Winter doesn’t officially start until Dec. 21, but the days are already shorter and colder. It may still be dark outside when you head out to work or school, and already dusk when you return. It’s no wonder you don’t feel like doing anything but sitting on the couch and going to sleep after you get home!
Winter’s reduced levels of sunlight can mess with your circadian rhythms and lead to a drop in serotonin, a brain chemical that affects your mood, and melatonin, a chemical that affects your sleep. Together, this drains your energy and may make you feel more sad or moody than usual. Meet seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
SAD affects up to 10 percent of Americans, and it’s important not to dismiss SAD as a seasonal funk you just have to deal with. Even if the duration is temporary, it can mess with your mental health in a big way during these few long months. You may experience symptoms like low energy, hypersomnia, craving for carbs and overeating, and social withdrawal (“hibernating”).
Here are a few things that can help reduce SAD symptoms:
Let the light in
One of the root causes of SAD is the reduced hours of sunlight. As previously mentioned, sunlight exposure, absorbed through your retinas and skin, is key to producing serotonin. Depending on where you live, you may have several hours less than you’re used to in the summer. Here in Minnesota, we have more than 12 hours of sunlight during the summer months, but that’s cut to just eight this time of year.
The sunlight absorbed through your retinas and skin must be direct to contribute to serotonin production. This means that sitting by a window won’t help you reap the benefits, even if you can see the sunshine through the glass. Consider taking a 5-minute outdoor walk to get a dose of serotonin and boost your mood.
If you are unable to get outdoors as much as you’d like to, many studies have demonstrated that light therapy boxes or lamps can be highly effective at reducing symptoms of SAD. They do not require a prescription and are fairly inexpensive (starting at $30 on Amazon). Just 20-30 minutes of exposure each day, ideally in the morning right after you wake up, can offer relief.
Take vitamin CBT
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the psychotherapy approach at the heart of Sanvello, and it can also be effective in treating SAD. A study found that CBT may be more effective than light therapy when preventing relapse. The following winter, just 27 percent of CBT participants saw depression return, compared to 46 percent of those who relied on light therapy.
Your views of yourself, your environment, and your relationships may be distorted by SAD, which CBT can help reverse through techniques like reframing. CBT can also help you develop wintertime interests to counteract “hibernation” tendencies. For example, you may set a goal to spend one evening each week socializing after work or school. This is called “behavioral activation” to identify and regularly engage in activities that can help you cope with winter.
For maximum effect, CBT should be treated like a regular “vitamin” and CBT techniques practiced each day. To get into the habit, consider setting an alarm each day to learn or revisit CBT concepts and apply them to your current thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Seek other “happy” chemicals
Serotonin isn’t the sole brain chemical responsible for happiness. Dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins are the “quartet” responsible for our mood. These neurotransmitters can be triggered in a variety of ways.
For example, tryptophan is an amino acid that helps the body product serotonin. Foods that are good sources of tryptophan, and therefore boosters of serotonin, include salmon, chicken, eggs, spinach, seeds, nuts, and milk.
Getting regular exercise can also help regulate neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin. For a double dose, try to get a run or other form of exercise in around midday, so you can get the benefits of sun exposure and exercise. If that’s not doable with your schedule (or road conditions!), building in time to work out indoors can also improve brain function and mood.
The good news is that SAD is highly treatable, and a combination of these treatments and activities are likely to help you feel better quickly and optimize your mental health as best you can until longer days return in the spring.
By Monika Roots
Chief Medical Officer, Sanvello
Dr. Roots practiced as a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist. She was also a Clinical Adjunct Assistant Professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison and was most recently the Vice President of Health Services and Behavioral Health for Teladoc Health. In 2016, Teladoc Health acquired her business, CogCubed, a behavioral health analytics company. Dr. Roots earned her MD from University of Sint Eustatius School of Medicine and completed psychiatry residency and fellowship in child/adolescent psychiatry at the University of Minnesota.