Winter is here – which means less sunshine and, for many of us, the winter blues. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) can be triggered by a lack of sunlight; researchers estimate that it affects about 4 to 6 percent of the population every winter. Although the percent of people with SAD is relatively small, the lack of light exposure can take the pep out of even the happiest of folk: 10 to 20 percent of us suffer from a milder form of SAD every winter.
Are you SAD? Check these Symptoms:
- depression (or an ongoing depressive mood)
- appetite changes (in particular, cravings for sweet or starchy foods)
- weight gain
- sensations of heaviness in the arms or legs
- a notable drop in energy levels
- fatigue and/or lethargy
- concentration difficulties
- increased sensitivity to social rejection
- increased ‘hermit’ tendencies (not wanting to go out or be social)
Darkness and Your Brain
Researchers speculate that there are many mechanisms at play that contribute to SAD and SAD-like symptoms during the dark, winter months. Firstly, your brain relies on sunlight in order to balance your circadian rhythm (your internal sleep/wake regulator) and a lack of sunlight can make it harder for you to get a good nights sleep, which can lead to fatigue and depressive symptoms. A lack of sunlight can also cause too much of the hormone melatonin to be produced; melatonin makes you feel sleepy and lethargic (common SAD symptoms).
Sunlight is also critical for vitamin D production, and although scientists don’t fully understand why yet, vitamin D deficiency appears to increase the risk for depression. To make matters worse, preliminary research on rats found that a lack of sun exposure can suppress the production of serotonin, which is the neurotransmitter (brain chemical) responsible for feelings of happiness and a desire for social connectedness. That might explain why we tend to become hermits in the winter! Low serotonin does you no favours: it can cause depressive symptoms and intense carbohydrate cravings, which explains why so many SAD sufferers gravitate towards carbs.
How to Boost Your Mood, Naturally
Packing our bags and moving to a sunny paradise island this winter would be an excellent fix, although it’s not exactly a practical solution for most of us! Fortunately, these three simple steps can boost your mood and ward off the winter blues this year:
Step #1 Invest in a Sun Lamp
Light therapy is a commonly recommended, safe and effective way for regulating your brain chemicals and boosting your mood. For optimum benefits you need exposure to intense levels of full spectrum lights that are similar in color composition as the sun (regular light bulbs won’t work because they don’t emit the right spectrum of lighting). Try 15 minutes of light exposure a day, first thing in the morning for a week. If you don’t notice a difference, try switching to 15 minutes in the evening (some people benefit more from evening light exposure).
Step # 2 Get Moving
We know that putting on your runners and hitting the gym is the last thing you want to do when it’s cold and dark out and you’re feeling less than stellar. But exercise is a well established mood booster and it has a much better risk-benefit ratio than antidepressants. Exercise also helps regulate sleep, reduce stress, increase energy and markedly boost serotonin levels. For optimum benefit, engage in aerobic exercise at least 4 to 5 times a week.
Step # 3 Boost Your Mood with Food
Increase your vitamin D levels with vitamin D rich foods such as fatty fish, beef liver, and egg yolks. Try to cut out sugar and refined carbs; they lead you on a blood sugar rollercoaster, which can cause fatigue, insatiable cravings, irritability and moodiness. Finally, try eating more tryptophan-rich foods. Tryptophan is a chemical that helps to boost serotonin levels. It is found in many foods such as dairy, corn, chickpeas, turkey, chocolate, oats, dried dates, peanuts, seeds, spirulina and bananas. Although a tryptophan-rich diet is often recommended as a means for boosting serotonin, some scientist argue that other nutrients in food prevent the tryptophan from being properly absorbed and utilized. So if you suffer from SAD, you may find greater benefit from taking a tryptophan supplement under the guidance of your healthcare practitioner.
 Anglin RE, Samaan Z, Walter SD, McDonald SD. Vitamin D deficiency and depression in adults: systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Psychiatry. 2013;202:100-107 – See more at: http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/depression/what-role-vitamin-d-depression#sthash.DuxVDROS.dpuf