Mark Taylor*, a lawyer based in Pennsylvania, feels a distinct negative shift in his mood during the winter months. The winter blues may just be a mild inconvenience for some, but many people actually feel the onset of depression, fatigue and the need to withdraw from social situations during this darker, colder time – symptoms of a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.
“I have never been formally diagnosed with SAD but I feel that I do suffer from it, and have since before I knew it was a diagnosable condition,” says Taylor.
Many different parts of the world experience long, cold winters and millions of people suffer from SAD. It affects about one to two percent of the population and usually runs in families, with women being more likely than men and young people more likely than older adults to develop the condition. The good news is that it’s treatable.
“Sad Light” therapy can improve your mood within 3-4 days
“SAD is caused by lack of light, so it’s not surprising that the main treatment for SAD is bright light,” says Helen Hanson, chair of SADA (The Seasonal Affective Disorder Association, based in the UK). You simply sit in front of a “SAD Lamp,” or light box, for up to 90 minutes. Most people respond within 3-4 days of initiating the treatment.
SAD lights are a great option, but natural light is always better. Dr Shalini Sunkara, a dentist based in Sydney, Australia, likes to step outside during the day and take 30 minute power walks. “Of course, I would love to have a bit more sun during winter because the days are really short, but I keep myself active and get as much sun as possible even during winter days,” says Sunkara.
Nutrient-rich foods and vitamin D supplements can help
The neurotransmitter serotonin is found to be lower in people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder. A paper in The FASEB Journal explains how omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D boost serotonin synthesis and action, thus improving brain function. Try eating fish and other seafood, which have high amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. Flaxseeds are also an excellent source of omega-3.
A study in the Journal of Nutrition found that vitamin D is also an effective treatment for SAD. Vitamin D is produced by the body when ultraviolet B rays are absorbed by the skin. When you get less sunlight, the amount of UVB exposure also decreases, leading to a drop in vitamin D levels.
Srinadh Addada, a community pharmacist based in Qatar says that vitamin D supplements are common, even in a sunny desert region like Qatar, which is also close to the equator. But the fact is that SAD is seen in almost all parts of the world. “[Whenever] temperatures plummet, I feel lethargic. I force myself to get active and go to work every day,” says Addada.
The situation is similar in Delhi, the capital of India, where temperatures drop to less than 50oF during winter. “Spending time outside, consuming foods that contain vitamin D and omega 3 fatty acids like walnuts, soy, milk [and] spinach can help beat the sluggish mood during winter,” says Shivani Misri Sadhoo, a psychologist and counselor in Delhi.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can be a long-term solution
Dr. Kelly Rohan, Professor of Psychology at the University of Vermont, notes in her study that Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is superior to light therapy in treating SAD. This involves working with a therapist to create cognitive – related to thought – and behavioral changes in your daily life.
You might also consider practicing more positive thinking on your own. Seek out healthy activities to include in your daily routine. Choose activities that bring you joy:
- Try painting, reading poetry or playing a game on your phone or computer.
- Listen to music and sing along.
- Take your dog outside for a walk.
- Try gardening, if it isn’t too cold to step outside.
- Try cooking a new recipe.
- Pay a surprise visit to a loved one.
- Play with children.
- Pick up a new skill you have always wanted to try, like playing an instrument.
- Join a local dance class, book club or other meet up.
- Play a team sport.
- Get a massage.
- Be kind to someone every day, and notice the happiness it brings them.
- Write letters to your loved ones expressing gratitude, or write daily in a gratitude journal.
Exercise can help keep the blues away
Physical activity during the day will help improve your mood and promote feelings of well-being. Find a way to keep yourself active even on cold winter days. Aim to be active for just 30 minutes a day to start.
The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services suggests some activities to try during winter:
- Walk for 30 minutes during your lunch-break, or break it up into 10 minute walks around the office, three times a day.
- Play tag with your kids, build a snowman, snowboard, ski, or look for animal tracks in the snow.
- If it’s too cold to step outside your home, just turn on some music and dance.
- Do your household chores – clean the house, vacuum or do laundry.
- Try skating and swimming if you have access to an indoor skating rink or a swimming pool.
Cold weather may bring your spirits down, but remember that you can continue to lead an active life – even during the winter months. Be grateful for the opportunity to try a new routine or new hobby. If you’re proactive, you won’t have to wait for the winter to pass to start feeling better.
Please consult a psychologist if you or someone you know is suffering from severe depression.
*Name change upon request.