When winter hits, you may start thinking, “Why the f*** am I so tired and sad?” Whether you feel depressed or just have a serious case of the mehs, you’re not alone. Colder months and shorter, darker days can cause a mood shift that affects how you feel, think, or handle day-to-day activities. And it may be a sign of seasonal affective disorder (also known as SAD or seasonal depression). It’s a type of depression that typically occurs in the fall and winter months (though it can also occur in the spring or early summer). Women are four times more likely to experience SAD than men—and it’s more common for people living farther north or south of the equator. You may also be more prone to SAD if you have a family history of mood conditions, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or SAD.
Important to note here: You can still feel like you have the winter blues without an actual diagnosis of SAD. Both can impact your mood. And that’s challenging enough. But what often isn’t talked about is how symptoms of seasonal depression can affect your food choices—and make your weight care journey more challenging.
Symptoms of seasonal affective disorder include oversleeping, irritability, difficulty concentrating, low energy, increased appetite, overeating (with a particular craving for carbs), weight gain, and self-isolation. It’s considered a depressive disorder.
Scientists aren’t exactly sure why seasonal depression happens. The current theory is this: Your body has an internal clock that is largely regulated by the sun. It’s a hard-wired sleep-wake cycle that signals when you should go to bed and get up each day. It can impact sleep, as well as mood and behavior. When there’s less sunlight during the winter, your brain may think it should be powering down when it’s only 2 p.m. Fewer daylight hours can also disrupt some of the hormones, vitamins, and brain chemicals you need to feel good. For example, research suggests that sunlight directly affects levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating your mood. People with SAD often have lower serotonin levels but higher levels of the hormone melatonin—which is associated with sleep. So you can see where the depressed mood and tiredness can come from, right?
During winter, vitamin D levels also tend to dip (it's called the “sunshine vitamin” for a reason). And research shows that a deficiency in D may reduce serotonin—leading to a greater risk of depression compared to those with healthy levels of this vitamin.
Research shows that high serotonin levels can suppress appetite cues—but the reverse is also true. So someone with SAD whose serotonin levels are low may have increased cravings. A systematic review published in Frontiers in Psychology found that people with SAD tended to reach for simple carbs like sweets, eat larger dinners, and snack more often at night than those without the condition. And there’s evidence that people with SAD are more prone to binge eating, emotional eating, and external eating. (External eating is when a person eats more than usual due to stimuli like sight, smell, availability of food, and time during the day without being actually hungry.)
The thing is that these eating habits don’t appear to ease the symptoms of SAD. And consuming lots of processed, refined carbs can lead to a vicious cycle of blood sugar spikes and crashes that only trigger cravings for more food.
Are there some things you can do to help with the winter blues? Absolutely. First, talk to your doctor. And then consider one of these strategies:
We all know how certain foods make us feel better than others. That’s not a surprise, given that 95 percent of our serotonin is produced by the gut microbiome—also known as your body’s second brain. Among the trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms housed in your GI tract, some are known to make serotonin. And while there’s no specific diet for SAD, studies show that certain foods and dietary patterns may lower the risk for depressive disorders that could include this condition. Here are a few:
1. Opt for Omega-3 fatty acids
We know that people with depression are likely to have deficiencies in this heart-healthy fat—found in fish like salmon, lake trout, and cod, as well as nuts and seeds. The Omega-3 fatty acids they contain can impact mood and behavior. Adding fish and other foods like these to your diet at least twice a week is a simple addition that can help up your omega-3s.
2. Try a Mediterranean or DASH-style diet
Some studies suggest that following a DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) or Mediterranean eating style may lower the risk for depression. Both diets include a lot of single ingredients, whole foods like fatty fish, whole grains, and antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables. Found recommends whole foods for weight care, too.
3. Get a little sun
If you’re worried about your vitamin D levels, you might be tempted to reach for a supplement. But contrary to popular belief, there is no solid evidence that popping some D improves SAD. However, you can up your levels by getting sunlight. It can be harder to get outside if it’s chilly, but even a bundled-up walk may do you some good. The amount of time you need in the sunshine varies for each person. Although you need exposed skin to produce vitamin D from the sun, don’t forget the SPF!
4. Eat foods high in vitamin D
If you live somewhere where it’s difficult to get any sunlight during the winter, you can get vitamin D from your diet. It’s fat soluble, so you need to eat fat to absorb it. Since vitamin D deficiency is linked to depression, it’s important to have foods high in vitamin D, like egg yolks, liver, oily fish like salmon, tuna, sardines, and fish liver oils. You can also find foods fortified with Vitamin D like yogurt, milk, non-dairy milk, orange juice, and cereals.
5. Try a light box
Light therapy is a promising—and effective—treatment because it essentially replaces the lack of sun with artificial yet bright light. Light boxes are recommended to be used within an hour of waking up for at least 20-60 minutes each morning at 10,000 lux. (And don’t worry; there are no harmful UV rays.) You can pick up a light box from stores like Walmart or order one from Amazon. It’s simple, you can grab a book and your cup of joe, and just turn it on and sit in front of it. (If you’re low on time, use it while you get ready for the day).
6. Stick to the same schedule
Your circadian rhythm is an internal body clock that runs off your environmental cues, but when it’s dark out sooner this can be harder to regulate. Aiming to go to bed and wake up around the same time each day can help you better regulate your internal clock during the winter. Hot tip: Try out a sunrise alarm clock. It mimics the sun, which helps regulate your circadian rhythm because sunlight is one of the factors that regulate your sleep-wake cycle.
7. Consider medication and therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has also been shown to help people with SAD. Only 90 minutes of CBT twice a week for six weeks is effective as 30 minutes of light therapy. Many studies have compared CBT to light therapy treatment for seasonal depression and found both to be effective for SAD. Antidepressant medications like bupropion and Prozac also relieve symptoms of seasonal affective disorder. Antidepressants are shown to be cost-effective and as well-tolerated as light therapy.
If symptoms of SAD become too overwhelming, reach out to a mental health professional:
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)- call or text 1-800-950-6264
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline - In a crisis? Call or text 988 for 24/7 confidential free crisis counseling
In an emergency or if you or a loved one feels unsafe, call 911 or go to the nearest ER.
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