Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder

Coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder

This past Sunday, the clocks fell back an hour, so we are now done with daylight savings time for about 5 months.  This means that the sun sets very early and the overall, daylight is short.  Today in Chicago, the sunrise is to occur at 6:30 am and sunset at 4:35 pm, giving us a little over 10 hours of daylight.  By the winter solstice on December 21, sunrise is to occur at 7:15 am and sunset at 4:23 pm, giving us only 9 hours and 7 minutes of daylight.  Add in the cloudiness and dreariness of winter with freezing temperatures and frozen precipitation, and those of us who live here are prime candidates for seasonal affective disorder, or SAD.

I have always suffered a bit of the blues in winter, but the winter of 2013-2014 put me over the edge.  That was a horrible winter. It kept snowing and snowing and snowing.  The piled up snow along the sides at the end of the driveway were much taller than me. We had 26 days between December and February where the thermometer reading was below zero.  Going anywhere was a chore and took every ounce of energy.  I wore what felt like 50 pounds of clothing, my eyelashes woud freeze, and I had to leap snow piles on city street corners and slip slide on unshoveled sidewalks to get to the office.  It seemed like spring would never arrive.  I remember being at the grocery store the first Friday in May (yes, May!), and it was snowing outside.  My mood and energy level that winter were abysmal.  Because of that, I did a little research and read up on a condition called seasonal affective disorder.

Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that is related to the change of seasons.  It generally begins and ends around the same time every year.  For most people it begins in the fall, continues through the winter, and ends in the spring.  For a minority they have the opposite and it begins in the spring and continues through the summer.  While people with SAD may exhibit the general signs of depression such as feeling blue and having low energy, there are some specific symptoms of Fall-Winter SAD including irritability, hypersensitivity to rejection, leaden feeling in the arms and legs, oversleeping, craving carbohydrates and weight gain.

The experts think Winter-Fall SAD is caused by the lack of sunlight, which changes our circadian rhythms, can drop serotonin levels, and alter our melatonin levels.  It’s interesting because I have always been sensitive to light.  I remember as a child trying to go to bed at 8:00 pm in the summer and I could not sleep for anything because it was still light out.  I also require a room that is completely dark to sleep, which means no cracks of light through the curtains, no glowing clocks or other light-up devices.  When I travel this often means a towel over a microwave, DVD player or alarm clock in the hotel room.  So given my sensitivity to light, it is not surprising that I have a sensitivity when there is not enough light.

Interestingly, one of the risk factors for developing SAD is living far from the equator.  Other risk factors include being female, age (younger people actually develop it more frequently), a family history, and having clinical depression or bipolar.

I generally notice that my symptoms start in late September or October as the daylight gets shorter, the angle of the sun changes, and it gets colder outside.  Once the time changes back to standard time, I really notice the symptoms because I rarely see the sun.  When I left the office this week a little after 5:00, the moon accompanied me on my walk to the train.  While mild in the fall, I can suffer greatly in January and February.  In February, I often feel as if I am white knuckling it just to get through the day.  However, once March comes and the daylight is noticeably longer and daylight savings time returns, I notice a huge improvement in my mood and overall energy level.


(My morning train ride in the dark)

Because I have realized this about myself, and talked to a few professionals about it, I try to get ahead of it in September and set up some techniques to help me throughout the winter.  If you think you suffer from Fall-Winter SAD, you should definitely talk to a professional if you are feeling depressed, and whether your symptoms are severe or mild, here are some things that might help:

Light Therapy.  Light therapy involves sitting in front of a special light box so you are exposed to bright light.  The light therapy mimics the outdoor light, so it tricks your brain and causes changes to your brain chemicals to improve mood.  This is usually the first line of treatment for SAD and interestingly one I have not tried yet.  This year, maybe this week even, I am ordering a light therapy box.  You can find them for a reasonable price on Amazon.  This is the one I am looking at:


Supplements.  There are supplements that you can take to help offset some of the symptoms of SAD.  I started back up with my Vitamin D supplement in September.  Those of us living in northern climates are often deficient in our Vitamin D because we do not get enough sunlight, especially during the winter.  However, even if you live in a more temperate climate or for us northerners wear sunscreen in the summer, you may still have deficient Vitamin D levels.  In order for your body to make Vitamin D, large amounts of bare skin have to be exposed to the sun when it is high in the sky.  So get your levels checked.  Vitamin D is important for strong bones and a healthy immune system.  According to the Cleveland Clinic there are also studies that indicate that Vitamin D can help certain cancers and autoimmune conditions.  Vitamin D can also also help fight depression.  I have found a great Vitamin D through a natural health practitioner that is water soluble, which means it is difficult to take too much because your body gets rid of what it doesn’t need.  This means no gastrointestinal problems from starting a Vitamin D regimen.

Through that same practitioner, I also was introduced to a supplement called Tao in a Bottle by Dragon Herbs.  It is an anti-stress supplement that contains the same chemical found in green tea.  The supplement relaxes you without making you sleepy.  I have found that this a great help with the symptoms of SAD as it makes me less irritable and sad.

I have also read that melatonin supplements may help as well, but I have not tried them.


Exercise.  Exercise is always a mood elevator that releases endorphins.  Also, if you struggle with weight gain in the winter (which makes you more depressed), exercise can help keep the pounds off.  I always find that moving my body whether through a hard interval training class, yoga, pilates or even a walk, makes my mood better.

Maintain Healthy Eating Habits.  I try and eat a diet of protein, healthy fats and vegetables and avoid most sugar and carbohydrates.  However, SAD makes you crave all of the carbs and sugar.   And eating carbs and sugar makes me feel yucky.  So try and maintain the same healthy eating habits all year-round.  It gets tough with the holidays.  So during that time I become ever more vigilant when it is just a regular day and try and stick closely to my usual diet and avoid treats.  If you are looking for guidance the book The Whole30:  A 30 Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom is great.  I would hold off on doing a Whole 30 until after the holidays because it is hard and involves cooking everything but it is a good way to control the sugar, carb and overall comfort food cravings.

Get Outside.  Even if it is cold, get outside at some point during the day, preferably when there is light.  Unfortunately, I do not always get to do this.  Around the winter solstice, I am going to the office in the dark and coming home in the dark, so I do not get outside during daylight much.  However, as long as the weather is moderate my husband and I still and try and give Gatsby at least a short walk after work.  And on the weekend we take Gatsby on a longer walk during the day when we can see the icy spots.  Even when its cold, the fresh air feels refreshing and clears your sluggish brain.

Take a Vacation.  If you can afford it, take a vacation at some point in the winter.  This tip is often elusive for me.  It’s hard to get away both from a time and money perspective.  However, my husband and I did discuss it last February when I was not doing super great, and we agreed that this year we will look into it if even if for just a long weekend.  Also, May is going to be in South Carolina for about 6 weeks this winter, so I may get away to visit her and also do some May Meets June business.  For me a winter vacation means going someplace warm.  However, if you are a skier I am sure that type of vacation can help with symptoms since you are outside and active.

And when worse comes to worse, remember that Spring always shows up!  Let me know if you have any good techniques for coping with SAD or the winter blues. –June


No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn. -Hal Borland

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