Seasonal Affective Disorder: Living in the dark
Lynn Grieger is a health, food and fitness coach for Everyday Health Calorie Counter - in this article, she's tackling the causes and effective treatment methods of Seasonal Affective Disorder:
I live in snowy, cold Vermont where late Fall through mid-Spring darkness takes over my life.
If I want to go for a run at 6am before work, I need to wear a headlamp, reflective vest, and flashing red light on my back. Instead of my road bike, I'm on the spin bike after work. Evenings on the couch replace nighttime walks.
Lack of sunshine causes pasty white skin and substantially decreased vitamin D levels and also contributes to seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in 4-6% of the population. SAD is a form of depression, with symptoms including anxiety, decreased energy, social withdrawal, hopelessness, increased appetite, weight gain, and oversleeping that typically increase with severity through the winter months then disappear along with the longer days in Spring. According to the British National Health Service (NHS), seasonal affective disorder most likely is caused by the shorter daylight hours that lead to changes in hormone levels, particularly melatonin. With more gloomy and dark hours during the winter, we produce more melatonin which causes symptoms of depression.
Try a three-pronged approach
It makes sense that if SAD is caused by lack of sunlight, sitting in front of a really bright light to simulate hours of sunshine might be helpful. A study published in January 2012, showed that even one hour of bright light therapy improved mood.
According to the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SADA), 1-2 hours of daily exposure to bright light at least 10x the intensity of usual office or home lighting is effective treatment for up to 85% of people with SAD. The minimum dose necessary to treat SAD is 2500 lux. That seems like a lot until we realize that the intensity of a bright summer day can be 100,000 lux. Light therapy consists of sitting two to three feet away from a specially designed light box, allowing the light to shine directly through the eyes.
Researchers aren’t yet sure why light therapy helps decrease SAD symptoms. We do know that bright light therapy reduces blood levels of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep and wake cycles and typically is found in highest levels during evening hours.
Light therapy may not be for everyone, and you should always check with your physician before trying any type of light therapy.
Exercise - especially outside
Aerobic exercise, even done indoors during the winter, may help decrease SAD symptoms by increasing oxygen consumption and normalizing energy output. In other words, getting our butt off the couch and onto the treadmill not only burns calories to prevent weight gain, it also makes our body use more oxygen and work harder. Exercise also improves mood and reduces depression.
One hour of exercise outside during daylight hours may provide as many benefits as 2.5 hours of light box treatment, according to some researchers. Instead of running before work in the dark, I’m starting to use my lunch hour for a run. Even with cloudy and grey wintertime skies, the combination of natural light and exercise gives my spirits a lift for the rest of the afternoon. Instead of holing up at the gym during the winter, take your exercise outside by snowshoeing, skiing, or even starting a snowball fight with the neighborhood kids.
The powerful role of food
Our brain produces chemicals called neurotransmitters that exert a powerful effect on our body and on our mood. The three main neurotransmitters: norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin, work together to balance mood and play a role in energy levels.
All hormones are built from amino acids found in protein foods such as chicken, turkey, red meat, eggs, nuts and soy foods. Tryptophan is converted in the brain to serotonin – but only in the presence of carbohydrate. Boost serotonin levels and improve mood with a combination of protein and carbohydrate.
According to Joy Bauer, MS, RD, CDN, author of Food Cures and the nutrition expert on The Today Show, eating the right types of healthy food can help improve mood.
- High quality carbs such as vegetables, fruit, legumes and whole grains cause a slow and steady rise in blood sugar levels to keep metabolism and energy levels high. Combine high quality carbs with protein for consistent blood sugar levels plus a source of amino acids to make optimum amounts of neurotransmitters.
- Omega-3 fatty acids are found in brain membranes, and they also help the brain use neurotransmitters more efficiently. Bauer notes that consuming higher amounts of omega-3 fatty acids helps level out your mood. Choose fatty fish such as salmon, herring, sardines, or anchovies; or reach for omega-3 fortified eggs. Plant foods such as ground flaxseed, walnuts, and soybeans contain ALA, a type of fat that our body converts to omega-3’s.
- Research shows that low blood levels of vitamin D are associated with poor mood. Bauer recommends salmon and sardines with bones, milk, fortified soy milk or other vitamin-D fortified foods to boost blood levels during dark winter months when our skin is not able to make vitamin D from sunlight.
Take home message
If wintertime has you feeling sluggish and you find yourself heading to the couch instead of the gym, try my 4-step program to battle SAD:
- Get outside every day during daylight hours, even if it’s just for a 10 minute walk at lunch. Up your game by exercising outside as often as possible.
- Choose healthy carbs instead of sugar by reaching for fresh fruit instead of a candy bar, drinking water instead of sweetened beverages, and packing your lunch instead of using the fast-food drive-through.
- Include at least one food containing omega-3 fatty acids every day. Grill salmon, sprinkle ground flaxseed in yogurt, or toss edamame and walnuts in your salad.
- Drink vitamin D-fortified milk or soy milk with meals and snacks.
Follow these 4 steps every day, and your couch will have to be satisfied with the cat for company – you have too much energy to sit around!
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