Tips for Managing Seasonal Affective Disorder

Woman, man hiking on a winter day
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Have you been feeling more irritable or depressed lately? Sleeping more and craving carbs? If so, you may be suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a condition that’s likely caused by a lack of sunlight, which leads to decreased production of the brain chemical serotonin. The good news is you’ll feel better by April, when the daylight hours become longer. But right now, that’s a long way off. If packing up and moving south isn’t in your immediate plans, there are a few things you can do to alleviate the symptoms of SAD.

Make Sure Your Tank is Full

Your body runs and feels better when it’s well-fueled. A deficiency in any nutrient can leave the body stressed and susceptible to illness, which can increase feelings of fatigue or depression. Studies have linked low levels of the B vitamins to higher rates of depression, so make sure you get a few servings of leafy greens, whole grain breads and cereals, legumes and low-fat animal foods like fish, chicken or low-fat dairy each day. Taking a multivitamin during the fall and winter can also give you some added protection. 

Take Some Extra D and Omega-3

Low levels of both vitamin D and omega-3 fats are also linked with depression, and individuals who are supplemented seem to feel better. Eating fatty fish like salmon or sardines at least twice each week should provide enough omega-3, or try plant sources like chia or hemp seeds and walnuts. Fish is also a good source of vitamin D, as is fortified orange juice and milk (but not most other dairy products) and eggs, but this is one vitamin that’s hard to get enough of from foods alone. It’s known as the “sunshine vitamin” because much of our vitamin D is produced in our skin by the sun. Most of us don’t get adequate sun exposure during the winter months, so it's usually wise to supplement this vitamin.  

Eat More (Smart) Carbs

There’s a reason many people crave carbohydrates like pastries, pasta and potatoes more in the fall and winter, and it has to do with the mood-boosting serotonin. Serotonin levels in the brain tend to drop with less sunlight, but eating carbs can raise them and produce a calming effect. Unfortunately, eating too many of those refined carbohydrates causes your insulin to work overtime and contributes to winter weight gain. Allow yourself some occasional treats, but smart carb choices like whole grain breads and cereals, legumes and fruits and vegetables, which will actually make you feel better for longer.

Boost Your Endorphins

You don’t have to be a runner to experience “runner’s high.”  A good dose of any form of exercise will increase production of the feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain known as endorphins. Regular exercise can also help you to sleep better at night, so you feel more alert during the day. Try to get some exercise most days of the week and, for an added bonus, exercise outside whenever it’s sunny, to also boost your vitamin D and serotonin levels.

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Anne Danahy
Anne Danahy, MS, RDN, is a wellness dietitian and nutrition communications consultant who specializes in women's health and healthy aging. She blogs at Craving Something Healthy. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest.