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Staving Off Seaonal Affective Disorder

Even though the current 80+ degree weather we’re experiencing here in Minnesota belies the shift from summer to fall, it’s difficult to completely shut out of awareness the fact that colder temperatures and shorter days on their way. Leaves have started to litter my yard, and I’m becoming re-accustomed to waking up in the dark. I know with the turn of a couple of calendar pages, I’ll be arriving home after work in the dark as well.

As the seasons shift, many individuals who live at latitudes or in climates where they are not regularly exposed to the sun can struggle with a host of symptoms including low mood, irritability, fatigue, shifts in appetite, and difficulties getting out of bed. Those who are already prone to depression often experience intensifying symptoms as summer fades to fall and winter. These features of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, can cast a long shadow across already dark days.

Fortunately, there are a number of interventions for staving off seasonal affective disorder. Dr. Henry Emmons, a local integrative psychiatrist, offers several suggestions for addressing SAD in his book, The Chemistry of Joy:

  1. Vitamin D. Recent studies have demonstrated that vitamin D deficiency during the fall and winter is common among individuals who live at northern latitudes. Our bodies synthesize vitamin D from skin exposure to sunlight, which is obviously lacking as the weather turns cold. Dr. Emmons recommends taking 1000 IU (International Units) of vitamin D3 (the form our bodies can best metabolize) from early fall to mid-spring for those who struggle with seasonal depression.
  2. Vitamin B. B vitamins can be thought of as “anti-stress” vitamins. Taking 50-100 mg of a good B-complex (a combination of B6, B12, and folic acid) can help to buffer against seasonal stressors.
  3. Essential fatty acids. Research has suggested that consuming omega-3 essential fatty acids can have a protective effect against depression. For prevention, Dr. Emmons recommends adding 1000mg of EFA in the form of fish or flax seed oil to your diet. For fish oil, be sure to add up the amounts of DHA and EPA listed on the supplement label to reach 1000mg. To address more acute depression, Dr. Emmons recommends increasing the dose to 2000 to 3000 mg daily.
  4. Exercise. Regular cardiovascular exercise can be just as effective as antidepressant medication in treating mild symptoms of depression. It can help to get into an enjoyable and sustainable routine before the mercury dips below zero.
  5. Diet. It’s not uncommon for people who are prone to seasonal depression to crave refined carbohydrates and sweets. Reaching for these “comfort foods” is often an attempt to self-medicate against low moods. Consuming sugar stimulates the release of beta-endorphins, which help us to cope with physical and emotional pain. But relying on refined carbohydrates and sugars sets us up for a “sugar high” and a corresponding crash in energy and mood. Switching to complex carbohydrates, including legumes, starchy vegetables, and whole grains provides a much more stable energy source for our bodies. Other dietary recommendations for the winter months include eating lighter foods similar to the ones you would consume in the summer, such as salads, water-filled fruits, low-fat foods, fish, and lean meats.
  6. Light therapy. Tricking your brain into thinking that the sun is rising earlier and setting later than it actually is can help to reduce daytime fatigue and sluggishness. When bright light enters the eyes, it raises serotonin levels and can help normalize circadian rhythms, which can often go awry during the sleepy winter months. If you choose to try light therapy, Dr. Emmons recommends using light at an intensity of 5,000-10,000 lux for 30 minutes just after waking and in the late afternoon.

Taking preventative measures to ward against SAD can make a world of difference for individuals who struggle with the winter blues.

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