For most, autumn is a time of plenty, full of vibrant colors, crisp days and cool nights. While the change of season can be wonderful, it also brings about a rapid shift in daylight. The shortening of days does not have a major impact on the quality of life of most people, but for others the change can affect sleep patterns, mood, activity and stress levels. This is commonly referred to as seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
SAD affects millions of people worldwide; estimates suggest as many as 10% of Americans (some 30 million people) suffer from SAD. Not surprisingly, those living in more northern latitudes (where days are more significantly shorted) are most greatly affected. It is estimated that as many as 20% of Swedes suffer from SAD. Its symptoms can run from minor depression and sleep disturbances to severe depression that requires hospitalization. Subsyndromal Seasonal Affective Disorder is a milder form of SAD experienced by an estimated 15% of Americans.
Unfortunately, many people think that seasonal changes in mood are simply something they have to live with. That is far from the truth; there are many things that can be done to offset the effects of SAD. As with any health issue, if you suffer from seasonal low mood, you should discuss your options with your health care professional.
Here are some suggestions to keep the winter blues at bay:
Be pro-active. If you have suffered from the "winter blues" in the past, start making the appropriate changes now so you don't suffer this winter. While you may not have noticed, we have already passed the autumnal equinox, that means the days (in northern latitudes) are now shorter than the nights, and this is the time of year when the amount of daylight is decreasing at its fastest rate.
Exercise. No matter what the cause of your low mood, recent studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise can be nearly as effective as antidepressants in treating depression.1 Regular exercise will also improve your sleep quality.
Eat well. Diet plays a significant role in overall well-being, general health, and mood. Eat a diet rich in a variety of fruits and vegetables. The more variation in color and types of vegetables, the better. Reduce your intake of sugar. Try to eat less meat and incorporate more omega-3 fatty acids into your diet. Good sources of omega-3 fats include flaxseed oil, olive oil, cold water fish, "omega-3 rich" chicken eggs and omega-3 supplements.
Get quality sleep. As we mentioned earlier, daily exercise can improve sleep quality, but it's also important to practice good sleep hygiene. Many experts feel that television or reading shortly before bed may be too stimulating for the brain. Try doing some light stretching exercises to relax your muscles. Controlled, focused breathing exercises are a great way to slow down the mind and prepare for a good night's sleep.
Avoid Alcohol. Alcohol is a depressant that can make the winter blues worse and can negatively affect sleep quality, creating a double-blow.
Try supplementation. There are a number of natural products that may help with low mood. In a number of clinical studies St. Johns Wort has been found to help with mild to moderate low mood. More and more research is finding a link between low levels of the B vitamins, especially folate, B6 and B12. Two other products that may help with low mood are 5-HTP and SAM-e (S-Adenosyl Methionine).
Get help. Seasonal low mood can be a very serious condition, there is no reason to suffer or feel embarrassed. If you are feeling blue, seek help from your health care professional.
1. Blumenthal, J. A., M. A. Babyak, et al. (2007). "Exercise and pharmacotherapy in the treatment of major depressive disorder." Psychosom Med 69(7): 587-96.