L.J. Rohan

L.J. Rohan

Certified Gerontologist

The Truth About Seasonal Affective Disorder

March 4, 2019

Today, flat gray clouds cover the sky, for many parts of the world, a common feature of a winter day. Today, I wanted to stay in bed, wait for tomorrow, and hope for sun. Being a Texas girl born and raised, I grew up with more sunny days than cloudy ones, and for decades now, I know my energy level and productivity are somehow linked to sunshine. On days like today, I have little energy, care about nothing, and generally feel and act like Grumpy Cat until evening. Even though I know dark chocolate won’t shift my mood, I sometimes give that delicious treat a good try! If I am somewhere and experience a run of gray days, pretty soon I have sunk so low I must be scraped off the floor. This got me thinking about winter depression, SAD—Seasonal Affective Disorder, and while I don’t think I suffer a full on case of SAD, I know friends who do. As many of us in the Northern Hemisphere are still slogging through winter, I thought a few words about this condition might be helpful.

Dr. Norman Rosenthal, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Georgetown Medical School, and author of Winter Blues, Everything You Need to Know to Beat Seasonal Affective Disorder, who first identified and coined the term in 1984, found we women suffer from seasonal depression or SAD four times as often as men do in our earlier years (ages 20-30), but the numbers become closer to equal as both sexes get older. Your science lesson for today: The research also tells us that the culprit is low serotonin—the chemical in our bodies responsible for our moods, appetite, sleep regulation, and libido. In folks with SAD, serotonin can’t function efficiently because the body produces a serotonin-blocking chemical called SERT. At this point, scientists aren’t exactly sure why this occurs in some people, and not in others. Stay tuned for more developments in this area. For those of us who have clear-cut cases of SAD every winter, there are some well-researched steps we can take to markedly reduce the symptoms until the sunshine and warmer temperatures return.

Symptoms of SAD

  • Low energy
  • Sleeping too much or not wanting to get out of bed
  • Overeating
  • Craving refined carbs and sugar
  • Weight gain (as a result of the above)
  • Just feeling “blah” all the time
  • Withdrawing from friends and family (feeling like hibernating)

Here are some of the best ways to counter the feelings of SAD and make winter your favorite season. Well, maybe… ????

Throw open those curtains.

As soon as you wake up, get up (as hard as that may be), and raise those shades as high as they will go to let in as much morning light as possible.

Put on those gym shoes.

A meta-review (a compilation and review of many studies) from the American College of Sports Medicine Journal found for some of us experiencing SAD, vigorous exercise, like HIIT—High Intensity Interval Training, (see my blog post from February 27, 2018), might be as successful as therapy or anti-depressants at lowering our SERT levels, which help to elevate our serotonin levels, and alleviate the depression.

Keep up your Interests.

You may not feel like attending your weekly knitting circle or regular recipe-swapping coffee klatch, but pushing yourself to be with friends is a great way to lift your spirits, to say nothing of strengthening your social connections—a strong choice toward staying vibrant as we get older. The same goes for indulging in your favorite hobby; that ship isn’t going to sail itself into that bottle!

Get a Light Box

This is probably the most often-cited and well-known tool available to fight SAD. Studies show light boxes are the magic bullet for up to fifty percent of SAD sufferers. If used correctly, the boxes cause mood shifts to occur in only a few days, giving blessed relief almost as fast a speeding bullet. Discuss with your doctor, and experiment with different types of light boxes, and see what might work for you.

Eliminate Sugar

My long-time readers will be nodding, (I hope), as I add another reason to drop sugar from your diet. In addition to the negative effects sugar has on our brains and bodies, people who consume the most sugar are more prone to depression. Scientists now think sugar lowers our bodies’ ability to cope with stress. Craving sweets and starchy foods in the winter is also an indicator and symptom of SAD.

Go Outside and Play

Your mother was right. Grab your earmuffs and your muffler and take a brisk walk outside in the morning after sunrise. Or, take up a wintertime-specific sport, like snowshoeing, outdoor ice-skating or curling ;-0 Some of the lead researchers in this field, Dr. Kelly Rohan (no relation) at the University of Vermont, and Dr. Ani Kalayjian at Columbia University, both endorse this plan, and Dr. Rohan notes getting that morning light into our retinas is especially beneficial; plus you get exercise as well. Home run in my book.

Hit the Mat

Dr. Kalayjian also recommends taking up yoga for relaxation and relief from depression. More and more studies are pointing to yoga as a good practice for stress reduction and anxiety. That’s one more reason to add a yoga class or two into your weekly regime.

If You Can, Take a Trip

Dr. Rohan finds folks who experience SAD feel significantly better after getting away from work and soaking up some warm sun rays for a few days. This break can help reset our circadian rhythms and override the SERT reaction so that serotonin moves into our nerves and elevates our moods and outlooks, even after we return. 

When  Mama Nature covers my beloved sun for more than a day or two, I pull out my list of countermoves above and add a few to my day to help me feel, and think, better. I hope they work for you. Give them a try.

Until next time…Be Vibrant!

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