It’s that time of year again: time for the winter blues. If you are one of the many people affected by Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) at the change of seasons, not to worry. You’re not alone and there are definitely steps you can take for overcoming those blues.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
SAD is mild depression that comes in the fall and lasts through winter. SAD affects at least half a million people (at least that’s how many are diagnosed – the real number is probably bigger). The most likely reason you may be hit with SAD is a lack of exposure to full spectrum natural light. So if you’re living in a warmer climate, where you get a good amount of sunshine, like Florida, SAD isn’t likely to hit you. But in colder climates like Canada where the amount of daylight shortens to a less than 8 hours (closer to 4 in some locations!), you’re more at risk. If you experience SAD, there will likely be a noticeable difference in how you feel from season to season. While summers may find you feeling energetic, active and otherwise normal, winters might have you feeling bogged down, fatigued and like you want to sleep a lot and eat a lot.
Lack of exposure to light might lead to depression for a couple of reasons. First, reduced vitamin D levels play a role because Vitamin D acts in the same areas of the brain that are connected to depression. Disruptions our wake-sleep cycle hormones (serotonin and melatonin) could be another reason. Additionally, reduced nutrient intake due to lower availability of fresh fruits and vegetables could spell a whole host of nutrient deficiencies. Some other symptoms include:
- Irritability or moodiness
- Extreme tiredness and/or energy slumps
- Problems getting along with other people
- Heavy, “leaden” feeling in the arms or legs
- Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
Is SAD Unnatural?
If you look to nature, everything slows down in the winter. Animals put on weight and hibernate. If we were a people living close to the land, we would likely be taking some down time at this point, too. We crave certain foods, especially carbs, at this time because starchy vegetables, grains, and heavier, fattier meats are what’s available. However, modern living conditions (fast paced life, climate control, etc) and societal expectations mean the biological need to slow down and pack on pounds isn’t as necessary as it once was and extensive downtime isn’t feasible when you have a job and a life. Thankfully, there are quite a few things you can do to help you through the season.
Foods to Focus On
First, look at what’s available in the winter season. Stews and soups are popular for a reason, while salads and raw foods maybe aren’t the best option. During this time you should be consuming foods that are warming, both in temperature and in the body (foods that get the internal body moving).
Root vegetables and squashes: Rich and decadent foods like pumpkin, butternut squash, sweet potato and carrots will feel like comfort foods. The tryptophan found in winter squashes will help rebalance any melatonin-serotonin imbalances, while the high vitamin A levels help ward off respiratory illnesses.
Dark, leafy greens: The Vitamin C levels found in kale, collard greens or cabbage will keep your immune system up all winter long. Available nearly all year round, these leafy green veggies are actually sweeter and more nutrient dense in the winter! Where spring greens like spinach and other lettuces that go slimy when cooked, these greens stand up to cooking temperatures and maintain texture and flavor.
Walnuts: The naturally occurring Omega-3s in walnuts make them a whole foods mood booster and amazing brain support. Omega-3s in walnuts are also anti-inflammatory and can help fight off any joint pain increased by the dry winter weather.
Ginger: Ginger as a tea, added to soups, stews or stir fries, or juiced with a bit of lemon has benefits ranging from better digestion, to reduced inflammation, to decreasing nausea. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, ginger is considered a “hot” food that brings heat into the body, making it an ideal addition to winter meals.
Sea Vegetables: The high mineral content found in sea vegetables like nori, dulse and kelp are great for helping to balance out nutrient deficiencies during the winter months. Try adding a small piece to a soup or stew for all the benefits without changing the flavor. Switching from iodized table salt to a Celtic or Himalayan sea salt is also a great way to ensure you’re getting enough minerals in the diet.
In addition to making changes to what you’re eating, these alternative therapies and supplements can help you overcome the winter blues:
Light therapy: If lack of light is the likely cause of SAD, then it makes sense that one of the more popular treatments for SAD is Light Therapy. While there are many light boxes specifically designed to treat SAD, simply switching to a full spectrum light bulb instead of conventional bulbs can be a big help.
St John’s Wort: This herb has been used for centuries as an effective treatment for all kinds of depression, anxiety and mood disorders including SAD. A word of warning, this herb can interact with many prescription medications so be sure to talk to a doctor before supplementing.
B-Vitamins: These vitamins are safe for nearly everyone and give an almost immediate mood and energy boost when taken. Take an active B-complex for best results or increase your consumption of B-vitamin rich foods like avocado, leafy greens, and organ meats.
Vitamin D: The further north you live, the higher the likelihood the Vitamin D deficiency is a factor in your SAD symptoms. Always look for a D3 rather than a D2 supplement and start with a minimum of 1,000 IU per day.
The line between SAD and clinical depression can be a fine one, so if you feel like your downer moments may be from more than just the change of seasons definitely look for additional help. You know the most about your body and how you’re feeling. If you found these tips helpful, great. If not, as always, take what you want and leave the rest.
Are you experiencing SAD? What methods have you used to get through the winter months? Let us know in the comments.
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