4 tips to combat seasonal affective disorder

Woman staring out a window

If you’ve noticed that you’re persistently unhappy when the days get shorter, you’re not alone. You might be experiencing a common type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). 

SAD is caused by reduced exposure to light. When the days get shorter and you spend less time outside, your body’s natural clock (circadian rhythm) gets out of sync. “Your body’s natural clock starts when you get the first burst of light in the morning,” says Jerry Walker, PhD, Nebraska Medicine psychologist. Without that burst of light, your body will keep producing the sleep hormone melatonin, which lowers your mood and energy.

SAD mimics a major depressive episode. Some symptoms of SAD are:

  • Losing enjoyment in things that used to be fun
  • Withdrawing from people
  • Oversleeping an hour or more every day
  • Appetite changes, especially craving foods that are high in carbohydrates
  • Tiredness or low energy

1. Try light therapy.

“Light therapy can be an effective treatment for SAD,” says Dr. Walker. “A light box provides the burst of light, which cascades all the wake hormones.” You’ll want a light box that provides at least 10,000 lux, which is standard. Use it when you first wake up for 20 to 30 minutes. Don’t stare directly at the light box, though – it just needs to be shining on your face. 

2. Exercise in the morning.

An upbeat exercise session in the morning can also help you wake up. “Physical activity jumpstarts the wake cycle,” says Dr. Walker. When you get your heart rate up, your body sees it as a sign that it should be awake. Exercise also releases endorphins, hormones that reduce pain and boost your mood.

3. Tweak what you eat.

If you drink something really cold or really hot in the early morning, that can also reset your circadian clock. “A hot or cold drink works like a shock to the system,” says Dr. Walker. What you eat throughout the day can also affect how you feel. You’ll want to stay away from heavier foods and carbs, which tend to sap energy. Lighter foods like seafood, nuts and leafy greens will give you long-lasting energy.

4. Talk with your doctor.

Above are general recommendations that might help. If your symptoms of SAD persist, schedule an appointment with your doctor. Antidepressants or therapy might be much more effective for you. Some people with SAD benefit from taking antidepressants in the winter months and don’t need medication the rest of the year.

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