As the cooler temperatures roll in, we naturally retreat indoors into the coziness of our heated homes. The winter may come as a welcome reprieve from the heat of summer for some people. But for those susceptible to seasonal affective disorder (another term for seasonal depression), the darker days can significantly affect their mental health and well-being.
What is seasonal affective disorder?
Aptly named ‘SAD,’ seasonal affective disorder is usually triggered by a lack of exposure to sunlight. Typically, people with existing mental health issues experience symptoms of SAD at higher rates, especially sufferers of bipolar disorder. However, SAD can touch everyone, as the change in seasons typically causes a shift in our circadian rhythms (sleep-wake cycles).
Here are some ways to tell if you might be experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder, and what you can do to help:
Seasonal Affective Disorder quiz
If you notice you are more tired
Try looking at your routines around sleep: both your nighttime and morning routines. You can offset the changes of the season by keeping a consistent sleep schedule. That means going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time each morning (including weekends). Getting sunlight first thing in the morning can help establish a healthy circadian rhythm, but if you get up before the sun rises, you can try using a sunlight-mimicking light.
If you notice you lose motivation
Try to get into a consistent exercise routine, as it can help improve overall mood, especially in the colder, darker fall and winter months. Developing an exercise routine now will also help you maintain consistency as the colder days make it less appealing to go workout. As little as 10-15 minutes each day can help support a better mood throughout the winter.
If you notice you are craving more comfort foods
Seasonal affective disorder can cause cravings for foods higher in carbohydrates, like breads and casseroles. Start your day with a nutritious, protein-packed breakfast to help offset some of these cravings. By starting your day with these nutrients, you can better regulate your blood sugar, which can help stabilize your mood and energy levels throughout the day.
If you notice you have low levels of vitamin D
Less exposure to sunlight during the day can decrease vitamin D levels, which can affect your mood significantly. Increasing your vitamin D supplementation (try 10,000 iu per day for a week to get levels up) and getting more vitamin D-rich foods can help. These foods include fish (like sardines and salmon), red meat (mostly organ meats like beef liver), and egg yolks.
Important things to remember about SAD
While these tips can all be helpful whether you experience seasonal affective disorder or not, it may also be helpful to find a provider you trust to support you. Seeking professional help might look like working with a trusted healthcare team, consulting a therapist, or finding a combination of different modalities that work for your life.