How to Beat SAD


For most of us autumn is a time for enjoying football games, visiting a pumpkin patch, and relaxing near a wood burning fire. 

But for many people, the dread of shorter days and colder weather is a real concern. As fall moves into winter, as many as half a million people in the US are diagnosed with a type of depression known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – commonly referred to as winter depression. Millions more feel the affects of the season change but think there is little they can do, and wait for spring.

SAD is real condition and tends to affect women more than men, although men definitely can struggle. It is believed to be related to hormonal changes that occur with decreased light exposure. SAD is common even in sunny Colorado – where the density of the sun rays in the fall and winter are just a fraction of what they are in the spring and summer.

One theory is that reduced sunlight decreases the production of serotonin in the brain.  Serotonin can also be depleted by ongoing stress, which often increases when the kids go back to school and then the rush of the holidays begin. Serotonin has many functions including the regulation of mood, appetite, sleep, muscle contraction, and some cognitive functions including memory and learning.

Common symptoms of SAD are:

  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Decreased libido
  • Headaches
  • Anxiety
  • Loss of energy
  • Social withdrawal
  • Oversleeping
  • Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
  • Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
  • Weight gain
  • Difficulty concentrating and processing information
  • Aches and pains

The likelihood of seasonal mood changes increases as you get older and tends to repeat itself about the same time every year, depending on your sensitivity and level of stress. Depression can become debilitating and can affect your work, relationships and about every other aspect of your life. It has become more socially accepted and understood and is certainly not “all in your head.”  However, you do have more control over your mood than you may think.

Strategies to Combat SAD

1. Light therapy

Light therapy (aka bright light therapy or phototherapy) is a common first line treatment for SAD.  During light therapy, you sit or work near a device called a light therapy box. The light therapy box gives off bright light that mimics natural outdoor light and it is generally suggested to work up to 20 minutes a day, first thing in the morning. It is important to consider the following when purchasing a light therapy box: SAD-specific, intensity (the preferred is 10,000 lux), minimal UV exposure, contains LEDs (light emitting diodes) and blue light (do not look directly at the light), light direction (should come from above your line of sight), dawn simulation, cost, style, and convenience. Your healthcare practitioner can guide you in finding a light that works best for your needs. 

2. Exercise

Exercise releases natural endorphins and increases serotonin in the brain. In Colorado we brag that you can ski a half day and golf in the afternoon! Check for deals at local work-out facilities. If you have never belonged to a gym, there are places that tailor to your needs such as Curves for Women, yoga classes, personal training, pilates, swimming, etc.  You can find used sporting equipment such as cross country skiis and snowshoes at reasonable prices. Ice skating at the Evergreen Lake is a fun way to play AND get exercise. Or – just go for a walk. 

3. Rest

It is important not to over do it. Our busy society tends to forget that humans once survived by being in tune with their environment. They had no artificial light, heating or cars. They went to sleep when it got dark, and woke when it was light. Although humans have evolved in many ways, our biology is nearly the same. As the leaves fall, and the plants and animals begin to hibernate, we too move inward to conserve more energy and become more reflective. Our bodies require more sleep and more rest in general. Adequate sleep also greatly impacts our hormones and directly affects energy, pain, weight, mental functioning and mood.  

4. Stress Management

We are not wired to handle all the mental and physical stress that we go through, making it more important to honor the change in seasons. Make time for yourself, whether it be taking a walk, reading, listening to or playing music, etc. It is not selfish to have some “me” time, in fact, it will give you more energy and help your mood, allowing you to give more in other parts of your life. 

5. Careful Diet

We often crave comfort foods that tend to be high in sugars and refined carbohydrates when we’re feeling down. Those foods temporarily increase serotonin, so in a way we are self medicating. However, they cause dips in energy and can leave you craving more. Sugar is also very addictive. Not having it can temporarily can cause irritability, headaches, and fatigue. It is best to eat whole foods, the less processed the better. Carbohydrates are an important part of a balanced diet but get them from fruits and vegetables. Include lean proteins such as buffalo, chicken and fish, and healthy fats such as nuts, avocado and olive oil. Variety is key! Not only will you have a better chance of getting the nutrients you need, but you will feel more satisfied and less likely to graze which leads to winter weight gain. As a rule of thumb, have your last meal about three hours before you go to bed. Eating at night negatively impacts your quality of sleep.  Your body has enough other jobs while you sleep, including detoxification and hormone production.

6. Limit Alcohol  

Any addictive substance negatively impacts your brain’s mood-regulating hormones. Limit your intake because alcohol is a depressant and can aggravate most symptoms of depression.

7. Take Supplements

It is difficult to get all the nutrients we need from our diet. Some common supplements that are shown to impact mood are fish oils and Vitamin D. Over half of Americans are Vitamin D deficient, and that is a conservative estimate. Many physicians now recommend supplementing 1000 IU per day.  It is also good to take a phytonutrient supplement. You pay for what you get and not all vitamins are created equal.

8. Alternative Medicine

Acupuncture and herbal medicine have been shown to be effective for treating most symptoms of depression. They help to regulate hormones and directly impact the nervous system and the brain. Chinese medicine’s effect on conditions like pain, stress and anxiety can be almost immediate, while continued treatment is cumulative and can often limit the need for medication.  The Chinese philosophy on diet and how it impacts your mood is also a bit different than western beliefs. Many practitioners will offer dietary recommendations based on your condition and your body. 

9. Boost Your Immune System

Several recent studies have shown that the immune response to illness can cause depression. 

Check in with Your Physician

If you suspect you have SAD, consult with your physician to discuss treatment options. Mood changes are very common in the winter, but that does not mean they are normal. Start making changes now, before things get difficult, so that you can beat SAD before it sets in. You can enjoy the Colorado winter this year and not wish time away! 

Lisa Smith