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The SAD Truth

You may not be able to avoid seasonal depression, but you can warm up to the winter months by adding activities and habits for a positive outlook until spring.

Gina Conroy
January 29, 2018

The holidays have come and gone, but Old Man Winter remains like an unwanted guest sucking the light (and life) from your days. With no signs of him leaving until spring, his lengthy stay ushers in all kinds of emotions and mood swings.

Low energy makes you want to sleep more instead of doing all the things that once brought you happiness. Apathy may be at an all-time high, and if it wasn’t for having to pay the bills, you might not get out of bed. You’re irritated one minute, then sad the next, which causes your relationships to suffer. As if gaining 5-10 pounds over the holidays wasn’t enough, your food cravings and lack of motivation to exercise make it hard to pull yourself out of the pit.

Is this just the winter blues, or is there something more sinister going on?

While the exact cause of the winter blues has not been determined, it’s a real phenomenon that affects a large part of the population and is said to be brought on by the lack of daylight during the winter months.

“Starting around Oct. 31, I feel depressed and all I want to do is crawl in bed and hibernate until spring,” says Cheryl Watson. “If it’s cloudy or overcast, I feel like I can barely drag around, but let the sun come out and I’m full of energy.

Women, especially those who work indoors for long periods of time, are more susceptible to the winter woes or in its more extreme form, Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD affects 6 percent of the U.S. population in its most severe form, and affects another 14 percent in a less severe form.

“I’m more exhausted, and much less motivated, especially socially,” says Kimberly Osment, who works nightshifts. When a friend from Wichita suggested he drive down to see her, she said she’d rather stay in bed than spend time with friends. “That’s not me.”

Whether you suffer from winter blues or SAD, there are things you can do to lessen your symptoms. These suggestions shouldn’t be substituted for seeking medical advice, and if you have severe signs of depression, always consult your doctor for treatment.


Focus on nutrition
After indulging in all the fatty, sweet goodness of the holidays, your body is run down, under a nourished and probably carrying couple of extra pounds. Start by making healthier food choices for a brighter outlook. Eat more foods and soups rich in vitamins and nutrients like tryptophan, which increases serotonin, the calming “happiness” hormone. While you can take tryptophan supplements, the best sources come from nuts, seeds, bananas, tofu, cheese, red meat, chicken, turkey, fish, oats, beans, lentils, and eggs. Leafy greens like spinach and chard contain magnesium and can positively affect your body’s level of serotonin.


Supplement your diet
About four years ago, Amanda Phifer tried to get her husband to lock her up in a mental facility. “I thought I was losing my mind,” says Phifer. “I know that I’m extremely vitamin D and B12 deficient, along with many other vitamins.”

In August 2017, Phifer started drinking Herbalife vitamin based shakes to help lose weight. “Not only do I have energy, but I’m motivated to get up and out of the house,” says Phifer.

Since many experts say the main reason for seasonal depression comes from a lack of vitamin D, taking an over-the-counter supplement or stronger dosage from your doctor can help your seasonal depression.

Watson takes vitamin D3 (5000) and B-Complex every day. “Without these, I feel like I want to sleep all the time, unless it’s sunny out.”

Taking fish oil rich in omega-3s plays an important role in brain function and may be helpful in lowering the risk of depression.

If SAD symptoms are severe enough to interfere with normal functions of life, or if you are bipolar or suffer from depression all year, talk to your doctor before taking supplements. And ask about possible recommendations for antidepressants.


Get more sun
Jeneal Rogers gets depressed if she goes too long without sunlight. “I am now trying to spend time in the sun each day, even if it’s really cold,” says Rogers. “I also have my morning tea and quiet time in a chair by the window where the sun comes up.”

Just spending 30-60 minutes a day in the sun can help alleviate depression. And if you pair it with exercise or eating a healthy snack, then you’re doubling your efforts to results in treating your seasonal depression.


Light therapy
Osment, who needs to sleep during the day, avoids the sun after her nightshift. “Leaving work in the dark is excellent because I can go home to sleep,” she says. “When I’m delayed at work and the sun comes up, it makes a significant difference in my sleep routine.”

If you’re not able to spend time in the sun, or if sunlight is not available, Bright Light Therapy (BLT) may help, but always check with your doctor first and use as directed. Sitting in front of a light box 30 minutes after you wake up simulates the sun and helps shut down melatonin production, which is said to be elevated in people with SAD. For more severe SAD, up to three hours in front of the light source may be needed.

Tracy Ruckman bought a special lamp for her desk where she spends 80 percent of her time. “That seems to have helped,” says Ruckman. “Some winters are worse than others, but since I learned about SAD, I try to get as much sunshine, Vitamins D and C as possible.”

“I spent years dreading January and February,” says Elise Stone. “Living in the Northeast, that was a hard time of year to get through. Once I knew what SAD was, I bought a sun spectrum reading light, which helped. But the best thing I ever did was move to Tucson, Ariz., because there are very few cloudy days here.”


Regular sleep schedule
Many factors can mess with your biological clock, so it’s important to go to sleep at a consistent time and get plenty of it. Limit your intake of caffeine and avoid it later in the day. Remember, alcohol may make you sleepy, but it also wakes you up in the middle of the night, making for a restless sleep. Avoid naps during the day, and try winding down an hour before bed with a good book and low lighting.


Stay active
The last thing you may want to do when you’re depressed is exercise, but it’s one of the best ways to help boost your mood. Exercising, especially cardio, releases endorphins which trigger a positive feeling in your body similar to morphine. Whether you’re working out at the gym or dancing in your living room, moving more during the winter (at least 30 minutes four times a week) can have a positive effect on your week.


Stay connected
When you’re experiencing seasonal depression, you tend to isolate from friends and family. However, this ends up making you feel more depressed and disconnected. Engaging socially helps you fight the sadness and gives you the support you need during this time of year.

During the day, when you’re already out, meet with friends for coffee or lunch. Visit family when you’re in the area, or just pick up the phone for verbal connection. Avoid social media, which tends to increase isolation by giving a false sense of connection. Don’t neglect the social communities you belong to, like church or clubs that brought you fulfillment in the sunny months. And seek counseling for added support and connection.