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9 Ways to beat SAD during a long, cruel winter

Maggie Giuffrida is a graduate of The University of Arizona where she earned a degree in journalism. She is a contributing writer for SheKnows, specializing in health and fitness. Maggie is a certified yoga instructor and health and well...

How to tell if your bad mood is actually a common health disorder

The winter blues, also referred to as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), in more extreme cases affects 10-20 percent of the population, and a majority may not even know it, according to the National Mental Health Disorders Association.

Katherine Schafler, a New York City-based licensed psychotherapist, says the most common symptoms of SAD include feeling depressed or down for the majority of the day for at least two weeks; feeling inexplicably tired and heavy, as if your bones are made of lead; appetite changes, especially craving carbohydrates; sleeping too little or too much; irritability; and withdrawing from activities that typically bring you pleasure and happiness.

"Before you freak out and spend the next 20 minutes falling down the WebMD rabbit hole, it's important to note that SAD is more than just feeling 'out of it' for a few days and wanting some pasta," Schafler points out. "SAD is also marked by a withdrawal from social activities, uncharacteristic pessimism and the inability to extract as much pleasure from things that normally make you happy."

Schafler says SAD is connected to legitimate physiological changes in your brain and body, mainly disrupted circadian rhythms and a subsequent disruption in your ability to absorb a "happiness hormone" called serotonin. Women, she adds, are twice as likely as their male counterparts to be diagnosed as clinically depressed.

"The onset for clinical depression most typically hits in the mid-20s, and because seasonal affective disorder is a subset of depression, I would say this research puts millennial women at a more significant risk," Schafler says.

Thankfully there's a lot we can do to combat the symptoms of the winter blues. Check out the list of tips and tricks below to help improve your mood when you're feeling blue.

1. Take some vitamin D

Since the sun tends to go MIA during the winter months, it's not a bad idea to stock up on some vitamin D. Studies have shown that taking such supplements greatly helps to improve your mood.

"Ask [your doctor] about how vitamin D and melatonin supplements can impact mood," Schafler suggests. "Both are thought to improve circadian realignment, a major factor in SAD. Your doctor can also discuss other supplement remedies and medications that might help boost your mood, depending on your needs."

2. Cool it on the caffeine

While nothing tastes better on a wintry day than a seasonal latte, it might not be the best choice of drink because of all the caffeine. Drinking too many caffeinated beverages, such as soda, coffee and tea, can spike insulin levels and drop blood sugar levels, which contributes to a sense of fatigue and is also extremely dehydrating.

"Eating wisely also means watching the caffeine, which suppresses serotonin," says Julia Ross, author of The Mood Cure and The Diet Cure. "If you must drink coffee, save it for after the meal."

Natural, non-caffeinated ways to boost your energy include exercising, avoiding junk food, eating more fruits and veggies, drinking lots of water and getting plenty of rest.

3. Set a regular sleep schedule

Sleeping until noon might feel like your body's natural urge when there's a foot of snow outside your window, but if you can, try to avoid spending all day in bed. Your body works best on seven to nine hours of sleep and responds better when you keep a regular routine.

"Make sure you get the right amount of sleep — not too little, and not too much," recommends Lolly Daskal in an article. "Sometimes when it's dark and cold outside, a warm bed is hard to leave. Overcoming that tendency is another reason to plan some fun for yourself."

4. Eat clean

Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet full of fruits, veggies and whole grains will not only help prevent that dreaded winter weight gain, but it will also help your body produce brain chemicals that make you feel more energetic and upbeat.

"Avoid refined and processed foods [like white breads, rice and sugar]," suggests fitness instructor Nicole Nichols. "These foods are not only devoid of the nutrients your body craves, but they zap your energy levels and can affect your mood — causing depression, lack of concentration and mood swings. Try to incorporate more complex carbohydrates [whole wheat breads, brown rice, veggies, fruit], and get your daily 8 cups of water. These healthy foods provide your body [and mind] with nutrients and stabilize your blood sugar and your energy levels."

Also make sure to load up on omega-3 fats, like salmon, walnuts and flaxseed, as well as lean protein, such as skinless poultry, lean red meat and eggs, which encourage your body to release the feel-good chemicals dopamine and norepinephrine after you eat.

5. Make your body move

Extra motivation might be needed to brave the blistering cold, but your body will definitely thank you for it. Exercising regularly helps boost feelings of well-being and positivity as well as increases energy levels by upping your endorphins and the brain's feel-good chemicals.

"I know it's annoying to hear this as a suggestion, because everyone already knows that exercise is generally helpful, but even just doing 10 minutes of exercise in the middle of your living room changes your brain chemistry and can boost your mood," says Schafler.

6. Discover new light sources

While sticking yourself under a sunlamp (aka tanning beds) is not necessarily encouraged, doctors do recommend getting your daily dose of faux sun through a light box, which simulates sunlight and helps regulate the brain chemicals that affect your mood. Just a few weeks of treatment, consisting of 30 to 60 minutes per day, has been proven to help around 70 percent of patients.

"Light a candle, pull the shades wide open, turn on extra lights in your home," Schafler suggests. "Light therapy is an actual thing, and choosing the right light box for you can be surprisingly effective."

7. Stay social

After the high of holiday gatherings subsides, you might find yourself feeling a little more isolated or not knowing what to do with yourself and time. If such a situation occurs, do your best to get out and be social. Researchers have found that 1 in 5 people feel sad solely due to social isolation, which can make you more vulnerable to mental health problems.

"Don't underestimate the power of friends, family, mentors, co-workers and neighbors," Nichols says. "Who can you turn to when you're down and need a pick-me-up? Keep a mental list of these special people, and don't be afraid to ask for help or encouragement when you need it. Something as simple as a phone call, a chat over coffee or a nice email or letter can brighten your mood."

The more you withdraw, the worse you feel, so gather some friends, and go grab a meal.

8. Satisfy your sweet tooth

But seriously, what can't chocolate cure? Dark chocolate, the kind with 70 percent cocoa or more, has been shown to help boost dopamine levels in your brain as well as significantly reduce stress hormone levels.

"Certain foods, like chocolate, can help to enhance your mood and relieve anxiety," says Brigitt Hauck.

As if we really needed another reason to indulge in a little hot cocoa!

9. Don't be afraid to seek help

If none of the above remedies seems to shake the funk you're in, don't be afraid to seek counseling. It's a sign of self-awareness and maturity to know when you're in need of a little extra help and to make a conscious decision to receive it.

"If the winter is extra rough for you for whatever reason, get a little extra support," Schafler says. "I see a lot of clients who know the winter is not their best season emotionally and come in to see me for three months or so of 'booster therapy,' which always strikes me as so self-aware and positive."

If you think a friend, family member or loved one might be suffering from SAD, Schafler suggests employing the communication strategy of "sharing the dilemma," wherein you transparently preface your concern with the truth about your nervousness in saying it. For example, saying, "I'm nervous to tell you this because I don't want to upset you or make you feel like I'm judging you, but I care about you more than I'm nervous, so here goes: I'm worried you might be depressed or that the winter blues are really getting to you in a serious way."

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