Today’s post is about something we all feel and deal with every single day… I’m talking about your mood.
Having just left some very grey, chilly weather recently, I can definitely say I feel the shift in seasons. For much of the country and depending where you live in the world, cold weather and dark, dreary days have started to set in. And for many of us, they’re not going anywhere for a while.
If you’ve ever felt down or slightly depressed, especially during these months, and you can’t really put your finger on why — this post will be a big help to you. Because you could be suffering from varying degrees of a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder.
What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?
Some of us really struggle when the summer transitions to fall and then finally winter. For a minute, the crisp air and beautiful leaves are enchanting. But then, as the leaves come down and the temperatures continue to plunge, we may sigh and think, “Well, there goes the sun and fun. Time to bootstrap down for another long winter.” Many begin to feel it as the days shorten and become darker earlier (especially if you work in an office and come out as it’s already dark out!). The symptoms can range from mild depression, to hyper-insomnia, overeating, and excess carbohydrate craving. 
According to Norman E. Rosenthal, M.D., Author of Winter Blues: Everything You Need to Know About Seasonal Affective Disorder — it affects about 14 million Americans. And it’s actually more than just feeling a little sad or down. Those who struggle with it begin having trouble with basic tasks, such as paying the bills or household chores, suddenly begin feeling overwhelmed. Many find they can no longer think clearly. 
The root cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder hasn’t been definitively identified, but research has shown that it is far less common (often almost non-existent) in warmer, more tropical climates.  It has therefore been linked to disrupted melatonin and serotonin levels due to the shorter days and less sunlight.
So if you or anyone you know starts to feel mild or unexpected symptoms of depression beginning in the fall or winter, it’s imperative that you read this post to understand if you’re truly being affected — and what your options are. Because while some may experience mild symptoms, for others they can be downright debilitating. Telling yourself to just wait it out because you know it’ll go away when spring arrives isn’t always a feasible option.
How to Know If You’re Being Affected
We are now in the thick of the fall season, so this is the time to assess whether you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms:
- Cravings for carbohydrates and sugar
- Low energy levels
- Trouble getting out of the bed in the mornings (more than usual, if you’re never a morning person!)
- Feelings of sadness or despair
- Feeling weighed down, even if you haven’t gained any weight or changed your diet
- No longer feeling up to hanging out with family and friends
- Lack of interest in doing the things you love
- Trouble concentrating
- Just not feeling quite like yourself when the seasons change, feeling “off”
Seasonal Affective Disorder has a lot of similar symptoms to other types of depression, but again, its occurrence is tied with the time of year. When the days get shorter and grayer, that’s when it rears its head, and it’s frustrating because you know what’s causing your symptoms but you can’t exactly change the seasons (if only!) or fly away to a tropical island to wait it out.
There are some things you can do, though…
I’m going to give you 5 secrets you can use to reduce or even possibly eliminate the symptoms of SAD this season.
How to Get Back to Balance and Feel Like Yourself Again
While an island getaway every winter would probably be the perfect cure, it’s probably not going to work for everyone, especially not for the whole winter! Instead, here are some things you can do right where you are.
Secret #1: Get All the Sunshine You Can
It’s easy to see how sunlight exposure goes way down for many of us during the fall and winter. If you wake up at 6 or 7 am and get ready, go straight to work, and then work until 5-6pm — the sun is already down again by the time you’re done. There is literally very little opportunity to get sunshine, even if you live in an area where the sun shines during these months.
This is why you may have to get creative about getting your sunshine in. You can try going on sunrise walks or taking your lunch outside. If going outside isn’t going to happen because it’s too cold, try to position yourself by a window with the blinds open. If none of that helps, there are light therapy boxes that simulate sunlight without exposing you to UV rays. One study found that light therapy boxes are just as effective against SAD than antidepressant drugs!  Here is an example of an affordable light with excellent reviews from people claiming to have alleviated symptoms of SAD. Certainly less expensive than medication.
Secret #2: Get Your Body In Motion!
We all have heard a zillion times how important exercise is for our hearts and health…but did you know that exercise has been shown to be as effective as light therapy.  A group of women who exercised (pedaling on a stationary bike from 1-2pm) were found to have fewer SAD-like symptoms and the same results as those who received light therapy — which is pretty darn amazing. The study did not examine the benefit of those who received BOTH light therapy and exercise, but I better the effect is even stronger and well worth a try.
So how should you exercise during this time of year? Exercising outside (try a hike or yoga) as the sun rises can do wonders for your mood. Throw on those fleece socks. But if it is too chilly where you are, especially as the winter progresses, and you can’t swing an outside workout, consider a home yoga practice or riding a stationary bike inside your home whenever you can fit it into your schedule. 30-60 minutes should give you most or all of the results found in the study.
Secret #3: Increase Your Omega-3 Fatty Acid Intake!
One of the aspects of our diet most correlated to mood is our fat consumption. As you know, the Standard American Diet — another “SAD” reality we are trying to avoid!! — has far too many omega-6 fatty acids and not enough omega-3s. The problem with this is, imbalance or deficiency of omega-3 can lead to lower mood and symptoms of depression. The reverse is also true: research has shown that adequate omega-3 intake can greatly help prevention of depression and related symptoms. 
The Beauty Detox way of eating outlined in my books, The Beauty Detox Solution , The Beauty Detox Foods and The Beauty Detox Power. By decreasing omega-6s (vegetable oils, margarine, and vegan “faux” products like vegan butters and vegan mayonnaises) and increasing omega-3s (nuts, seeds, avocado, and coconut oil are all Beauty Fats that may help), you may start feeling like your old self again.
A word of caution, though: Don’t overdo it on fats in general, as overdoing it can make you feel sluggish and congested. A small avocado or a couple of ounces of seeds or nuts per day is a good balance, and you may even find that you don’t even need that much to notice a difference. Hemp, flax and chia seeds are the best plant-based sources of omega-3 fats. I find myself naturally having chia seeds more often in the fall and winter, which is one of my favorite types of seeds. You may also consider a vegan omega-3/DHA supplement if you are especially concerned about SAD or really feeling the symptoms.
Secret #4: Meditate Each Morning
Mindful meditation has been shown to decrease feelings of depression, anxiety, and stress.  I find that the benefits of meditation are so much stronger when done first thing in the morning, but if you forget or oversleep, you can still take a few moments later in the day to clear your mind and center yourself.
This may not exactly attack the root causes of SAD, which are likely more related to light exposure and other changes in your physiology, however, meditation can certainly help you cope and adapt much better. Either way, it’s a very valuable tool in your kit during these more challenging months.
In a fast, ever-changing world, we can’t control outer circumstances, but we can know that we have a secret haven that is always available for us to retreat to, within ourselves, in our meditation practice. If you’re interested in learning more about yoga and meditation in general, there is an amazing documentary, called Awake, that you should check out. Or you could always learn about it at your own pace using my Beauty Detox Power Yoga DVD that includes a bonus 187 page PDF with six heavily detailed modules to enrich your yoga experience and get you going. :-)
Secret #5: Step Away from Stimulants
If you do start to feel more sluggish during the colder months, it can be more tempting than ever to reach for an artificial “pick me up” — especially hot ones, like coffee. I’ve seen this time and time again with many clients and readers. They manage to stay off coffee during the warmer months, but then fall or winter rolls around and they’re back.
Sure, stimulants will perk you up for a while, but what happens when their effects run out? You crash and reach for the coffee pot again. Those ups and downs can really affect your mood! Drinking caffeine too close to bedtime (sometimes as early as 2:00 in the afternoon is “too close”) can disrupt your sleep and set you up for more ups and downs the next day.
For some, this can increase the “jitters” and create more feelings of anxiety. That’s something you definitely don’t need when your melatonin and serotonin levels are already disrupted due to the lack of sunlight and shorter days. If you want a warm drink, instead try ginger or rooibos tea or another hot tea without caffeine and note how there are no up’s and down’s when you do this.
Putting Together a Plan That Works for YOU
Now that you have some powerful strategies for beating the symptoms of SAD, I encourage you to create a routine that involves some of these things. If you’re stressing over fitting exercise, meditation, and sunshine in while trying to change your diet and cut out caffeine, the benefits could be overshadowed. Instead, plan out your changes and take it slow.
- Set your alarm clock for a few minutes earlier and meditate first thing (or don’t set it earlier and just meditate in the time you would have spent making coffee).
- Determine what kinds of meals you’ll enjoy packing and taking with you on a walk to the park or just on a long lunchtime walk that will allow you to get some of those rays of sunshine you need. Bonus if you can get some extra omega-3s in there (check out my article on how to eat your way to a happier you!)
- Don’t fall victim to cream-of-everything season where your diet is concerned, either. Eating a ton of heavy, dairy-laden foods that are heavy and full of fat will only make your symptoms worse. They’ll make it more difficult to eliminate, and you’ll feel even more fatigued and bloated because of it.
- If you can squeeze in some exercise before or after work, or during the day if you work from home, that will bring pretty tremendous benefits as well — just as much as using light therapy.
Lastly, Don’t Be Afraid to Talk with a Professional
While the advice I’ve provided in this article is alignment with the research on SAD, nothing works for everything all the time. If you’ve tried all of the above and nothing seems to help, then you may need a professional for help dealing with depression. Don’t be afraid of that, it’s okay. The way to know is if your symptoms persist more than a few days or weeks, and your attempts to alleviate them with these natural cures just aren’t working.
In those cases, it may be best to schedule an appointment with a health care professional to explore other options (not all options involve pills!). A naturopathic doctor, for example, may be able to help look at your symptoms as they relate to other things going on in your body and your life to give you a perfectly customized solution that could involve not just diet, but herbs, acupuncture, and other holistic healing methods — something that’s impossible for me to provide in a post like this. You can check out a doctor or specialist that you jive with.
Still, my hope is that persistent cases of SAD are the exception, and that many of you will be helped greatly by the researched strategies that I’ve included in this post. Just the exercise alone was shown to provide a great benefit in a clinical setting. And the same with light therapy, not to mention the many anecdotal cases of success you can read in reviews for the light box I linked to .
Thanks so much for reading this, and I hope you’ll be able to use all this information to not only maintain your health and ideal weight this fall and winter — but also to FEEL your very best.
SAD may affect many, but it might not need to affect you — not anymore.
Until next time.
Have a fantastic day!
Research: http://vegandonelight.com/docs/sad-rosenthal-1984.pdf  http://psychcentral.com/lib/are-you-sad-this-winter-coping-with-seasonal-affective-disorder/00010241  http://www.sciencedaily.com/articles/s/seasonal_affective_disorder.htm  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15800134  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165178100001384  http://www.bourre.fr/pdf/Articles_generaux_revues_syntheses/88.pdf  http://www.sophro-axe.fr/fs/Articles_scientifiques_Mindfulness/6lwwh-Effects_of_MBCT_and_affect_in_patients_with_past_depression.pdf