Seasonal affective disorder, often abbreviated as SAD, is a type of major depression that comes and goes with the changes of the seasons. While a small percentage of SAD sufferers experience symptoms during the summer, the majority of cases occur in the fall and winter months as the days grow shorter and there is less sun in our day-to-day experiences. Some theories speculate that the disorder results from a lack of sunlight absorption, thus leading to a vitamin D deficiency that contributes to feelings of depression.
Symptoms of SAD include:
- Feelings of depression and sadness that cannot be shaken
- Failing to practice beneficial self-care
- Loss of interest in things that used to be enjoyable
- Changes in sleep patterns, especially oversleeping and excessive napping
- Lethargy and low energy
- Cognitive difficulties including difficulty with focus and concentration
- Unexplained irritability and anxiousness
- Difficulties managing stress
If you believe you suffer from seasonal affective disorder, it’s imperative that you speak to your doctor. While SAD may only last a few months out of the year, it is still a type of major depression and should be treated like any other mental illness should be treated. Your doctor may recommend a treatment plan that includes medication, talk therapy, lightboxes, and lifestyle changes that encourage neurological and emotional balance.
Add More Exercise
It’s no secret that exercise is one of the most underutilized medicines in modern society. If you are hesitant about taking medication for your depression, talk with your doctor about trying to up your exercise to see if that helps first. Exercise naturally boosts your brain’s production of mood-regulated neurotransmitters, including serotonin, dopamine, and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) — some of the many neurochemicals that are thrown off-balance by depression. To combat the disorder without drugs, make time in your weekly schedule to break a sweat more often with a healthy balance of both cardiovascular and weightlifting exercises.
Eat Mood-Boosting Foods
It’s true what they say — you are what you eat. If you’re chowing down on sad meals that lack the nutrition you need to function at your highest, you’re going to feel depressed. On the other hand, if you consume a diet rich in whole foods that help balance your brain and improve your mood naturally, you’ll feel better throughout the winter even with the lack of sunlight. Your body needs certain nutrients in order to synthesize important neurotransmitters.
- Protein, B vitamins, vitamin C, and minerals like calcium, magnesium, and selenium are needed to produce serotonin. Green leafy vegetables, brown rice, tofu, sunflower seeds, and sesame seeds are all rich in these nutrients.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are also great at raising serotonin levels. Walnuts, flaxseeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, eggs, and fatty fish are all great sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
- Get plenty of antioxidants with winter produce such as beets, clementines, cranberries, kale, pomegranates, and broccoli. Red wine is also a great source of antioxidants, so feel free to pour yourself that glass at dinner — just be sure to drink in moderation, as alcohol is a depressant and overindulging can make your symptoms worse.
- GABA is one of the most powerfully calming and relaxing neurotransmitters the brain produces. Boost GABA production with glutamine-rich foods like nuts, lentils, brown rice, beans, melons, and oranges, as well as proteins like beef, bison, chicken, and eggs.
- While sunlight is the best source of vitamin D, there are plenty of food sources you can tap into to make up for the lack of sun in the winter. Vitamin D-rich foods include fatty fish, mushrooms, eggs, liver, ricotta cheese, cod liver oil, and fortified foods such as milk, orange juice, and cereals.
Seasonal Affective Disorder is a type of depression and, therefore, should be treated accordingly like any other type of depression by a doctor or an appropriate therapist. However, there are some things you can do to help restore neurological balance without the help of medication. Exercise is a natural way to boost neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and GABA. Certain foods can also help support neurotransmitter production, so be sure to eat a rich diet full of whole foods like green leafy vegetables, tofu, nuts, seeds, legumes, fortified dairy, and antioxidant-rich produce like beets, clementines, pomegranates, and broccoli.
Written by Kimberley Hayes