Seasonal Depression (SAD)
Are you SAD?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is depression that occurs or worsens when the days get shorter in winter. SAD affects about 5% of the adult population, or about 10 million people. There is some evidence that it’s hereditary. SAD often feels like a what’s-the-use feeling along with lack of motivation to do much of anything, often accompanied by fatigue.
What causes SAD?
Diet, light, vitamin D, exercise, holidays, weather, and alcohol all play a part. Let’s look at each of these in more detail.
It’s interesting, and for our purposes not coincidental, that Seasonal Affective Disorder and Standard American Diet have the same initials. In winter, the standard or typical diet, abysmal to begin with, tends to take a turn for the worse: more carbs, sugar, and heavy comfort foods, and fewer salads and fresh vegetables.
Many if not most of us tend to gain weight during the winter, part of the same biological wiring that prompts squirrels and bears to store fat and/or food supplies for the long lean months. This might be part of why we gravitate towards heavy foods this time of year. The carb-laden foods, cookies and other sweets, and holiday meals and parties put the weight on quickly. This is extra weight that you’ll need to drag around, along with the self-recrimination that comes from gaining weight in a society that reveres slimness. The foods themselves, the feeling of being heavy and draggy, and the feeling of being out of control can add to the depression.
Many people eat far fewer fresh raw vegetables and salads during this time of year, since light raw foods don’t appeal as much when the weather is chilly and blustery, and the quality of produce tends to be low and tasteless this time of year. However, raw foods are the only food-based source of the enzymes your body needs for optimal functioning. It would be a good idea to complement your diet with an enzyme supplement; these are available at CAM.
Insufficient light of the proper frequencies can contribute to SAD. Not surprisingly, SAD tends to be most prevalent and severe in northern regions with really short days in winter.
In winter many of us experience a phenomenon known to those who work the night shift or have jet lag, a dis-synchrony between our sleep-wake cycles and the availability of sunlight. We are hardwired to sleep when it’s dark and be awake when it’s light, and also to need about 7-8 hours of sleep out of every 24. But in winter, when nights are 14-16 hours long and daylight is only 8-10 hours, it’s impossible to keep to that schedule of matching sleep to outside light or darkness.
Bright light treatment for SAD is a frequently used technique to get the body and brain in sync with the amount of light available outside. Bright light treatment involves deliberate and prolonged exposure to bright full spectrum lighting. It is more effective when done first thing in the morning. Adequate and full-spectrum light – these light bulbs are labeled as such – encourages the brain to take in more tryptophan to make more serotonin, helping to alleviate the winter blues. Exposure to morning sunlight also helps – not just sitting indoors in daylight, but walking outside without sunglasses, exposing as much skin as possible given the chilly temperatures.
Vitamin D is called the sunshine vitamin because our bodies make it with the stimulation of sunlight or the full-spectrum equivalent on the skin. But winter brings less sunlight, less time outside, and more clothing covering the skin. It’s not surprising that vitamin D levels drop in winter for most people.
Vitamin D3 supplementation of 400 IU/day given to sufferers of SAD in winter was shown to have a significant positive effect on their mood.
Exercise helps to keep one energized and upbeat. But in winter, when it’s difficult in most parts of the country to get outside and walk, swim, or bicycle, we tend not to get enough exercise and thus become the opposite of energized and upbeat. Take time for exercise, even if that means joining a gym or indoor exercise group.
Another cause of holiday depression lies in the gap between expectations for the holiday season and the reality. The real holiday season rarely measures up to one’s childhood memories, nostalgic movies, and advertising hype. Both the stress of holiday preparations and expenses and the post-holiday letdown contribute to the depression that results.
Unless you live in the southernmost parts of the country where winter weather is relatively balmy, chances are you will be dealing with some of your least favorite weather during the winter. Depending on where you live, you might be living for months in the midst of gray slush and icy roads, or months of dreary overcast and rain.
‘Tis the season to get into the holiday spirit…or spirits, as the case may be. With all the holiday and New Year’s parties, alcohol is often plentiful along with temptations to imbibe. But keep in mind that, despite the initial fun feelings it may bring on, alcohol is a depressant drug. Keep alcohol consumption moderate during this time of temptation if not absent altogether.
You don’t have to suffer in silence during the winter. There are things that can be done to help you feel less depressed during this season.