Simple, healthy choices can decrease the risk of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
The shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, is a marker that the darkest days are behind us and the sun is going to be shining longer each of the coming days as we end one year to begin another. Unfortunately, by the time that we reach this milestone and a promise of a less distant Spring, your body may still be suffering ill effects from the recent weeks of decreasing periods of sunlight as well as exhaustion from all of the pre-holiday preparations that so many of us allow to suck up too much of our time.
Staying “Merry and Bright” Takes a Lot of Energy
It makes sense that the human response to the naturally increasing darkness is to fill it with light and activities to combat the gloominess of the late autumn and early winter days. In November, when we really notice that daylight is shifting its balance with the night sky, we are beginning the preparations for family gatherings and keeping the oven humming and the sideboard groaning with rich and decadent foods. We’re eating more simple carbohydrates, often increasing alcohol intake, and spending less time engaged in outdoor activities. Workout regimens also may be more frequently disrupted by lack of motivation or schedule conflicts. Many find it easier to expend calories baking or reaching for another treat than to show up at the gym. And once motivation starts falling, it can take a lot more energy to build it back up than if it had been maintained all along.
The Winter Doldrums Are a Real Thing
The onset of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is ushered in as the level of natural sunlight available each day decreases. Many species in the animal world adapt to this change with hibernation periods. In the US, many humans adapt to this change by spending winters as far south as they can to avoid the bitter cold and the darker days.
Essential Cycle: Sunlight to Serotonin to Melatonin to Sleep to Peace and Contentment
The shortening of our daylight hours can wreak havoc on our Circadian rhythms. Exposure to sunlight positively influences our brain’s production of neurochemicals that keep our moods balanced. Sunlight cues our bodies to produce Vitamin D, which is often found to be deficient in individuals who suffer from depression (Cuomo, Giordano, Goracci, & Fagiolini, 2017). Serotonin production is helped along by natural light exposure and serotonin leads to melatonin production, which helps ensure our sleep-wake cycle stays organized. When there’s less light, there’s less serotonin, which leads to less melatonin, which leads to less sleep, which can lead to feeling tired, cranky, and depressed. Our brains are amazing machines that do their best to keep up with the rapidly changing world, but when we try to force our brain chemistry to respond to unnatural, controlled environments such as work schedules that don’t shift with the seasons, exposure to non-stop electronic entertainment/bombardment, and other treats/risks of modern life, we can end up having to “treat” problems that might not occur if we were able to follow the natural order of things.
Finding the Right Balance/Light Balance
While sunlight encourages the production of serotonin, it’s also tangentially increasing the production of melatonin, the chemical that regulates healthy sleep. One way to handle SAD is to integrate light therapy (bright natural light; lightboxes; high quality, non-flickering fluorescent light bulbs; sunlight-mimicking bulbs) at the start of your morning. This jumpstarts the brain into producing the feel-good, do-good neurochemical serotonin.article continues after advertisement
While serotonin production is ramping up through light exposure, the production of natural melatonin is kick-started, too. At the end of the day, when you are preparing for sleep, you can take a melatonin supplement to help re-regulate your Circadian rhythm. As the brain’s chemistry is getting back on schedule, your mood will also reflect the balance and symptoms of depression should ease up.
Eat Healthy to Decrease Depression
Avoid simple carbohydrates, processed foods, and sugar. All of these can upset your brain’s delicate neurochemical symphony. Stick to complex carbohydrates that provide better “fuel economy” to your body than junk food can. In fact, a healthy diet has been linked to stronger feelings of optimism (Kargakou, Sachlas, Lyrakos, et al., 2017). Avoiding preservatives and choosing fresh foods will be better for your body and your attitude. Depression is marked by feelings of hopelessness; this suggests that the optimism borne of a healthy diet is worth the effort.
Keep Hydrated with Water, Not Lubricated with Alcohol, or Hopped Up on Caffeine
Dehydration can mimic symptoms of depression, so make sure that you’re taking in an adequate supply of water (Pross, Demazieres, Girard, et al., 2014). Avoid or limit caffeine, alcohol, and other high-sugar or artificially sweetened beverages. These beverages affect sleep, too, which affects mood. No component of our amazing body works independently of any other system – simply being alive is the production of a symphony made up of many players and many well-calibrated movements of every cell.article continues after advertisement
Out-Run, Out-Stretch, and Outsmart the Winter Doldrums
Physical activity, rather than couch-potato sitting, will help you get through the darkest winter day with as bright a mood possible. Aerobic exercise is especially helpful in getting your brain on track with the production of serotonin and endorphins (Munuswamy, Preetha, & Priya, 2018). Walk the dog, park far away from the grocery store or after-holiday sales, or get on the treadmill. All of these can help stimulate the body’s natural mood-balancing techniques.
Meditation and Yoga balance Moods
Aside from the heavy-duty physical work-outs, you can also exercise your mind and body through more gentle means that can lead to a balanced mood state (Travis, Valosek, Konrad, et al., 2018). Mediation has been proven to enhance well-being and bring calm even in times of catastrophic illness and stress (Lemanne & Maizes, 2018). When your brain is in a meditative state, you’re actually quieting the regions of the brain associated with stress and worry while providing greater opportunities for the work of the regions associated with healthy psychological and physical functioning. Tai Chi is another gentle method for combatting feelings of depression (Zou et al., 2018). Activities that bring a balance between mind and body are highly effective in bringing balance to all aspects of your life.
Hopefulness about the Future
The frenzy of the winter holidays can lead to an overall post-holiday, gloomy January funk for many. Comparing the “blah” of January with the “bling” of December is not a pleasing thought. Add in a couple of quickly failed New Year’s resolutions and the days seem even more depressing. Recognize that what you’re feeling is a normal reaction to what’s going on around you. Also, recognize that you have the tools needed to ensure that you don’t fall too far into a bout of SAD. For protection against SAD, eat right, drink plenty of healthy fluids, and get active. If you are suffering from seasonal depression, research shows that light therapy is as effective as psychotherapy such as CBT might be (Meyerhoff, Young, & Rohan, 2018). Not only that, light therapy provides more rapid relief to symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety, hypersomnia, and social withdrawal. Make healthy choices, keep your body moving, and find the light and you’ll be well prepared to tackle the winter blues.