By Deborah Porter Jones, Freelance Writer

Seasonal Affective Disorder (or “S.A.D.” as it’s referred to) is a form of clinical depression that affects mostly women and young people.  You may be surprised to learn that as many as 10 to 20 percent of the population admits to having what many people typically think of as the “winter blues”.  Based on the body’s circadian rhythm, which tells us when to sleep and when to wake, because the winter months consist of shorter days, our natural reaction is to hibernate.  Those who suffer from S.A.D. may sleep a lot more and suffer from a lack of energy and even decreased sex drive.  Most of us who suffer with the winter blues go undiagnosed, retreat into our dark homes often with shades drawn, and self-medicate with comfort foods and Netflix.  

So what can we do to break the cycle and make some positive lifestyle changes so that we’re no longer a slave to our emotions during the dark days of winter?  It’s not going to be easy – but it’s definitely doable!

If you’re like me, you may admit to just having an overall feeling of well-being and plain old happiness during the summer months, or whenever the sun makes an appearance!  Have you ever wondered why that is?   Mainly because the sun is more prevalent and our days are longer during the warmer months.  So, yes, the sun does affect our mood.  It all boils down to a complex relationship between sunlight, melatonin and serotonin.

Melatonin is the hormone that controls sleep and serotonin is a neurotransmitter that correlates to states of wakefulness and being in a so-called “good mood”.  Serotonin is the chemical that is contained in a class of anti-depressants – the higher levels of serotonin in our bloodstream, the better our moods.  The connection between sunlight, melatonin and serotonin looks something like this:  When the sun comes up, it sends a message to our brains to make less melatonin.  When the sun goes down, the same message tells our brains to increase melatonin.  It’s no wonder we crave flannel pajamas, Game of Thrones marathons and comfort food during those winter months!  The sun – or lack thereof – isn’t giving us a choice!

Another way that the sun affects our mood is through the natural Vitamin D created by the body as a result of the sun’s ultraviolet rays hitting our skin.  In addition to being key to helping us maintain strong bones, high levels of Vitamin D also helps our bodies maintain high levels of serotonin.  Makes you wonder if consistently applying sunscreen before heading outside during the summer months is doing more harm than good, huh?  If we’re never in the sun without UV-blocking sunscreen, our bodies may not be producing enough Vitamin D.  Research has shown that exposing our skin to vitamin-producing sun in the brighter summer months may help us maintain high serotonin levels during those dark winter months.  At the very least, we can also safely supplement with Vitamin D.

So how can we counteract these physiological changes that it sounds like we don’t have much control over in the first place? Well, unless you’re planning to vacay in sunny Florida from roughly November to March, you’re going to have find other ways to get the “happiness” and bone-strengthening benefits of the sun.  Why not start with visiting your doctor and getting your vitamin D levels checked?  Studies show that a significant portion of the population is vitamin D deficient.  The sun is the most natural way for the body to absorb vitamin D.  However, these days we rarely go outside during the week due to our 9 to 5 jobs, and many of us slather on sunscreen when we do.   In order to maintain vitamin D levels from sun exposure, scientists suggest you need to be in direct sunlight for at least 20 minutes a day between the hours of 10am and 2pm.  Vitamin D deficiencies have also been linked to higher fat storage.  

Melatonin (the sleep hormone) can also be regulated naturally.  In order to fight that urge to retreat to your bedroom, thus increasing your body’s melatonin creation and making you groggy, turn on some bright lights or skip the sunglasses on a sunny morning.  Many people find success using “light boxes” – these are UV lamps that replicate the sun’s rays thereby tricking it into “waking up”.

Serotonin (that “good mood” hormone) can also be created naturally by adding exercise to your routine.  Studies have shown that exercising increases serotonin function in the human brain.  Vitamin D also helps our bodies absorb calcium (the building blocks of bones).  

So, now we’ve learned several natural ways to counteract Seasonal Affective Disorder:

  • Vacation in sunny Florida during the winter months (highly unlikely, but hey, a girl can dream!);
  • Start an exercise program in order to naturally create serotonin, that “good mood” hormone;
  • Supplement with Vitamin D (preferably D3 which is not synthetic) in order to minimize fat stores AND maintain high levels of serotonin; and
  • In order to decrease the brain’s creation of melatonin (the “sleep” hormone), opt for bright lights at home and skip the sunglasses on sunny mornings or request a “light box” to trick the brain into creating less.

No matter which method you try, the key is to recognize that SAD is an optional condition and there are alternatives to these very real symptoms.  I myself have resorted to each of these methods (except the light box, so far!) and it’s made me an overall happier person at a time when I used to be isolated, with just enough energy to go to work, take a shower and go back to bed.  My favorite method is exercising and I’m shocked to say I’ve even become a “gym rat”, starting my day when the gym opens up at 5am.  I can honestly say, the rush of serotonin and endorphins that accompany exercising are a very real “thing” and it’s made the winter months much more bearable for me since I started a little over two years ago.  The fact that I may have abs to show for committing to a regular exercise routine, when I used to resort to covering up my winter transgressions with big sweaters, is just an added bonus!

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