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10 proven ways to conquer SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)

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Sarah Biddlecombe
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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that is often most severe during the winter months. Here, Stylist examines 10 tried and tested ways to alleviate the symptoms.

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. Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. The colder months have left many people feeling sluggish and gloomy, which could be an indicator of winter depression.

Officially known as SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), this winter depression is thought to be caused by reduced exposure to sunlight during the autumn and winter months. This 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, those symptoms virtually disappear.

So as we languish in the middle of the winter period, we take a look at the best ways to overcome SAD. From switching your morning coffee for light exposure, to snacking on popcorn, these tips can easily help you brighten your day. 

Wake up at sunrise

It might be a cold, grey morning, but the worst thing you can 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 it 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 the hormone 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 that 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. And while the phenomenon hasn’t quite taken off in the UK yet, the Sun Meadow at the K West Spa, London, offers gentle light therapy to help banish the symptoms of SAD.

Optimum dosing of light is crucial, since if not done properly 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 added bonus of natural light exposure.

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

Snack on popcorn

If you’re suffering from SAD you may be craving carbohydrates, thanks to 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.

The pair have long researched carbohydrates and their link to depression, and found in a landmark study that around 30g of carbs — or about 120 calories — per day was enough to produce the serotonin you need. However, not all carbs are created equal. Eating sweets and simple carbohydrates like doughnuts, white rice and white bread, quickly raises blood sugar levels and can lead to a sugar crash causing fatigue, headaches 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 (utilising full-spectrum white light for healing) and chromotherapy (using specific colours to influence health), has been around since 2000 BC in Ancient Egypt and Greece. In the hermetic traditions, coloured stones, minerals, and crystals were used to cure various diseases, while treatment sanctuaries painted in specific colours were also recognised for their healing qualities.

The modern day alternative is to wear bright colours, or paint a wall in a vivid shade.

Make fish your go-to meat

Research has suggested that SAD is less common in those who consume more omega-3 fatty acids.

A 2010 study in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry - one of the largest on the effectiveness of omega-3 in treating 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 of 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 feel better as the levels of vitamin D in their bodies 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 could also be helpful to make dinner your main carbohydrate-containing meal. Nutritionist Mira Dessy suggests eating healthier complex carbs such as lentils, brown rice and potatoes. These 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 (CBT) on 61 SAD sufferers, by splitting them into four groups and making them meet twice weekly to talk for 1.5 hours each time. Half of the group was also given light therapy.

CBT alone was effective at treating SAD, wrote the researchers, who used depression surveys to test the patients.

With this in mind, 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. The results suggested the residents of sunny Florida fared better in winter than those in the darker Northern states.

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

Remind yourself of brighter days

The good thing is that winter isn’t forever and, the moment spring returns, SAD symptoms will begin to fade. The Royal College of Psychiatrists suggests that mild SAD sufferers should remind themselves of the temporary nature of the condition, as well as any other forthcoming plans that might cheer you up.

If you are dealing with anxiety and depression related to SAD, please visit Mind for more information or contact The Seasonal Affective Disorder Association via contact@sada.org.uk 

Images: iStock