How to Ease Your Seasonal Depression
November 8th, 2021 / Functional Medicine
The past year has practically been a recipe for seasonal affective disorder (aptly acronymed S.A.D.), a mood disorder that typically coincides with the colder months when people stay inside more and get less sunlight. The symptoms are moodiness, sadness, fatigue, and a lack of energy. Some people also have trouble sleeping, eating, or have anxiety. Some have irresistible carb cravings and experience excessive weight gain. You may think of this as the “winter blues”—that’s what I call it when I feel it myself—and SAD can be mild, but for some people, it can be debilitating. It’s one thing to want to stay curled up in bed on a snowy winter today, but if you feel overwhelmed, hopeless, worthless, or can barely get out of bed, or if you don’t feel able to summon the will or desire to do what you need to do during the day, you could be suffering from SAD.
We don’t know for sure what causes SAD, but it’s probably related to light exposure, which can interfere with your body’s natural circadian rhythms (your internal “clock”) as well as your production of hormones and neurotransmitters related to sleep and mood, such as melatonin, serotonin, dopamine, and vitamin D. Women suffer from SAD more often than men, and it may have a genetic component.
Not surprisingly, it’s most common in people who live in the least sunny places on earth—epidemiological studies on the disorder show that it’s most prevalent at northern latitudes (like most of the U.S.), and is more likely to occur in people who have other mood or mental health disorders, like anxiety or depression. In general, symptoms of depression are more common in winter in the general population, and the more extreme form of this, SAD, is relatively common.
If you feel seriously depressed in the winter, please see a doctor—SAD is highly treatable with medication and light therapy. If your case is mild and manageable but you know you’re susceptible to those winter blues (like I am) and you’d like to sleep better, have more energy, and feel a bit more in control of those winter carb cravings, you might be glad to know that there are some easily accessible therapies for SAD that don’t require going to a doctor.
One of the most effective treatments for SAD is light therapy, and you can treat yourself with a light box designed just for this purpose. Light boxes are electronic devices that project full-spectrum light. Sitting in front of them during the day can give many SAD sufferers profound relief, further validating the theory that lack of sunlight is the primary cause. They used to be mostly available by prescription only, but they are now widely available to anyone online.
Look for a light box that advertises 10,000 lux (a measure of how much light exposure you will get from the device). I recommend sitting within 2 feet of a lightbox with 10,000 lux intensity for at least 30 minutes per day, preferably soon after waking up in the morning. This could help your mood throughout the rest of the day, and is in synch with natural circadian rhythms. Look for a light that emits little or no UV light, and be sure your eyes are exposed–the light needs to hit your retina, to have its effect. (Talk to your doctor first if you have any eye problems such as glaucoma or cataracts.)
By the way, if you’re thinking that you can get your sunlight dose (and a bit of color) from a tanning booth during the winter, don’t run off to the tanning salon just yet. While tanning could theoretically help to some degree (perhaps by increasing vitamin D production), the skin cancer risks are far too high. Besides, since you get the light benefits through your eyes and you have to keep your eyes shielded in a tanning booth, you won’t get nearly the benefit you can get from a light box. Tanning booths emit high levels of UV light, which are dangerous for your eyes as well as your skin.
You can, however, find full-spectrum light bulbs to put in the rooms you are in the most during the winter. Here are some of my favorite light box and full-spectrum light bulb products:
Full Spectrum Light Bulbs
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