As the calendar moves closer to winter, the days are getting shorter and nights are growing longer. You may find it harder to get out of bed in the morning, or may feel as though your energy level has declined. Maybe you feel unusually irritable throughout the day or have more of a sweet tooth than normal. These are signs and symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a type of depression that occurs during the winter.
Experts believe that SAD is associated with a lack of sunlight, which leads to changes in the sleep-wake cycle and decreased production of the brain chemical serotonin. In northern latitudes like here in New England, the daylight in June can be twice the length of daylight in December. This drastic change in natural light can bring on the mood changes associated with SAD. Short of packing up and moving south, there is no guaranteed way to prevent SAD, but there are some things you can do to alleviate the symptoms.
Get some vitamin D
Research has suggested that individuals suffering from depression tended to improve as vitamin D levels increased. It’s known as the “Sunshine Vitamin’’ because much of our vitamin D is produced in our skin by the sun. It helps if you can get outside for 30-45 minutes in the middle of the day when the sun is strongest, but the reality is most of us don’t get adequate sun exposure during the winter months. It might be wise to take a supplement. If you take a multivitamin, make sure it has the recommended daily requirement of 600 IU. Many calcium supplements also contain adequate amounts of vitamin D. Check with your health care provider to see if you should have your vitamin D level checked.
Add omega-3 to your diet
Have you ever heard that fish is brain food? That’s because fish is a rich source of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which are important for brain function. Many studies have confirmed a link between low levels of omega-3 fats and depression, and subjects tend to improve when given supplements. Eating fatty fish like salmon, herring, or sardines at least twice a week is the best way to get enough omega-3. If you don’t eat fish, don’t fret: consider taking an omega-3 supplement. Check with your health care provider first, as these supplements can interact with medications like blood thinners.
Eat (smart) carbs
Many people crave carbohydrates like pastries, pasta and potato chips in the fall and winter. It’s because carbohydrates raise levels of the mood-boosting brain chemical serotonin, which produces a calming effect. Unfortunately, eating too many refined carbohydrates causes your insulin to work overtime and leads to excess weight gain. Allow yourself some occasional treats, but make most of your carbs smart choices like whole grain breads and cereals, legumes, fruits and vegetables, which will actually make you feel better for longer.
Boost your endorphins
You don’t have to be a runner to experience “runners high.’’ A good dose of any form of exercise will increase production of feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain known as endorphins. Regular exercise can also help you to sleep better at night and keep you more alert during the day. Try to get some exercise most days of the week, and for an added bonus, exercise outside whenever it’s sunny to boost your vitamin D and serotonin as well.
Turn the light on
If you think you have SAD, your health care provider may suggest buying a light box, which mimics natural light and can be an effective treatment for SAD. Light boxes help to reset the body’s clock and increase serotonin levels. Most people feel improvement within a week. While light therapy has been shown to be effective for many, it should be discussed and possibly monitored by your health care provider, especially for individuals with certain eye problems or bipolar disorder.
Anne Danahy, MS, RD, LDN has been a Nutritionist with Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates for the past 15 years, and she currently works as the “Virtual Nutritionist.’’ Her professional interests include weight management, heart disease, and women’s nutritional issues.