eating or reading during exposure time. Be sure to consult your health care provider before getting started, though!
Why is exposure to light so effective? It’s all thanks to melatonin and serotonin. These are the two hormones that control our energy levels. When we wake up to the daylight, we produce seratonin, which keeps us awake and focused. However, it’s often not light in the winter mornings, and we’re also not outside as often due to the cold. This means your body produces excess levels of melatonin making us sleepy and increases our risk of depression.
- Exercise Yourself to Health and Wellbeing!
Get moving. A runner’s high is no joke. Exercise is a vital stimulant when feeling low and helps the release of endorphins, which can kick SAD symptoms goodbye!
The bottom line: find a way to work in some exercise, even in the winter chill! Of course, it’s optimal to work out outdoors instead of a gym, with the benefits of natural light, but of course, be safe and prevent sports injuries if you choose to do so. The cold can put you on the bench for a season if you aren’t careful. If it isn’t snowing or raining too hard where you live, try jogging or biking to work. Not only will you feel better, but you will also be saving on transportation costs. Perfect!
- Eat REALLY Well
As you roll out of bed in the dark winter AM, you probably want a hot cup of coffee first thing to wake up. When you have the winter blues at the office, you go sniffing around for a sweet afternoon treat. When you’re drained at the end of a frigid day, you might reach for a cup of wine. Put all of them down!
By continually using these stimulants and depressants, you’re forcing your body into unnatural states of high and low. This can exacerbate the problems that SAD presents, upping the symptoms linked to all types of depression, including SAD. For example, your reduced energy level may cause you to turn to caffeine for a boost, but it can also cause anxiety, muscle tension, and stomach problems. Remember, while it feels good for a moment, you’re paying the cost in the long run.
You can still have a nice, piping hot beverage in the mornings. Try a power-boosting herbal tea light on the caffeine, like peppermint and cinnamon. In fact, you can swap a cup of tea for many of your winter cravings, cookies and wine included.
The carbohydrate craving common in people with this disorder is thought to be caused by decreased levels of the brain neurotransmitter serotonin. Since tryptophan is a precursor of serotonin, taking in more of this amino acid may increase the body’s production of serotonin and help you feel better. There’s no solid research yet that supports the benefits of eating tryptophan-rich foods, you might want to try eating more of these foods to see if your symptoms improve. Foods rich in tryptophan include turkey, milk, and egg whites. Try fruits like apricots that gradually raise serotonin levels and help keep them there. Apples, pears, grapes, plums, grapefruits and oranges are also good choices.
- Supplement Yourself
Supplements are very powerful at helping with SAD. Here are a few recommended ones to try:
St. John’s wort: this herb is one that will pop up the most in connection to SAD. It is not approved by the FDA to treat depression in the United States, but it’s made its name as a popular depression treatment in Europe. The dosage is 300 mg of an extract standardized to 0.3 percent hypericin, three times a day; take it for eight weeks to get the full effect. Note of caution: do not use St. John’s wort if you are taking any of with the following medications: anti-retrovirals, birth control pills, or antidepressant medications, especially SSRIs like Prozac or Celexa. St. John’s wort can alter the metabolism of numerous medications; ask your physician before combining the herb with prescription medications.
SAMe: Pronounced “sam-E,” this dietary supplement is a synthetic form of a chemical that occurs naturally in the body. The name is short for S-adenosyl–L-methionine (es-uh-den-o-sul-el-muh-THIE-o-neen). Just like St. John’s wort, SAMe isn’t approved by the FDA to treat depression in the United States, but it’s used in Europe as a prescription drug to treat depression. SAMe may be helpful, but more research is needed, and once again, do your homework before jumping in. This supplement works more quickly than St John’s wort. Use only the butanedisulfonate form in enteric-coated tablets, or in capsules. Try 400-1,600 mg a day on an empty stomach.
Omega-3 fatty acids: These healthy fats are found in cold-water fish, flaxseed, flax oil, walnuts and some other foods. Omega-3 supplements are being studied as a possible treatment for depression. While considered generally safe, in high doses, omega-3 supplements may interact with other medications. More research is needed to determine if eating foods with omega-3 fatty acids can help relieve depression.
- Love What You Do
Take the time to do something that you love. When your spirit is flagging, go to your happy place, volunteer in some uplifting activities, get around your favorite friends and family members…whatever makes you smile!
If you haven’t given it a shot, yoga and meditation can also be vital to battling seasonal sorrow that’s dredging up.
Watch out, SAD! We’re taking winter back and making it an awesome season again. Give some or all of these tips a try, and winter just might become your favorite season.
It’s important to note that though these are among the most recommended ways to treat SAD naturally, it must be understood that depression is a serious condition. Check with your health care provider if you aren’t sure.