Fight Off Seasonal Affective Disorder

by Gina M. Florio

Changes in weather can cause our bodies to do the weirdest things sometimes — for example, when the air pressure drops and things get a little colder, you might feel some aches and pains in your joints and have trouble sleeping, and later in the fall, when temperatures drop significantly, your blood pressure is likely to rise, making you more susceptible to having a heart attack. But shifts in weather don't just impact your body — in some cases, they can also have an effect on your mental health.

Contrary to what some insensitive people might think, mental health issues induced by changes in weather are very real. When the seasons start to turn, the reduced amount of sunlight can cause a condition called season affective disorder (SAD). SAD is a type of depression that affects between four to six percent of Americans, and the American Family Physician believes that up to 20 percent of people suffer from a mild case of SAD. Women are four times as likely to have it as men are, and it's a disease that can follow you well into the winter months.

The symptoms of SAD are very similar to those of clinical depression — depressive feelings throughout the day, fatigue, loss of interest in everyday things, feeling hopeless, and a sudden change in appetite. These are the very last things you want to deal with during the winter — so if you're worried that you might be one of the Americans this year who suffers from SAD, put in a little bit of effort now and you may see results through the frostiest months.

Here are seven ways to fight off seasonal affective disorder before it hits.

Spend As Much Time In The Light As Possible

You and Edward Cullen could never be friends, because while he's hiding from the sun, your job is to go chase it as the seasons are changing. Robert S. Rosenberg, sleep medicine specialist and author of Sleep Soundly Every Night, Feel Fantastic Every Day, tells Women's Health that it's crucial to spend as much time in the light as you can, because that's what helps you keep high levels of serotonin in your brain — you know, the happy chemical. The more sun you get, the better mood you'll be in.

The easiest way to make that happen is to get outside during the day, when the sun is at its highest point. Go have lunch in the park with your friends or take a midday stroll to help get your blood flowing. If there's still some light left when you're done with work, try to soak up the last rays of sun before you retreat for the evening.

However, because the days are getting shorter and you're not getting any less busy, you might not get enough time with all that natural sunlight. Luck is on your side, though, because doctors say that hanging with a light box could have the same positive effects. Invest in an SAD lamp, which is supposed to keep you cheery even though the sun isn't out to play.

Maintain Your Exercise Routine

Getting your heart rate up is the quickest way to spread a whole heap of endorphins through your body. This makes you feel giddy, eases your stress and anxiety, and even alleviates some physical pain. All of this is a winning recipe to fight off SAD. Because the weather is starting to get chilly, you may not have the same opportunities for all the outdoor physical activities you had in the summer, so now is the time to find an indoor form of exercise you really enjoy. That way, when the sun goes down quickly on you, you'll have a surefire way to still get a sweat up and boost your mood.

Stay Away From Processed Foods And Sugar

When you're a busy bee, one of the first things to go in the midst of all the stress is paying attention to what you're eating. In an attempt to keep your head above water, you reach for anything that's fast and easy. But studies show that processed foods contribute to depression. Also, sugar is known to increase inflammation in your brain, which can make you feel pretty lousy — which you definitely don't need as you try to prepare for the darker months.

During this time period, you best bet is to reach for fresh, vibrant food as often as possible. Think about hitting all the major players — fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein, complex carbohydrates. These are all things that will give you energy and improve your outlook on life, rather than make it all too easy for SAD to creep in.

Take A Vitamin D Supplement

Your body needs vitamin D to maintain healthy bones and teeth and protect you against diseases like cancer and type 1 diabetes. Low levels of vitamin D has also been correlated to depression and SAD, so it's important to make sure you're getting your daily dose.

Basking in the sun is the most efficient way to get vitamin D into your system, but that method isn't necessarily available to you every single day, so you can also try to take a supplement that will help you score 2,000 international units of vitamin D on the daily. The Vitamin D Council recommends taking even more if you're getting hardly any sun exposure at all.

Start Some New Hobbies With Your Friends

Hanging out with an encouraging group of people is never going to be something you regret doing, no matter what the weather. But if you know you're susceptible to depressive symptoms and the cold weather is just around the corner, you might want to consider increasing the amount of time you spend with your best buddies. Studies show that women experience an increase of oxytocin in their brain when they hang out with their close friends; because the combination of oxytocin and female hormones is a unique (and winning) one, it's suggested that women benefit much more from these friendships than men do.

You want a boatload of oxytocin in your brain during these winter months — it's what makes you feel loved and adored, and it also boosts your serotonin levels. In other words, it's a smart recipe for warding off SAD, so don't take it for granted.

In order to get your happy chemicals firing off, plan some new and exciting things with your crew. Start a book club that will keep you cozy in the upcoming winter months, or sign up for a new gym together. It doesn't matter what you do; all that time you spend together will do your brain some good.

Get Some Massages

A study performed at University of Miami School of Medicine showed that people receiving massages had higher levels of serotonin in their brains. Massage is also known to reduce the stress hormone cortisol in the body by up to 50 percent, which makes it a certified stress fighter. Furthermore, the International Journal of Neuroscience conducted a study on two groups of people with spinal injuries who were suffering from depression — for five weeks, one group engaged in motion exercises twice a week, while the other received massages. The subjects getting massaged reported a decrease in depression and a relief of physical pain, and the other group simply experienced the latter.

So, as the winter months loom, find a massage therapist you love and try to see them on the regular. Having some regular sessions can help you remain cool as a cucumber, and it will be a lot harder for SAD to sneak in when you've got all that serotonin cheerfully swimming around in your head.

Eat Your Fill Of Fatty Acids

In addition to maintaining a well-balanced diet, you should also keep an eye on your intake of omega-3 fatty acids if you want to keep SAD off your back. These fatty acids are known to alleviate depression and keep up the levels of serotonin in your brain. To make sure you get your fill, eat a lot of cold water fish, such as mackerel and salmon, and get your hands on things like flaxseed and nuts. You want to shoot for 500-2,000 international units of fish or flaxseed oil every day, so rack up the supplements if you need to.

None of this will ensure that you won't suffer from SAD this year, of course, and it should definitely not be considered a substitute for a doctor's care. However, being proactive, and knowing that you're taking positive steps to care for yourself and your health, can make all the difference.

Images: Fotolia; Giphy