As the gloomy winter weather sets in and we find ourselves hibernating inside, it’s easy to get the winter blues – feeling cranky, claustrophobic, sleepy, and even depressed.
While it’s ok to be less than fond of snow, the intense form of this winter depression is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Research shows that as many as 9.7% of Americans suffer from it!
Symptoms of SAD include sadness or anxiety, irritability, fatigue, binge-eating and lack of motivation.
While this may sound very similar to depression, SAD symptoms appear only during the winter months and fade away in spring. The Canadian Mental Health Association says:
“SAD can be a debilitating condition, preventing sufferers from functioning normally. It may affect their personal and professional lives, and seriously limit their potential. It is important to learn about the symptoms, and to know that there is treatment to help people with SAD live a productive life year-round.”
The good news is that staying happy in the winter doesn’t have to be difficult. There are a few simple things that you can do to keep a smile on your face.
Here are the best treatments for seasonal affective disorder:
Most people don’t get enough sun exposure on a regular basis, and this becomes especially difficult in the winter.
Feeling lethargic? That’s a problem with your circadian rhythm, or ‘body clock’.
It’s controlled, in part, by melatonin – a hormone produced during the night that regulates your sleep-wake cycle. It stops being produced when you wake up – prompted, naturally, by morning light.
Sleep specialist Dr. Meir H. Kryger, MD, lead author of ‘Principles and Practices of Sleep Medicine’ (Elselvier, 2012) and a professor at Yale School of Medicine, explains:
“When days are shorter and nights longer, the circadian system has a phase delay. In other words, the functions and timing of hormone secretions during sleep that are controlled by the circadian system occur later. The circadian system needs exposure to sunlight to resynchronize the many functions of the body that are related to time. In addition, even though one might expect a longer night would increase the amount and quality of sleep time, there is a reduction in percent of time in bed asleep. The combination of factors can impact several hormone systems involved in appetite control and metabolism as well.”
Light up your life
One of the most common and effective treatments for SAD is light exposure, or phototherapy. Exposure to bright light, even artificial light, tricks your brain into maintaining this rhythm and staves off depression.
Phototherapy lamps are extremely common in countries such as Iceland and Sweden, where there are only four hours of daylight in midwinter.
Putting out up to 10,000 lux of light (about the equivalent of twenty-five 60W bulbs), these lights require as little as fifteen minutes of use each morning, and are an inexpensive and easy way to boost your mood and metabolism.
Exercise is an important and simple treatment for all depression, including SAD. While avoiding the frigid temperatures outside, our exercise levels often tend to decrease.
This can lead to a reduction in metabolism, weight gain and lethargy. Adding to this, many SAD sufferers crave sugar and starchy carbohydrates, and often emotionally binge-eat to decrease their depression symptoms (sound familiar?).
These changes in sleep cycles and eating habits are similar to animal hibernation. “Animals prepare for winter by fattening up and then sleeping through it,” says Dr. Margaret Austen, researcher at the University of Hobart, Australia.
“In humans that is not practical. So, instead, we eat more and gain weight through the winter, and we lack energy and sleep more.”
Eat your brain to happiness
One of the most important chemicals responsible for emotional stability is serotonin, a neurotransmitter in your brain. When serotonin levels drop, so does your mood.
While there aren’t any serotonin supplements, tryptophan is one of the crucial building blocks for it. It’s an essential amino acid – meaning that it can’t be made in our bodies, so has to be part of our diets.[Tweet “An increase in tryptophan can really boost your mood.”]
Tryptophan may be the most important piece of the winter blues puzzle. An increase in tryptophan can really boost your mood, while low levels can trigger severe depression.
Tryptophan deficiency has been shown to negate the effects of light therapy, and decrease the efficacy of anti-depressants.
The good news is that tryptophan can be found in most dietary proteins – especially eggs, nuts, fish, soy beans, red meat and poultry – or taken as a supplement. Tryptophan can also improve your workout.
Performance, strength and endurance can all be increased, and discomfort and pain decreased. Feeling better both mentally and physically? Bonus.
Exercise, simple changes in your diet, and a new lamp can really help you improve your mood this winter.
By increasing your intake of fish, eggs, and red meat, along with making the effort to get outside, you can stay motivated and healthy.
Light up your morning, eat your proteins, get some exercise and stay happy this winter!
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