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Bye bye winter blues; ten proven ways to conquer SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)

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You struggle getting out of bed. You don't feel motivated to work. All you want to do is eat a jacket potato in front of the television. The change in seasons has left us feeling sluggish and gloomy and given us an early case of winter depression.

Officially known as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), it is thought that the reduced exposure to sunlight during the autumn and winter months can cause a sudden drop in mood leading sufferers to feel less active, have a lack of interest in life and wanting to sleep more. But when spring arrives the symptoms virtually disappear.

So as we head into the winter period, we look at the best ways to overcome SAD, from switching your morning coffee for light exposure to snacking on popcorn, you can easily brighten your day. Because staying in the winter blues just won't do.

Wake up at sunrise

It might be a cold grey morning but the worse thing you could do is stay in bed. The human body uses light cues, such as those provided by the sun, to time certain functions. When your body clock doesn’t get the right light signals, you can feel tired, moody and sluggish. But when your body clock does get the right type of light, your body produces active, energetic hormones and suppresses the negative, withdrawal ones.

The optimum time to wake up is between 6am and 8am (the hours just after dawn) when there are added benefits of the sun's natural ultraviolet light for mental health.

Meanwhile, oversleeping and fluctuation in the time you wake up increases levels of melatonin during sleep, which can contribute to feelings of depression.

So when you open your eyes, pull open those curtains, sit by a window or go for a walk outside.

Swap your coffee for a bright light fix

Instead of buying your regular morning coffee why not save up for an SAD Light Therapy lamp for your desk at work?

Caffeine in coffee and energy drinks further suppresses the levels of serotonin, the chemical that regulates brain functions such as mood, appetite, sleep, and memory, which can already be low due to a reduced exposure to sunlight.

You can counter this drop by using full spectrum light bulbs, supposedly developed for residents of arctic regions who have extremely long winter nights. These special lamps emit white light emulating the sun's spectrum of wavelengths. Researchers at more than 15 medical centers and clinics around the world noticed an exposure to white light showed a marked improvement on SAD sufferers within a week. An individual's mood can be boosted with 30 minutes of light.

Scandinavian countries offer light cafes where guests can sit in white armchairs and soak up artificial sunlight to fight off the winter blues.

While the phenomenon hasn't taken off in the UK, the Sun Meadow in the at the K West Spa, London, offers gentle light therapy which helps banish the symptoms of SAD.

Optimum dosing of light is crucial, since if done wrong it can produce no improvement, partial improvement or even worsening of symptoms. Visit sad.org.uk to find the best SAD light for you.

Exercise even if it's drizzling

Aerobic exercise is proven to help alleviate SAD symptoms because it raises serotonin levels (our feel-good brain chemical) and reduces stress. Exercising outside can yield even greater benefits due to the natural light exposure.

A study by Bates College Health Center showed that one hour doing aerobic exercise outside (even with a cloudy skies overhead) had the same benefits as 2.5 hours of light treatment indoors. Taking a longer route on your walk to work, go for a run or have a snowball fight (if it get's that cold) to beat the blues.

Snack on popcorn

If you're suffering from SAD you may be craving carbohydrates thanks to a decreased serotonin activity. Snacking on the right kinds of carbohydrates can relieve some of the symptoms of SAD, according to Dr Judith Wurtman, co-author of The Serotonin Power Diet and her husband MIT professor Richard J. Wurtman.

They have long researched carbohydrates and their link to depression, and found in a landmark study published in Scientific American in 1989, that around 30g of carbs — or about 120 calories — per day were enough to make the serotonin you need. But not all carbs are created equal. Eating sweets and simple carbohydrates, like doughnuts, white rice and white bread, quickly raise blood sugar levels and can lead to a sugar crash causing fatigue, headache and irritability. Good snacking choices include popcorn, pretzels, shredded wheat squares or low-fat biscotti.

Wear a bright colour

Therapy using colour such as Phototherapy (utilizing full-spectrum white light for healing) and chromotherapy (using specific colours to influence health) has been used since 2000 BC in Ancient Egypt and Greece. In the hermetic traditions, coloured stones, minerals, and crystals were used to cure various diseased and treatment sanctuaries painted in specific colours were also recognised for their healing qualities.

The modern day alternative is wearing bright colours or painting a wall in a vivid shade.

A poll by charity Mental Health Research UK this year found one in five of us will not wear bright clothes to work because we think others believe they are less professional.

In response to this, Dr Laura Davidson, mental health barrister and trustee of MHRUK, said: "Whilst wearing bright colours will not prevent depression, or SAD which is caused by a lack of sunlight, plenty of research links mood and colour".

"The perception that wearing dark colours in the workplace equates to professionalism is a fallacy. Clearly we need a culture change in the workplace," she said.

Make fish your go-to meat

Some results suggest that SAD is less common in those who consume more omega-3 fatty acids, such as Icelandic people, who eat plenty of coldwater fish.

A 2010 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry - one of the largest on the effectiveness of omega-3 in treating major depression - looked at 432 people with major depression. Those who took a a high-concentration fish oil supplement showed results that were comparable to conventional antidepressants.

Fish is also a great source for vitamin D if we're not getting enough from sunlight on our skin. Researchers from the University of Toronto noticed that people who were suffering from depression, particularly those with SAD, tended to improve as their levels of vitamin D in the body increased over the course of a year. The richest natural sources of vitamin D are oily fish such as sardines and mackerel.

Swap pasta for rice at dinner

Since the evening is usually the time when the symptoms of SAD are at their strongest, it's also best to make your dinner your main carbohydrate-containing meal. Mira Dessy, certified nutritionist and author of The Pantry Principle: How to Read the Label and Understand What's Really in Your Food suggests eating healthier complex carbs such as lentils, brown rice, potatoes and vegetables. They will help fight the urge to snack on unhealthy carbs that will cause momentary relief, but ultimately decrease energy.

Talk, talk, talk

University of Vermont's psychology department tested the talking therapy known as cognitive behavioral therapy on 61 SAD sufferers by splitting them into four groups and making them meet twice weekly for 1.5 hours each time. Half of the group was also given light therapy.

Cognitive behavioral therapy alone or with light therapy was effective at treating SAD, wrote the researchers, using depression surveys to test the patients.

So plan meetings with friends and pick up the phone. Talking really can heal.

Take a winter vacation

One way to get a dose of natural sunlight is by visiting a country that has plenty of it. A small study by Norman E. Rosenthal a world-renowned psychiatrist and expert in SAD, assessed seasonal mood states in different geographical latitudes within the United States, found that the residents of sunny Florida fared much better in winter than the Northerners.

While some argue a winter holiday will improve symptoms only for the duration of the trip, it will definitely make part of winter more bearable.

Remind yourself of brighter days

The good thing is winter isn't forever and the moment spring returns SAD will pass. The Royal College of Psychiatrists suggests mild SAD sufferers remind themselves of that and any other forthcoming plans that might cheer you up.

If you struggle with anxiety and depression and feel you can’t cope please contact The Seasonal Affective Disorder Association via contact@sada.org.uk or call Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.

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