Medically reviewed by Susan Vachon, PA-C on January 10, 2022
During late fall and winter, many people begin to experience a type of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This condition goes beyond the typical winter blues, where you might feel disappointed you can’t go outside as much. With SAD, you’ll have several of the classic signs of depression, including problems concentrating, anxiety, extreme fatigue, loss of interest in your hobbies, or — you guessed it — sadness.
If you think you have SAD, you should always head to a doctor for a diagnosis. But until you can schedule your appointment, there are plenty of things you can try to help make your seasonal depression better.
What Is Seasonal Depression?
While the effects of seasonal depression are well documented, unfortunately, researchers don’t actually know what causes it. The current main hypothesis is that the lack of light in winter can create an imbalance in your biological clock. This is better known as a circadian rhythm, and it defines your body’s schedule when it comes to physical, mental, and behavioral processes. Therefore, when your circadian rhythm shifts, you might start experiencing mood symptoms.
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Another problem the lack of light in winter can cause is an imbalance of serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to relay feelings of happiness throughout the brain. Sunlight plays an important role in regulating serotonin, so when you don’t get enough, your levels may drop, causing you to feel unhappy.
How to Combat Seasonal Depression
Seasonal depression sucks, but you don’t have to let it rule your life. Rather than waiting it out, there are several things you can try. Use these tips to fight back against SAD.
1. Try Light Therapy
Currently, light therapy is the best treatment doctors have for helping with seasonal depression. Since the hypothesized cause of SAD is a misalignment in the circadian rhythm due to lack of light, exposing your body to extra light may offset this.
However, not any old light will work. Research suggests you’ll need light of a specific intensity, duration, and timing. Most doctors will recommend a 10,000-lux light, as this delivers the optimal amount of light in one sitting. However, you can also get a less powerful 2,500-lux light — you’ll just need to sit near it for longer.
To use your light box, you’ll want to place it about 16 to 24 inches from your face. Be careful not to look directly into it — you just want to see it out of the corner of your eye, so it should be about 30° from your forward gaze.
With a 10,000-lux light, you’ll want to keep it on for 20 to 30 minutes. For a 2,500-lux light, you may need up to two hours to see the same effects. Whatever strength your light is, research suggests this method works best when done in the early morning to mimic the sun.
2. Exercise More Than Usual
Exercise is important for your mood year-round, but especially during the colder fall and winter months. When you exercise, your body releases more endorphins. Endorphins are chemicals that can help to reduce pain and increase feelings of pleasure. With more endorphins, you might not feel the effects of seasonal depression as much.
Not only that, but exercise is a social activity. You can head to the gym with a partner or attend a fitness class to socialize and burn calories at the same time. Maintaining your relationships is particularly important for brightening your mood.
Finally, being active can also help you overcome feelings of sluggishness and lethargy by boosting your metabolism. When you work out, your body processes energy faster to fuel itself, meaning everything internally speeds up a bit. This might give you a small boost of energy and help you feel more like yourself.
Getting in exercise in the winter isn’t as hard as it may seem. You can always join a gym and use weights and cardio machines to feel the burn. Fitness classes like yoga and spinning are also highly recommended. Don’t have extra cash? Try free workout videos on YouTube and Instagram.
3. Eat a Healthy Diet
What you eat can affect your brain’s health. In particular, it can affect the levels of three specific neurotransmitters: serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.
We mentioned serotonin above and how it can provide a boost of euphoria after a workout. But did you know you can also get it after eating carbohydrates like sugar, dairy, fruit, and starches? In addition to improving your mood, serotonin can control your appetite and help you feel calmer.
Dopamine and norepinephrine are two additional neurotransmitters you can get after eating protein, like meat, legumes, or dairy. Dopamine is another feel-good chemical that rewards you for certain behaviors. Norepinephrine, on the other hand, is related to your body’s response to stress, so it’s linked to your mood and concentration levels.
So how can you use food to improve your mood? Generally, you’ll want to eat carbohydrates that are high in fiber, along with heart-healthy proteins. As an example, you may have a serving of quinoa paired with skinless white meat chicken. Another good meal would be some fresh fruits paired with low-fat Greek yogurt. Other foods to add to your shopping list include salmon, eggs, turkey, sardines, vegetables, and lentils.
4. Cut Out Stress
Stress plays a major role in the way you feel mentally, physically, and emotionally. When you’re stressed, you might feel tired or feel achy. You also may be irritable and unable to concentrate.
Many of the feelings you get when you’re stressed come from an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain. When these are out of whack, your body may react to a seemingly normal event in an unusual way, causing the tell-tale panicky, anxious feelings you get.
So how can you fight back against stress? Take a mental health day if you need it. Don’t let typically chaotic events like the holidays get you overwhelmed. And pay more attention to mindfulness by practicing deep breathing, listening to calming music, or integrating a yoga practice into your life.
Don’t Let Your Seasonal Depression Get You Down
SAD doesn’t have to define your season. By taking some of these tips for seasonal depression into consideration, you can help yourself start to feel better. That said, you should always consult a professional for help when it comes to your mental health. They can provide tailored suggestions for your specific scenario to help you overcome your struggles.
This blog provides information about telemedicine, health and related subjects. The blog content and any linked materials herein are not intended to be, and should not be construed as a substitute for, medical or healthcare advice, diagnosis or treatment. Any reader or person with a medical concern should consult with an appropriately-licensed physician or other healthcare provider. This blog is provided purely for informational purposes.