Are you feeling like you're in an endless loop of 'Groundhog Day', but without the charm of Bill Murray? Like you're living the same frosty morning over and over, and it's slowly nudging you towards feeling low, melancholic, a shadow of your usual radiant self?
It's okay, really. Everyone has a case of the winter blues now and then.
Do you ever look at yourself in the mirror and think, "Why can't I just shake off this heavy feeling while everyone else seems to be breezing through winter, sipping their pumpkin spiced whatever and having fun while I just want to hide under the blankets, read a book and scroll social media? And then like magic fourish months go by, you can’t stand looking at the 4 walls of your room another minute and seasonal lattes and weekend adventures pack your schedule again!
If you can relate to this, you’re among 5 percent of Americans struggling with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Seasonal sadness does not have to be hide in your house level, some 20% or more of people struggle with a milder form of SAD known as the “winter blues.”
You don’t need to become a snow bunny and escape to sunnier locals to have improved moods during the darkest months of the year. Using highly effective natural therapies to improve your mental health can keep you healthy and active all year round. After you’ve finished this article, you will understand what Seasonal Affective Disorder is and know 14 natural therapies you can use to treat or even prevent experiencing it this year.
What is seasonal affective disorder?
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a mild form of depression that is characterized by a recurring yearly pattern of depressive symptoms that start in mid to late fall when there is a decrease in natural daylight and resolves in spring once the natural daylight hours are longer.
For most people SAD typically begins and ends around the same time every year. Women are four times more likely to be diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder in comparison to men and this cause of this discrepancy is not well understood.
Symptoms of SAD usually include:
Overeating, particularly with a craving for carbohydrates, leading to weight gain
Social withdrawal (feeling like “hibernating”)
Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood most of the day, nearly every day, for at least 2 weeks
Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
Feelings of irritability, frustration, or restlessness
Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
Decreased energy, fatigue, or feeling slowed down
Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
Changes in sleep or appetite or unplanned weight changes
Physical aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems that do not have a clear physical cause and do not go away with treatment
Thoughts of death or suicide or suicide attempts
Not every person with SAD experiences all the symptoms listed above. It is believed that hormone shifts due to sunlight or lack of sunlight contribute to Seasonal Affective Disorder symptoms.
The human body and it’s different systems operate on a 24 hour circadian clock. This circadian clock governs when we sleep and wake, when we eat and what hormones are released when. The primary pacer of the circadian rhythm is a light sensitive area of the brain with secondary pacers in many organs of the endocrine system including the adrenal and thyroid glands and GI track… Which explains why hormone imbalances are prevalent in those experiencing SAD and provides areas of focus to naturally support happier moods.
14 tips to alleviate seasonal affective disorder.
Most of us can’t move to sunny locations for the winter months, thankfully there are many natural therapies we can use during the dark time of year to support happier moods and overall wellness.
1. Tonify your vagus nerve
For a nerve with a funny name it does a lot for our health! The vagus nerve is a nerve that travels all over your body and is best known for connecting your brain to your GI system. Stimulating this nerve has been shown to effectively treat depression. Meditation, yoga, exercise (interval and endurance training), reflexology massage, singing (or humming), and cold plunges are all effective at stimulating your vagus nerve.
2. Exercise (even if it’s just a little)
I know you don’t want to (who wants to go for a run when it’s freezing outside?!) but when it comes to supporting your mood, there’s nothing more important than getting your body moving. It doesn’t have to be anything intense. Impromptu dance parties, jumping rope or running in place all count as exercise for mood supporting purposes.
3. Try Acupuncture
Acupuncture, a modality of Traditional Chinese Medicine has been shown to increase serotonin and dopamine, two important mood neurotransmitters. The more serotonin and dopamine support we have during the winter months the lower our depression levels are.
4. Get a massage
Bodywork, such as massage triggers special sensors (c-tactile fibers) in the skin which when triggered the release of important mood neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and decrease the level of stress hormones known as cortisol, which is why getting a massage leaves most people feeling relaxed and happy!
5. Take some adaptogens
Adaptogens are a group of herbs and plants that are meant to help your body deal with stress. My two favorites for winter are medical mushrooms, rhodiola and holy basil.
I love adding powdered medical mushrooms to my morning coffee and sipping that while I sit in front of a lightbox.
6. Don’t forget your vitamin D
Vitamin D aka the “sunshine vitamin” because we make it when out in the sun from Spring until Fall. Knowing this, it’s no surprise that our levels are often low in the winter. You can focus on eating vitamin D-rich foods like egg yolks and wild-caught fish, but lots of us still need to supplement during the late fall and winter.
7. Get a lightbox
In the winter it’s not uncommon to leave for work in the dark and come home long after the sun has set. Instead of letting your only light exposure be the fluorescent lighting in your office, try getting a lightbox. Many studies have shown that the use of lightboxes does alleviate symptoms of SAD. Real sunlight is best, but this is the next best thing during short, dark winter days. If you can get at least 30 minutes of lightbox therapy within 60 minutes of waking up it will go a long way towards supporting a normal circadian rhythm even on the darkest days of the year.
8. Support methylation
Methylation is a very important biochemical process in the body that is responsible for multiple different aspects of your health, including making serotonin. B vitamins are what primarily fuel methylation. These can be found in grass-fed beef, organ meat, and dark leafy greens like spinach. A high-quality multivitamin may be sufficient along with a good diet, but some patients benefit from additional supplementation with a high-quality B complex vitamin.
9. Eat the right fats for your brain
About 60 percent of your brain is made up of fat. Actually, a quarter of your body’s total cholesterol is in your brain. In order to fight SAD, you need to fuel your brain with healthy fats to give serotonin an environment to thrive in.
When I say the “right fats” I am speaking of Omega-3s, which are essential for optimal brain health and fight against symptoms like brain fog and fatigue. Omega-3s fatty acids are naturally high in cold-water fish such as salmon, cod and sardines. If you don’t like eating a lot of fish, I recommend using a high-quality supplement with 3 to 4 grams of combined EPA and DHA daily during the winter for brain health and anti-inflammatory support.
10. Prioritize protein at meals
Studies have shown that there is an inverse correlation between eating protein and depression. Starting your day off with protein such as eggs, protein shakes or collagen powder in your coffee is a great way to support healthy production of feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine. Most people would benefit from 20 to 30 grams of protein at each meal.
11. Heal your gut
Your gut is often referred to as your “second brain” because about 95 percent of serotonin is made and stored in your gut. Keeping your gut healthy helps alleviate SAD.
To make sure the good bugs in your gut are outnumbering the bad ones, aim to eat 2 servings of probiotic-rich foods daily. Probiotic rich foods include kombucha, miso, yogurt and sauerkraut. Not so keen on fermented foods, then a probiotic supplement incorporated into your daily routine may be helpful, just make sure it has lots of lactobacillus and bifidobacterium strains in it and contains at least 10 billion CFUs.
12. Use essential oils
Essential oils are extracted from plants and contain active components with therapeutic effects including fighting depression and anxiety. There is particularly good evidence that lavender essential oil has anti-depressant benefits. Please avoid internal use of essential oils as contamination with solvents is common.
13. Talk it out with a professional
Initial studies of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for seasonal affective disorder are very promising. One study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry from 2015 found that after two winters of CBT therapy, individuals had greater improvement and fewer recurrences of SAD symptoms, even when compared to light therapy!
14. Prioritize social activities
Whether it’s a big gathering or a party of 2, staying connected with your social network is good for your mental health. Sorry—social media doesn’t count in this situation. Meet a friend for coffee, make a gym date, take a Zumba class with your best pal or say yes to game night. Whatever your social level is, quality relationships and personal connection with others is a great way to fight seasonal affective disorder depression.
If you are struggling with Affective Seasonal Depression there are many, many treatment options that will help you reclaim your happiness. If you are interested in an individualized plan, please call the office or schedule an appointment online.