5.5
December 10, 2013

7 Things You Can Do to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder.

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It’s more than just the Winter Blues.

The holidays are upon us, there’s an invigorating chill in the air, celebrations to enjoy, but you’re feeling anything but festive? Does your body feel heavy and leaden, your mind sluggish and unclear? When you wake up in the morning, do you look forward to the moment you can get back into bed? I know I do.

If this sounds familiar, you might have Seasonal Affective Disorder. S.A.D. is a type of depression that hits about the same time each year. The exact cause of S.A.D. is not 100 percent clear, but it is likely a combination of seasonal changes in the body’s circadian rhythm and levels of melatonin and serotonin. Women, people who suffer from depression, and those who have a family history of S.A.D. and/or depression are at the greatest risk for S.A.D.

I have struggled with S.A.D. since I was a child, yet every November I’m surprised by it. I feel like the Tin Man on my yoga mat, my eyes sit at half-mast, and if I open an email from the Humane Society, I am reduced to a sobbing puddle for 20 minutes. After the initial shock and indignation wears off (it usually takes me about three days to say “It’s happening again…”), I put on my big girl panties and deal with it.

Here are the things I have found most helpful in managing S.A.D.

  1. Ask for help.

The worst thing we could do for S.A.D. is to suffer in silence and isolation. We are not alone! It’s just that no one talks about these things because of their own stigma, shame and judgment. But help is available from physicians, psychologists, psychiatrists, naturopaths and others. By working with one or more of these professionals, we can determine how to best manage the symptoms of S.A.D. Options may include dietary supplements, acupuncture, massage, talk therapy, group therapy or temporary anti-depressant medication.

Telling family and friends how we are feeling can be very helpful. When I’ve done this in the past, I’ve usually discovered that others feel the same way, and together we find ways to support one another.

If, on the other hand, you happen to tell someone who doesn’t understand, or someone who tells you to snap out of it, thank them for their thoughtful advice and high-tail it out of there. S.A.D. is real, and it’s important to surround ourselves with a supportive network.

  1. Get some light.

Getting out of the house in the morning might feel like the last thing you want to do when you have S.A.D., but it can set a positive tone for the day. Look at it as an experiment: walk down the block or go for a short drive, get a cup of coffee or pick up the paper, walk the dog, walk someone else’s dog. Something about the feeling of sunlight on our faces and the cold air on our skin reminds us of our basic humanity.

If you can manage it, notice the other people around you. Maybe even smile at one or two of them. This tiny gesture can have a surprising impact on how you see yourself and the world. Or, if you can only manage to walk around the block while staring at your shoes, that’s fine too.

As an alternative or adjunct, buy a lightbox with at least 10,000 LUX and use it consistently each morning. Begin with 10-15 minutes and work up to 45-60 minutes every day until about mid-March. (If you find that this works for you, next year you can start in mid-to-late September when the days start getting shorter.) I use my lightbox while writing morning pages, but you can read the paper, eat breakfast, watch the news, or read a book while soaking up the light. Or you could just sit there and imagine yourself a beautiful brooding orchid who needs a little extra TLC.

  1. Reduce or eliminate alcohol.

Full disclosure: I don’t drink alcohol anymore. I stopped several years ago for many reasons, including depression. But I’m adding it here because when I did drink alcohol, it made my S.A.D. much worse.

Though I am not anti-alcohol for other people (if you can enjoy it in moderation, Yay for you!), it’s important to acknowledge that it is a depressant. Particularly at this time of year, because it is free flowing and tends to accompany every celebration, many people partake in more than their share, only to find that their dull, flat feelings worsen.

  1. Eat an anti-depressant diet.

Part of my anti-S.A.D. therapy is cooking (see a recipe for Happy Stew below), especially foods known to have a positive effect on mood. I try to take care in the selection and preparation of foods, so that my enjoyment begins before I ever sit down to eat. As much as possible, I choose whole foods over processed and packaged. Colorful over beige. Local and organic, whenever possible. The following is a list of foods to support you during the winter doldrums:

  • Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, anchovies and sardines
  • Other healthy protein sources, including organic eggs and grass-fed beef
  • Raw nuts and seeds like almonds, walnuts, macadamias, hemp, chia, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds and flax
  • Other good brain fats like olive oil and coconut oil
  • Green vegetables such as Swiss chard, kale, broccoli and spinach
  • Other brightly colored vegetables like sweet potatoes, butternut squash, acorn squash, spaghetti squash, red cabbage and red onions
  • Whole grains like brown rice and quinoa
  • Fruits such as berries, grapes, pears and apples

Eating the right amount—not too little and not too much—is also important; on days when you might not have much of an appetite, make an effort to eat regular meals and pay close attention to what foods you find appealing. On days that you are ravenous, respond promptly to your hunger, eat mindfully, and stay sensitive to your body becoming full to avoid overeating. This is not about having the perfect diet, but overall choosing to eat in a way that makes us feel sustained, energetic and supported.

  1. Drink plenty of water.

Drinking water is so important in maintaining consistent energy and mood levels. In the winter months, when the temperature drops, it’s easy to forget the importance of water. And drinking coffee, tea and other caffeinated beverages for an artificial energy boost can also increase your loss of body water. It’d hard to go wrong with eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day.

  1. Exercise.

This is the most underutilized non-drug antidepressant available. Do whatever type of exercise feels good to you. For me this has included yoga, pilates, walking, running, swimming and ballet barre classes. I try to pay particular attention to how the movement feels in my body, and not to do things that feel too aggressive.

At times you might have to talk yourself into exercising. I manage this by giving myself permission not to go, but also considering how I will feel afterward. I make it about 75 percent of the time.

Also, if you do yoga, try a headstand. I can’t explain it, but this has made me feel better. Even if there is no physiologic benefit, it helps me to cheer up and laugh at myself.

  1. Be gentle.

S.A.D. is not laziness or a lack of willpower; it’s the reflection of changes in our brain chemistry. It can cause symptoms ranging in severity from mere dullness to suicidal thoughts. Once we realize that this is what we are dealing with, we can make a commitment to be very gentle with ourselves. If we need more sleep during this time of the year, so be it. If we need more pampering, let’s make that happen. More affection, we can ask for it.

A meditation practice can also be extremely supportive in managing S.A.D. because it helps us to deal with the nature of reality. We can observe ourselves feeling sadness, flatness, or irritability, without adding to our suffering by judging ourselves harshly.

At the same time, we should know that S.A.D. is temporary. It will not last forever. And by noticing what we are feeling, recognizing our needs, and responding as best we can, we will ease this passage.

 

Recipe: Happy Stew

Baby spinach, ½-1 pound, rinsed

Extra virgin olive oil

Red onion, 1 medium, diced

Sweet potato, 1 medium, cubed

Butternut squash (1 small or ½ large), peeled, seeded and cubed

Chickpeas, one 15-ounce can, drained and rinsed

Cumin, 1 teaspoon

Salt and pepper to taste

Cooked brown rice or quinoa

  1. Place the spinach in a covered pot or pan with 1 cup of water and steam over medium heat until very wilted. Drain and set aside the spinach, reserving the spinach water. Once cooled, the spinach can be chopped or cut with kitchen shears.
  2. In the same pot or pan, sauté the red onion in olive oil over medium-high heat, until softened. Toss in the sweet potato and sauté for five minutes. Toss in the butternut squash and sauté for another five minutes. Pour in ½-1 cup of the spinach water, cover and finish cooking until the sweet potato and butternut squash are tender (add additional water, if necessary).
  3. Add the steamed spinach and the chickpeas. Sprinkle with the cumin, salt and pepper, and toss to combine. Serve over brown rice or quinoa with a drizzle of olive oil. Smile and say, Mmmmm.

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Photo: Pixabay

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Alayne Jan 6, 2016 9:49pm

Great article. I appreciate that you start with asking for help, and sometimes doctors, other professionals, and even medication may be in order. This is actually a serious condition. The other suggestions are great too. I would add in here that it is important to recognize that anywhere north or Boston does not actually get a high enough angle of sunlight to actually receive any vitamin d. I live in Alaska where the sun just skirts across the horizon. Even full days gala acting in the sunlight won't do the trick (physically.). In this case, the light therapy box and vitamin d are crucial. Also, I would add in here that it is great to just get out and enjoy the darkness for what it is. Get a good headlamp, go out for night time jaunts, enjoy the stars, the winter constellations, the moon, or if you're far enough north- the aurora borealis. Embrace the shadow side of the year.

Christina Nov 16, 2014 12:45pm

Thank you for the article! I live in Portugal, but dread the winters, because I rarely get to see the day and I'm always cold. Last winter was the worst, there were days when I could barely get out of bed. I found out in March that my vitamin D levels had dropped and were very very low, despite taking supplements to raise the levels, so yes, vitamin D is an important contributing factor to S.A.D and should be checked regularly. Hopefully this winter won't be nearly as challenging – my it D is up, and I will follow your advice, it's good to be reminded that it's "not just me" and that there are strategies to help. Thanks

Ananda Dec 18, 2013 2:19pm

I would absolutely add Vitamin D supplementation to this list, oftentimes fairly high doses are need ~ up to 10,000 IU per day. There are easy $65 tests on line where you just have to prick your finger and send in to a lab. It is currently estimated that 60% of the population is deficient in Vitamin D and 80% in the wintertime in North America.

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Jenna Hollenstein

Jenna Hollenstein, MS, RDN, CDN, is a dietitian who doesn’t believe in diets. She has a Bachelors in nutrition from Penn State, a Masters in nutrition from Tufts, and is a Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor. At her private practice, Eat to Love (eat2love.com), Jenna works with clients to love themselves through listening to and accepting their bodies, practicing mindfulness, and embracing imperfection.