How to Avoid SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)
Starting Now How to Stay Happy
Simple Ways to be Happier as the Season Changes
For many, summer is filled with long, fun-filled days in the sun, but come fall and winter, sunlight gets scarce and many retreat to the warmth of their homes until the spring thaw signals that it’s time to venture back outside.
When the sunny days of summer give way to the dreary days of fall and winter, many find their mood follows suit.
During this time, the lack of sunlight and inactivity can lead to a common condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). About 10 percent of the U.S. population living in northern states suffer from SAD, which is characterized by a depressed mood, irritability, fatigue, anxiety, cravings for carbohydrates and weight gain. Another 30 percent suffer from a less severe form of the condition, often referred to as the winter blues.
How do You Know You Have SAD?
If you suffer from SAD, chances are you’re already familiar with the pattern; symptoms generally appear in the fall or early winter, then go away when the spring and summer come.
Typically, this occurs because winter sleep-wake cycles often have us waking up after the morning sun has been up for a while. This limits the amount of already limited sunlit hours that we are exposed to during the day. These fluctuations in the sleep-wake cycles create an increase in melatonin levels during sleep, which can increase feelings of depression.
The lack of exposure to light also contributes to a decrease in serotonin levels, which also leads to depression.
Some common symptoms you may experience if you suffer from SAD include:
- Increased feelings of lethargy and loss of energy
- Difficulty waking up in the morning or oversleeping
- Difficulty concentrating and thinking creatively in comparison to the summer months
- Incorrectly blaming oneself for things that go wrong
- Difficulty performing tasks that normally seem to be easy/enjoyable
- Increased craving for carbohydrate-rich food like chocolate, pasta, bread and sodas
- Depressed mood
- Anxiety and social withdrawal
- Hopelessness and irritability
- Weight gain
- Loss of interest in activities you normally enjoy
If not addressed, SAD can worsen and lead to more serious problems associated with depression, including suicidal thoughts or behavior, problems at work or school and substance abuse.
Who is Most at Risk?
Anyone can suffer from SAD, however women are far more likely to be diagnosed with the condition than men. That said, when men are diagnosed, they tend to have more severe symptoms.
Also, as you might suspect, the farther north or south you live from the equator, the more likely you are to have SAD, likely because of the decreased amount of sunlight during the winter and longer days during the summer (it’s also possible, though less likely, to experience SAD in the spring and summer months).
If you have a close family member with Seasonal Affective Disorder, it may also increase your risk of the condition.
As the Summer Sun Fades, this year BEAT the Holiday SAD Stress Levels. NOW is the Time to Lessen Your Risk of SAD
SAD symptoms often hit hardest after the busy holiday season comes to an abrupt halt. But this year you can prepare yourself in advance so you stay happy and healthy all winter through, including after the holidays.
Because SAD is linked to the lower levels of sunlight many of us experience during the winter months, you can help to lessen your risk – or treat SAD if you have it – by using light therapy (also known as phototherapy). The premise is simple, a special light box such as NatureBright SunTouch Plus Light mimics the effects of sun exposure, helping to alter brain chemicals that are linked to improved mood. This high intensity of light also helps to restrict the amount of melatonin produced by the brain, and thus decrease feelings of depression
According to one meta-analysis of 20 controlled studies, light therapy is as effective as antidepressant drugs in treating SAD and other depressive disorders.
For a 10,000-lux light (a measure of intensity) such as NatureBright SunTouch, you need only about 30 minutes in front of the light daily to experience benefits. You can sit in front of the light and read, knit, or do just about any other activity while reaping the benefits of summer sun exposure on your mood.
“Dawn simulation,” which uses a special alarm clock such as the BioBrite Sunrise Clock to simulate the sunrise in your bedroom, has also proven effective in relieving SAD symptoms. Because your body is designed to naturally waken with the rising sun, using a dawn-simulator in your bedroom can help your body wake up gradually as it would during a natural sunrise.
Exercise: Another Secret Weapon for Seasonal Affective Disorder
Exercise is a natural way to increase serotonin levels. Studies have shown that one hour of aerobic exercise has the same uplifting effects as 2.5 hours of indoor light therapy.
Regular exercise is also a phenomenal way to relieve the symptoms of all types of depression, including seasonal depression. As TIME magazine recently reported:
“Molecular biologists and neurologists have begun to show that exercise may alter brain chemistry in much the same way that antidepressant drugs do — regulating the key neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine.
At the University of Georgia, neuroscience professor Philip Holmes and his colleagues have shown that over the course of several weeks, exercise can switch on certain genes that increase the brain’s level of galanin, a peptide neurotransmitter that appears to tone down the body’s stress response by regulating another brain chemical, norepinephrine.”
Quite simply, it is your body’s natural state to be active. Studies show, for instance, that sitting for too long actually stimulates disease-promoting processes, and may double or even triple your risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and premature death.
Fortunately, with at-home DVDs staying active is easy. You can also try doing regular stretching, as it will help you to reduce and manage stress, along with improve your mental clarity and focus. As with exercise, proper form in stretching has everything to do with achieving the maximum health benefits.
What Else Can Help You to Beat the Winter Blues?
Even though it’s not yet winter, or even fall, you can start making lifestyle changes to boost your mood and levels of well-being now. That way, as the days get darker and you get busy with holiday preparations, you’ll be feeling happy instead of blue. What other tips can help?
- Get outside: Even if it’s cool and cloudy, a walk outdoors can help boost your mood. Studies show it’s especially helpful to spend some time outdoors within two hours of waking up in the morning.
A high-quality light box such as the NatureBright SunTouch Plus Light may help relieve symptoms of SAD.
- Make your environment brighter: In addition to using the NatureBright SunTouch Plus Light for light therapy, and the BioBrite Sunrise Clock to simulate the sunrise in your bedroom.
Try to get out in the sun, or let it shine through your windows as much as possible. Try using sheer curtains instead of blinds. If possible, go to bed earlier to help you fall asleep faster and sleep deeper so that you can wake up earlier to get more of that morning sun.
You can also liven up your home with splashes of warm colors, such as reds, oranges, yellows. Instead of taking on any major redecorating, just add some warm-colored pillows, blankets, candles, tablecloths, etc. These colors evoke feelings of warmth and fire. And by all means, if you have a fireplace — use it in the cold-weather months!
- Modify your diet: Carbohydrates have been shown to increase serotonin levels. To treat your body right, indulge in complex carbohydrates, such as whole-grain pasta and brown rice, or try eating healthy simple carbohydrates, like fruit, in place of high-sugar foods. Sugary foods may provide momentary relief, but will ultimately exhaust your body and make you more susceptible to illness. A healthy diet — one full of raw fruits and veggies, lean proteins and whole grains — is necessary for your body to function properly on every level
If you try the above lifestyle modifications and your symptoms don’t improve, or you’re suffering from signs of serious depression, such as suicidal thoughts, you should seek professional help. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, which helps you to recognize and change damaging thought patterns, has been shown to be effective in treating SAD, especially when combined with light therapy.
In fact, research by University of Vermont psychologist Kelly Rohan, PhD found an 80 percent remission rate for SAD patients treated with a combination of light therapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy.
“People with SAD may want to curl up on the couch and eat junk food – both are symptoms of the disorder. However, trying to get outside and take a walk can combat SAD rather than fuel it … Taking a long walk, even in winter months, can help people feel better. A half-hour walk is equal to two-and-half hours in front of a light box.”
–Dr. Raymond Crowel, Psy.D., vice president of mental health and substance abuse services, Mental Health America
Do one or the other (walk or enlighten yourself with a lightbox) each day… and when your schedule allows do both plus add a workout to each day.
Can you just imagine how happy you will be throughout the coming Fall and Winter Seasons into Spring?! Might it just be possible to replace drugs with healthy natural walking to lighten your each and every day upfront … as then there’s no need for a cure. We want you to be happy and stay healthy, and wealthy without added costs of seasonal drug expenses — if you can help it and if not needed. First check your personal health issues and conditions with your physician as there might be other underlying issues.
Be good to yourself… enjoy!
American Journal of Psychiatry, Volume 162, Number 4: 656-662
MayoClinic.com Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)