This blog post was written with Dr. Sherri DeHass, a doctor on Amwell.
If the below-freezing temperatures and dark evenings are getting you down, you are not alone. According to the Cleveland Clinic, 10 to 20% of Americans report feeling tired or sad when there are fewer hours of daylight in the winter months. And although most of these feelings can be cured by a good ol’ fashion Netflix binge, at least 2% of the population suffers from a clinical form of depression called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.
SAD is a type of depression that affects more than a half-million Americans from late fall to early winter, due in part to the changing of the seasons and a decreased exposure to daylight. It is a disorder that is more common in northern regions where the winter season is longer and more prevalent in women under the age of 30.
As seasons change, there is a shift in our biological internal clock. Our internal clock is basically a complex dance of chemicals in your brain, which influence things like mood, appetite and sleep. Since light can influence this system, seasonal variations in light levels will cause changes and how the system operates. More specifically, this is known to affect the levels of two hormones: serotonin, which helps regulate mood, and melatonin, which helps regulate sleep.
When the days are shorter and darker, the production of these hormones increases, causing symptoms such as fatigue, overeating, weight gain, irritability, and decreased sex drive. People may also experience feelings of guilt, hopelessness, and physical problems such as headaches heavy weakness in the arms or legs.
If you are diagnosed with SAD, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Here are some things you can do to overcome the winter blues, without having to move to Yuma, Arizona, aka the world’s sunniest place.
Get more sunlight. Light therapy has been shown to help people dealing with depression all year round. Light therapy consists of a specially made lightbox or a light visor that is worn on the head like a cap for 30 minutes each day. It can be combined with medicine and psychotherapy, but again, should only be prescribed by a doctor or therapist.
Boost your diet. Eat lots of fruits and vegetables and try to stay away from carbs. It may be hard to do during the holiday season, but we offer some tips here, plus a list of powerhouse foods to boost your immune system and mood.
Move around as much as possible. Regular exercise for 20 minutes, 5 times per week can reduce sickness and keep the winter blues at bay. For those extreme, snow-bound days, focus your energy on a cleaning project like dusting or vacuuming. These tasks can actually provide you with some good exercise and leave you feeling satisfied with your productivity.
Get a winter hobby. Even though most winter hobbies include sweatpants and a remote control, it’s important for your mental health to find a mood-enhancing activity that you can enjoy during the cold months. Jump on a lift and try to ski down, take a new fitness class with your best friend, or find your inner Julia Child in the kitchen.
Step away from that cookie. Chocolate and winter seem to go hand in hand, especially during the holidays, but it can seriously affect your mental health. Sugar can hinder the body’s ability to cope with stress and can worsen anxiety. Instead of reaching for that sugary treat for a temporary energy boost, opt for eating complete meals with a good source of protein and fiber.
Set yourself up for solid sleep. Create a “winter evening schedule” that gives you plenty of time to unwind from your day. Take a hot shower, drink a cup of milk or chamomile tea, and climb into bed with a good book at least an hour before bedtime. Melatonin supplements can also help regulate your sleep-wake cycle, but it’s important to check with a doctor before taking any over the counter supplements.
Pay attention to your mind and body. Counseling can help with the symptoms of depression that are associated with SAD. Your doctor may also recommend acupuncture, yoga, and massage therapy, which have all been linked to relief from SAD symptoms.
If your wintertime emotions start to take a noticeable toll on your productivity, it might be time to see a doctor or therapist as he or she can properly diagnose your symptoms and give you more remedies and treatments for SAD and other concerns.