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Seasonal Affective Disorder: Living in the dark

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Posted by Lynn Grieger of Everyday Health under Nutrition, Wellbeing on 1 February 2013 at 12:00 AM

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.

Winter Road

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

Light therapy

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

Walking is aerobic exercise - can help prevent SADAerobic 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. 

Salmon is a great source of Omega 3 and Vit D

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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. 

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  • Encourage

    encouraged this.

    Comments

    20131126112258-adrian

    Lack of sun makes me very sad. I agree that I treasure even a 10 minute or 20 minute walk outside in the middle of the day if I get a chance. Should be sunny in the mountains next week though!

    Tiffany G and Kirsten M encouraged this.

    20130102151836-purplecactus

    All good things to know. I'm more of a night person myself, and during winter there's a fine line between indulging a love of night exercise and full on SAD (especially if you've got a history there). Luckily over here even our long nights leave us with a decent length of day to get out in.

    20131111144432-sentient0ne

    Thank you for the post on SAD. I was thinking of posting something myself. I endure this every year. It's not severe, but there are days I simply don't have the energy or desire to function. It doesnt help that I work from home, 10 hour days. So I'm at my computer before and after the sun has come and gone. Due to screen glare I don't even have the luxury of letting much sunlight in my office space, that's assuming it's even a sunny day. But Spring is around the corner. The days are gradually getting longer. I eat weel and exerise often. And I have Tribesports and many friends here to keep me motivated. Thank you again for the post Lynn!

    20140430192850-towardfarm

    Living in dreich damp Argyll in the winter this reads so true, I do enjoy running at night though, the darkness always feels warm and comforting but not in the morning I want it light and bright, there is a small stretch in the days now though so at least we are on the right track.

    Cags R and Nelson L encouraged this.

    20130122211857-vtlynn

    Thanks everyone for the responses. It's good to know that we're not alone, isn't it? Liette T it's great that you've found some relief with vitamin D. Terry G, I work from home as well and make sure to schedule some time outside in the sun every day, evn if it's only to walk out to the mailbox. It really does help!

    Liette T and Adrian K encouraged this.

    20121119151149-abimccray

    Very interesting and so true! Bring on the summer!

    20130913184138-teresad

    didn't realise sad affected so many people..thanks lynn..gonna try some of the suggestions...thank you.x

    20131122040327-janeh

    I feel my mood change considerably according to the weather. As soon as it becomes cold and dark, I become miserable. The sun shines, and so do I!

    Heather W encouraged this.

    20140119213819-joanne28

    This rings so many bells with how I've been feeling recently! Thank you.

    20130122211857-vtlynn

    I just got back from a 6 mile run under grey and cloudy skies, but even without bright sunshine getting outside really lifted my mood. Did anyone else do outdoors activity today?

    Amber K encouraged this.

    20130104165927-bronco56

    I have to say I do prefer an hour of aerobic exercise (cycling, walking, skating) outside to the same in the gym. Finding difficult to get my money's worth out of my gym membership because of that :(

    20130219191207-adkonz

    Me too Lynn! I woke up this morning thinking "meh, I don't want to run" then read this post, THEN went for a run, and feel great.

    Lynn G encouraged this.

    20130122211857-vtlynn

    Good for you Amber! Today it's cold (mid-teens) but the sun is shining. My 7 miler today felt awesome! Now I think I'll swim some laps :)

    20140110193001-adiaphoria

    Great read... I am afflicted with this ailment every winter...sunshine is my energy source. In the spring & summer months I have endless energy; I often run a 30 km & work a 16 hours shift with a smile on my face, sleep 3 hours and feel right as rain on a on a muggy summers' night...winter approaches and my motivation, attitude & energy have migrated south with the birds! To make the situation worse, I suffer from Raynauds which makes it near impossible to enjoy the cooler months = D*E*P*R*E*S*S*I*O*N*! It is still quite "Taboo" the affliction named...depression; I suffer from S.A.D. and feel the shame... it is very heavy to support & carry for close to 6 months of every year. This year I invested in a light therapy light; having always had a diet chalk full of omega 3's & vitamin D, I knew that was not the missing link. Okay...exercise outside was tasking & often an ordeal....yet I managed......so......that left LIGHT. I have been on "Light" for close to 3 weeks now and YES...I feel the difference, I feel like "summer me"....happy, positive & not depressed/suicidal; the silver lining is omnipresent...maybe slightly obscured, but all the same there! If any of you are afflicted by S.A.D., I strongly urge you to try light therapy...it has preserved my mental state & has allowed me to be "ME" 12 months of the year!

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