Mood-boosting tips to treat seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Do you often feel down or lack energy and drive during the winter months? You may be prone to seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a subgroup of major depression that flares up during autumn and winter, and disappears again in spring and summer.

Common SAD symptoms can include irritability, hopelessness and sadness, changes in appetite, oversleeping, fatigue, a heavy feeling in arms and legs, weight gain, suicidal thoughts and the tendency to avoid social situations.

What causes SAD?

SAD is usually triggered by seasonal changes that disrupt a person’s circadian rhythm (biological clock), and variations in two key hormones: serotonin and melatonin. Reduced sunlight in winter is the main culprit – it causes the body’s biological clock to move out of sync, and results in reduced serotonin production (sunlight is a key component of serotonin production).

Serotonin, also known as the “feel good” neurotransmitter, is responsible for mood regulation.

At the same time, melotonin production increases, because melotonin, which is responsible for regulating sleep, is produced in darkness.

The end result is low mood, fatigue, and the tendency to sleep for longer periods of time.

Additionally, the colder weather also makes us prone to exercise less, spend more time indoors, and eat unhealthy “comfort foods”, all of which contribute to undesirable mood fluctuations.

Who is affected?

Younger adults (between the ages of 20 and 30), females, and individuals who live further north of the equator (where the decreased daylight hours in winter are felt more acutely), most commonly experience the more severe symptoms of SAD 1. However, many individuals who don’t fall into these categories also experience these symptoms, or “the winter blues”, to a lesser degree.

That’s why it is important to take precautionary measures to make sure your mood stays stable throughout winter – regardless of your location, age or gender. As you read through this article, start thinking about the instances where you feel specifically low during winter, and what lifestyle patterns commonly trigger those low moods.

This will help you make mindful changes that can help boost your mood not just during winter, but in the long run.

How to move from SAD to glad?

As mentioned earlier, SAD is categorised as a form of depression. Many natural remedies used to treat depression can therefore work to treat SAD too. Here are some of the best natural ways to beat SAD and many other forms of depression:

Exposure to sunlight: In sunny South Africa, we have the privilege of enjoying far more winter daylight hours than countries farther away from the equator. Make the most of this advantage by taking time to get outside – take a walk or jog, schedule an outdoor lunch, or enjoy a weekend hike with your family and friends.

Get moving: Physical activity is proven to have a positive effect on treating depression 2. It does this by regulating insulin levels (which prevents weight gain) and boosting serotonin and dopamine (i.e. “feel good” hormones). If you can’t bear the thought of being outdoors in winter, find a nice indoor exercise studio or at-home programme that you enjoy, and commit to at least 20 to 30 minutes of moderate exercise three to five times a week. If you are lacking motivation, find an “exercise buddy” to complete workouts with you. This helps keep you accountable, and have more fun (which is good for your mood).

Prioritise your bedtime: In winter, it is natural to want to sleep more, because our biological clocks adjust to the cycle of shorter days and longer nights. Numerous studies have shown that there is a clear link between sleep disorders and depression 3, so make sure that you are getting enough shut-eye. Aim for at least seven to nine hours a night.

Up your omega-3’s: Research shows that regular omega-3 fatty acid intake may help lower the risk of depression 4.

This is because omega-3 is essential for effective brain function, which helps prevent depression.

Omega-3 is commonly found in fatty fish (such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel). You can also take high quality fish- or krill-oil omega-3 supplements. If you are unsure about the best supplement to take, consult your medical doctor.

Avoid unhealthy “winter comfort food”: The cold weather makes it tempting to indulge in refined carbohydrates such as bread and pasta, or sugar-laden hot desserts and drinks.

A word of caution – the feel-good factor of indulging in these foods is short-lived, while the consequences are not. Refined foods cause blood sugar “highs” and crashes, which result in symptoms such as decreased concentration, low energy, irritability, and emotional instability. Replace your favourite staples with healthier, wholefood versions instead.

It is a valid acknowledgement that there are sometimes factors beyond our control that can influence our mood. However, it is equally important to identify the factors that we can control, and take a proactive approach to finding natural, healthy ways to ensure that the only thing with wild mood swings this winter is Mother Nature.

Tracy Venter is a Somerset West-based nutritionist, and her columns appear in Bolander twice a month.

For heath-related questions, email her at info@realfoodco.co.za