This is a topic near and dear to my heart. I live with it and spent many winters absolutely miserable.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that is seasonal and affected by seasonality, specifically light. For those of us living in the northern hemisphere, onset is typically in the fall as the days get shorter and symptoms often resolve in late spring or early summer when the days get longer.
Typical symptoms of SAD:
- Increased sleep
- Increased craving for carbohydrates, sweets, starchy foods
- Weight gain
- Drop in energy
- Decreased physical activity
- Heavy feeling in arms and legs
- Decreased social activities
I like to call this the Winter Blues. I knew I suffered from SAD growing up in Wisconsin but I didn’t realize how much it affected my life until I moved to Arizona in 2009 and was able to get sun the entire winter. I discovered for the first time in my life I didn’t get the above listed symptoms and had an amazing winter! I’ve researched causes, tested various lab levels and tried everything under the sun.
I’m going to share with you some lifestyle tips to help you avoid the Winter Blues.
This is non-negotiable. Exercise, specifically cardio increases endorphins to your brain, feel good hormones. It helps thyroid and sex hormone function. You must do this daily! If you can’t get out and take a brisk walk, purchase a piece of exercise equipment for your home. Or get a gym membership. Personally, I purchased a Sunny spin bike (www.amazon.com) and use the Peloton app ($12 per month)! Do what works for you.
Get outdoors and get sunlight to your eyes for at least 15 minutes daily. You can go out snowshoeing or skiing and get both exercise and sunlight.
I use the SunBox (http://www.sunbox.com/) light therapy, Sunlight Jr daily for 20-30 minutes in the morning. This brand was used by the NIH in studies and proven to work! You can get a larger light and put it by your home exercise equipment so you will get light and exercise at the same time.
Use a dawn simulator alarm clock
by Philips called Philips Wake-Up Light (www.amazon.com) so if I set my alarm for 6am, at 5:30 my alarm clock gently and slowly starts to illuminate my room, simulating the natural dawn effect. My body naturally awakens with light and goes to sleep with dark. But my work and personal schedule doesn’t allow me to sleep all those hours.
Vitamin D level
Keep your vitamin D level 50-80. There have been studies showing low vitamin d levels correlated to SAD. However, this intervention alone was not enough to help my mood. Everyone’s dose of Vitamin D will vary. Many people have a VDR gene variant and so we require higher doses of Vitamin D. This is individualized so request your health care provider to order a Vit D level. Most people are safe with 2,000IU of Vitamin D3 daily. In the Northern Hemisphere (above the latitude line of Atlanta, GA) we cannot get Vitamin D from the sun because of lack of UVB from sun. So this is a necessary winter supplement for mood and immune function for those of us living north.
Probiotics & Heal your Gut!
It’s true. There’s a gut-brain connection. Low levels of beneficial bacteria and presence of non-beneficial bacteria are linked to mood disorders. Lactobicillus helveticus and bifidobacterum longum have been shown to decrease anxiety and depression. Lactobacilli ward off stress and reduce anxiety.
Strong evidence of these probiotic strains to help mood:
- Bifidobacterium bifidum W23,
- Bifidobacterium lactis W52,
- Lactobacillus acidophilus W37,
- Lactobacillus brevis W63,
- Lactobacillus casei W56,
- Lactobacillus salivarius W24,
- Lactococcus lactis (W19 and W58)
(Source: Brain Behav Immun. 2015 Aug;48:258-64. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2015.04.003. Epub 2015 Apr 7).
Yoga & Mediation
Yoga and meditation both have been proven to help with a overall improved sense of well-being. Sometimes a general yoga class will do the trick. If not, book a private yoga training session and request poses specific for depression.
Take a Sunny Vacation
Personally I try to go south as often as I can during the winter months. A mid winter vacation in December or January to Hawaii or Mexico will carry me through the winter. You deserve it so budget and plan that winter get away.
UVB light therapy. Use the tanning bed
I do not fear the sun and the natural benefits of what UV B light provides to the human body. I recommend limited time and never allow my skin to burn. Protecting your eyes is a must. I’ve witnessed first hand the tremendous mood boost from a 10 min tanning bed session personally and in many patients. UVB rays are what help the body make vitamin d with exposure. You can also order a UVB lamp from Sperti but they are expensive. If you use the tanning bed, you want to request the old-fashioned low-pressure beds that give UVB.
The past two winters, I was able to get a Hawaii vacation, use my phototherapy lamp, keep my vitamin D level up, exercise, practice daily yoga and meditate. My winter was much easier than previous years.
Here’s to a healthy & happy winter!