If you are one of millions who experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), don’t let anyone tell you it’s all in your head. It’s not. SAD is real. It can also be a nudge from Mother Nature that something in your life isn’t quite right. The good news: Relief is easy to achieve.
Here’s what you need to know about SAD and how you can overcome the symptoms of SAD and become happier this winter.
Why We Feel SAD In Winter
Sunlight is a nutrient. Exposure to sunlight increases the feel-good chemicals in your brain and body, including serotonin. In the winter, depending on where you live, you may go through long, cloudy periods where you don’t get direct sunlight every day. This can create a physiological set-up for feeling blue or moody.
In addition, during winter when there is less sunlight, our bodies don’t suppress the release of melatonin as effectively as they do during the summer months. Melatonin is a natural substance created by your brain when it’s dark. It aids with sleep. Too much melatonin can leave you feeling sluggish and mentally foggy, and make you want to sleep more. It’s as though during winter your body doesn’t easily make the distinction between day and night.
For millennia, our ancestors honored the natural rest cycle that winter brought, including sleeping more in the winter. Today, however, we have become accustomed to living a 24/7 lifestyle. Much of our world is artifically lit up when our bodies intuitively know we should be sleeping. And, most of those lights we encounter today are still incandescent and florescent. Overexposure to these types of lights can cause symptoms that, in addition to lack of sunlight, contribute to SAD, such as eye fatigue, hyperactivity, and stress.
Incandescent lights in particular put out a yellow-orange frequency. If your body becomes overdosed or sensitive to this frequency, you may experience fatigue, lethargy, weight gain, carbohydrate cravings, premenstrual moodiness, irritability, excessive sadness or changes in your libido. You may even experience changes to your menstrual cycle. Many people become irritable and depressed. Finally, you may experience a weakened immune system and notice that you catch more colds or even the Flu.
Reverse Symptoms of SAD with Full Spectrum Light
Getting out in the sun is the best way to alleviate symptoms of SAD. Your body needs a minimum of about 30 minutes of sunlight per day. (Two hours is ideal.) However, all of the nutrients and energy you receive from 30 minutes of sun exposure are depleted after 48 hours. And, in the winter months, it can be difficult enough to get sun exposure every day.
Fortunately, full-spectrum light can help to alleviate symptons of SAD. “Full-spectrum” means that the artificial light contains all the colors of natural light, including the blues, greens, and purples. Fluorescent and incandescent bulbs don’t. Full-spectrum light is the closest thing to real sunlight. Using a full-spectrum light for about six hours per day is euivalent to getting 30 minutes of sunlight.
An easy way to add more full-spectrum light to your environment is by replacing your light bulbs with full spectrum light bulbs. I did this many years ago. You can buy full spectrum light bulbs at most major hardware stores. They used to be extremely hard to find, but are now widely available. Some companies tout their products as being better quality. Since I haven’t tried them all, I can’t recommend one over another. In the past, I’ve purchased full-spectrum bulbs from the company Sunshine Sciences in Colorado, and, although more costly than those from the big box hardware stores, they have lasted for years!
If you prefer not to replace all of your light bulbs, another highly effective way to combat seasonal blues is with a full-spectrum light box. I use my light box every winter beginning in October. Light boxes are great for rainy days, too. Although they sort of look like a tanning apparatus, the idea is to enjoy the ambient light from five to ten feet away in your peripheral vision. Be sure not to stare directly into a light box. This can cause eyestrain and headaches.
7 More Ways To Fight Off SAD
In addition to using full spectrum light, you can keep the seasonal changes from impacting you negatively by following these simple suggestions:
- Take a pharmaceutical grade multi-vitamin/mineral every day. Taking nutritional supplements can contribute greatly to your health. I recommend taking a good multi-vitamin to give your body and your brain the support they need.
- Supplement with vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency is linked to depression, certain cancers such as breast and colon, a weakened immune system, poor bone health, and much more. Make sure to get 2,000- 5,000 IUs per day in the winter, especially if you tend to be vitamin D deficient (less than 32 ng/ml.). Some people require more to get their levels into the optimal range.
- Get enough essential fatty acids. These are found in coldwater fish (such as salmon), nuts, seeds (such as flaxseed), and many plants. You can also take fish and flaxseed oil. Aim for 500–2,000 IUs of fish oil or flaxseed oil per day or some combination of the two. If you eat your fish, be sure to avoid the farmed varieties.
- Eliminate refined foods. Cut out sugar, flour, and other processed and white foods from your diet. Eating processed carbs increases serotonin, which you might find in short supply if you’re not getting enough natural light. Be aware that while this may give you an initial pick-me-up, the drop afterwards just isn’t worth it. Plus these foods deplete vital vitamins and minerals that help the body handle stress and build immunity. Instead, try eating a baked or roasted potato between 4Pm and bedtime. You may also want to read Potatoes, Not Prozac by Kathleen DesMaisons, Ph.D.
- Meditate. Women who meditate or practice other methods of deep relaxation are able to alleviate many seasonal blues symptoms. Relaxation decreases levels of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine in the blood and helps to balance your biochemistry. Practicing Metta, or loving kindness meditation, can be particularly helpful. Start by practicing Metta toward yourself by sitting quietly and mentally saying, “May I be happy. May I be well. May I be safe. may I be peacful and at ease.” Often feelings of anger, fear, and sadness will arise. When they do, send loving kindness toward your feelings — without sugar-coating them.
- Exercise. Some cases of depression can be helped through exercise alone. You need at least twenty minutes of aerobic-type activity three times a week to boost your mood. Try brisk walking during sunlight hours. Don’t wear sunglasses. This allows your eyes to absorb the light. Often doing this can be enough to increase endorphins.
- Don’t watch the news! The old saying “no news is good news” is actually very true. Psychologic studies show the content of TV programs can affect your mood, thinking, and behavior. Watching negative, sensationalized news events on TV, such as crime, disasters, violence, political discord, or injustices toward others can exacerbate your personal worries and, over time, cause sadness, depression, anxiety, and even PTSD.
Adopt as many of my suggestions as you feel comfortable with. Not only will they chase away the winter blues, they’ll help you stay healthy at the cellular level, too.
When to Seek Help for SAD
We all need to “go into darkness” at times to rejuvenate and to take stock of our lives. This is particularly true after we’ve created something significant in the outer world. I experienced this after the launch of each of my books—and did my best to honor it.
However, if your symptoms are excessive, don’t ignore them. Listen to your body’s wisdom. And, seek the help of a professional if they are severe. Depression hurts you. It also hurts your family, your relationships, and can even jeopardize your career.
Do you experience SAD during the winter? What do you do to alleviate your symtpoms?