Winter can be a magical time. Hot cocoa, snowy nights, sitting by the fireplace, Christmas lights- truly the season to be merry! But it can also have its downsides. Cold weather, lack of sun and shorter days, all of which can have an impact on our mental health. Your mental health plays an important role in your overall health. When you feel depressed, it can also make your physical health decline.
Many of us get depressed or down this time of year. The dreaded winter blues. And there is a reason for that.
It’s called SAD.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known as SAD, is a type of depression that occurs during the same season each year, usually in the fall or winter time. It is very common and should also be taken very seriously, as any form of depression should.
Seasonal affective disorder, often also referred to as the winter blues, is estimated to affect around 10 million Americans each year, while also being four times more common in women than in men. And most commonly occurring to those between the ages of 18 and 30. It is also much more common in those living farther north, where there are shorter daylight hours in the winter. Those living in Alaska may be more likely to develop SAD than people living in Florida.
If you are experiencing SAD, you may experience the following symptoms:
- Less energy
- Trouble concentrating
- Increase appetite
- Wanting to be alone
- Feeling more tired- craving more sleep than usual
- Weight gain
The main culprit of both the winter blues and SAD is the lower levels of natural sunlight we are exposed to in the fall and winter months. Less natural light can cause a dip in serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood, disruptions in circadian rhythms (your body’s internal clock), which help control sleep-wake cycles, as well as alterations in melatonin, a hormone associated with both mood and sleep.
It is crucial not to ignore any symptoms of SAD as well as any depression. Ignoring the symptoms will just worsen how you feel and bring you deeper into your depression. It is important to speak to your doctor if you experience any symptoms to see what treatment options may be best for you.
You may not need medication. There are natural ways to help combat seasonal depression. Finding one that works best for you will help you on the path to recovery and will help you plan for when depression strikes.
Some more natural ways to help your seasonal depression:
- Light therapy: This is one of the most standard treatments for sufferers of SAD as light therapy actually replicates natural light with light boxes, which use white fluorescent bulbs to mimic sunlight. Light therapy can be particularly helpful in regulating the release of melatonin, which increases when the sun goes down.
- Natural Sunlight: We all feel better when the sun is shining. But in the winter, there are less sunny days, so it is important to get outside and take advantage of the sunshine as much as you can on the darker days. Take a walk and see the beauty winter has to offer, play with your kids in the snow or even try an outdoor winter activity like ice skating at your local ice rink. Exposing yourself to natural light can assist in boosting serotonin production in your body and improve your overall mood.
- Exercise: It is well known that there is a strong exercise-mental health connection, especially for those with depression and anxiety, so it makes sense that exercise is known as nature’s antidepressant. Exercise can increase serotonin and endorphins, which both affect mood. Even just 30 minutes each day can you a huge boost in your mood.
- Vitamin D Supplementation (aka the sunshine vitamin). Vitamin D deficiency affects almost 50% of the population worldwide. An estimated 1 billion people worldwide suffer from a vitamin D deficiency. Low levels of vitamin D is widely associated with depression. It is also sad that a decrease in vitamin D production caused by reduced sunlight during the winter months may be a factor in seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
There are also lifestyle changes you can make to help you, just like any form of depression. Taking care of yourself is key to your mental health. Lifestyle changes will help guide you on your path to a more positive mindset.
- Set a sleep pattern for yourself- try to sleep and wake up at the same time every day to help normalize your circadian rhythms.
- Try to structure your eating patterns by eating three meals a day, around the same time every day if you can (this may vary on your routine and job type). Keep a balanced diet and try to avoid consuming too many carbs, such as starchy or sweet foods. Eat a balanced diet of proteins, fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. Also try to incorporate foods that can help with depression. Specifically foods rich in Omega 3 fatty acids such as: fatty fish (anchovy, mackerel, salmon, sardines and tuna) flaxseed, canola and soybean oils, nuts, especially walnuts and dark green, leafy vegetables.
- Make and KEEP- plans with friends and families to help you stay connected to your loved ones. Even if you make plans when you were in a better mood- then when the time comes to spend time with them- you don’t feel like it, try and make yourself. Engagement is important.
- Take time for yourself and engage in activities you enjoy. Even if it is just a relaxing soak in the tub, or curling up with a good book.
- Stay positive- whenever you feel negative thoughts- think of something to counteract it. If you start feeling down on yourself, start a list of things you love about yourself. Don’t get down on yourself.
Don’t let winter dictate your happiness. Remember, feeling sad this time of year is normal. And you are not alone. Enjoy your winter, sadness free!