Overcoming Seasonal Affective Disorder: Beating The Winter Blues

Words: Vanessa Salvia

Words: Vanessa Salvia
Photo: ilkercelik

Winter is a cozy time of family togetherness, fluffy slippers, mugs of steaming hot cocoa, and everyone in the household getting along all the time. At work, you can't wear the fluffy slippers but everyone is joyful and happy to go to meetings where they can snack on snowflake-shaped cookies. Oh, wait . . . that isn't real life. That was the Hallmark movie and the coffee commercial. 

Real-life is never the way it looks on TV, and when it comes to the holidays and winter that's especially so. We're past the holidays now, but the stress and anxiety that many people experience during the winter often starts with the additional pressure and expectations that are placed on us in anticipation of the holidays, and then they don't go away. 

Outside of the holidays, winter is a time of lower activity levels in general for most people. The weather is colder, it's less appealing to be outside, and there are fewer hours of daylight to even be outside. Lower levels of sunlight are known to cause seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, which can lead to symptoms like fatigue, brain fog, weight gain, and a general unmotivated feeling. 

For some people, the holiday season is a reminder of family problems, a financial stressor, a health stressor as we may be exposed to lots of food we are pushed to eat but may not really want, or a stressor on our sobriety as we may be constantly exposed to alcohol. An often-cited study in the 2004 issue of the journal Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry showed that stress causes brain disturbances that relate to certain forms of depression — researchers named this anxiety-driven depression. 

Treatment was recommended to shift away from general commonly accepted treatments of depression and instead towards reduction of stress and improved resilience. So yes, stress factors into depression. While these feelings may not be welcome, they can be managed. 

Eat Well
Even if you don't have an eating plan to stick to, you'll feel better if you eat healthier vegetables, fruit, and lean proteins over heavy fat-laden comfort food. Studies have increasingly shown that diet is linked to mental health and to physical ailments such as inflammation. Foods such as refined white sugar, fat, and an excess of salt can increase inflammation, which influences many chronic diseases such as arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, asthma, and heart disease.

More Active Moments
Seven of the 10 most common chronic diseases — the list includes depression — are improved by regular physical activity. Exercise is something that everyone should be doing at least twice a week. Current guidelines are that every adult should strive for 2 1/2  to 5 hours a week of moderate-intensity physical activity. Even 5 to 10 minutes here and there helps and adds up. Any movement helps — there is no minimum amount or type in order to see benefits. 

Exercise not only increases blood flow for a more "awake" feeling, it also increases the brain's production of the neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine, which help provide a "feel good" feeling and help you sleep better.  

Improve Vitamin Deficiencies
Many people in cold or rainy parts of the country do not get enough sunlight, which is necessary to make vitamin D. You can get a simple blood test to determine if you are short on the most commonly deficient nutrients: iron, vitamin D, vitamin B12, calcium, and magnesium. A vitamin deficiency may be the cause of inconsistent moods or fatigue. 

One UK study found that adults with winter blues who were given 400 to 800 international units of vitamin D3 a day reported substantial improvements in their mood. Another supplement that is known to positively impact mood is fish oil, which contains omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Omega-3s are thought to help prevent or lessen depression by improving the way that cells in the brain function. 

Sunlight or SAD Light
Get outside during the sunny hours whenever you can. Walking in the sunlight and fresh air has proven benefits. Of course, you'll be less likely to get the benefits of vitamin D created by sunlight if you're covered up from head to toe in a hat, scarf, and long sleeves, so try to expose yourself to warm sunlight whenever you can. 

If you think your mood is severely impacted by the shortened winter hours, you may want to talk to your doctor about SAD, or seasonal affective disorder. People in Florida, for instance, are a lot less likely to suffer from SAD than people in Alaska, or people in the Pacific Northwest where the sun is obscured by clouds covering many days of the winter. But, a lack of exposure to sunlight interferes with daily functioning over time, no matter where you are located. You can purchase lamps with light spectrums that simulate sunlight, which can be beneficial during times of reduced daylight hours. 

Sleep More
Effective sleep is a necessity and most people don't get enough. Depression and lack of sleep are closely connected in that doctors can't always tell whether the sleep issues or the depression came first. Almost all people with depression have trouble sleeping. In fact, reporting trouble sleeping is one of the major signs that doctors look for to diagnose depression.  

The Sleep Foundation says about 20% of people with depression have obstructive sleep apnea and about 15% have hypersomnia (daytime sleepiness). When your body doesn't get enough sleep, your body can't heal itself, it can't regulate its nervous system, and you can't respond to stress as well. All of these things increase your vulnerability to depression or worsen depressive symptoms.

Seek Help
If none of these work, or they don't work well enough and you are struggling, seek help. If your arm was broken, you would go to a doctor to fix it. If you had a chronic illness like diabetes, you would monitor how you felt and take daily actions to improve it. Taking care of your mental health should be no different. Let your doctor know, let a family member or friend know, let your pastor know, or make the phone call to a professional therapist. Sometimes taking the first step to making the call is the hardest thing to do, but you'll feel better immediately knowing you have admitted to someone that it's too much for you to handle on your own. 

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