If you're feeling down in the dumps during the dark and cold winter months, you're not alone. The cause is winter depression, otherwise called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). In fact, I have one colleague who’s so profoundly affected by the lack of sunlight in the winter that her husband calls her “solar powered”—and he’s not too far off.
Your body needs sunlight in order to manufacture the feel-good hormone serotonin. So as the days get shorter and serotonin production drops, seasonal affective disorder can set in—including fatigue, anxiety, depression, carbohydrate cravings, sleep disorders, and even reduced libido.
The Good News Is You Can Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder
- Get moving. A study at the world famous Cooper Clinic in Dallas showed people diagnosed with depression who would normally be placed on medicine got the very same benefit from 180 minutes of physical activity a week. That’s because exercise enhances mood-enhancing neurotransmitters in the brain, including the feel-good endorphins responsible for the “runner’s high.” If you can exercise outside or near bright light, that's even better! Try taking that walk outside on a sunny day, or doing your inside exercise routine at the gym, at a yoga class, or wherever you can seek out bright light when the sun isn't out.
- Elevate your mood with “indoor sunshine.” I recommend using a light therapy box for about 30 minutes in the morning, while you read the paper or eat breakfast. You want to place it about 12 to 24 inches away from you at a slight angle. Don’t stare directly at the light. All you want is for the light to reach your eyes where it can trigger your body’s production of mood-boosting serotonin. If you spend a lot of time at a desk at home or in your office, try putting a light box nearby. I keep one to the right and a bit behind my computer screen for that extra boost!
- Add St. John’s wort to your bedtime routine. In addition to light therapy, you may want to consider taking 300 to 600 mg of St. John’s wort at bedtime for seasonal affective disorder. One study showed that patients exposed to light therapy while receiving 900 mg of St. John’s wort improved their depression scores. The researchers felt that combining the two therapies was superior to either one alone. But there are several notes of caution: if you’re on Coumadin you shouldn’t take St. John’s wort. Plus, you shouldn't use St. John's wort with anti-depressive medications, such as Prozac, Zoloft, and Paxil.
- Eat your way to a brighter mood. Eat a low-sugar, high-protein diet. Include eggs in your diet which contain the basic amino acids to support the formation of dopamine and serotonin, two neurotransmitters that help lift your mood if you have seasonal affective disorder.
For mild to moderate seasonal affective disorder, I recommend trying these steps. It’s also wise with any form of depression to visit your doctor. This is one of those times when conventional medicine may be the best solution.
Now it’s your turn: Do you suffer from seasonal affective disorder?