Seven ways to beat the all-too-real Seasonal Affective Disorder
Barring landslides and flooding, winter in California is a cookie bake compared to other places. In Antarctica, the sun sets in March and doesn’t rise again until September—and all anyone wants is an avocado, according to winter dwellers in the documentary Antarctica: A Year On Ice.
Here in avocado-filled California, I feel bad blaming any sort of unease on the weather. But it’s true: the 6 o’clock news may not be the sole culprit for recent feelings of hopeless despair. The physical darkness of the days could be a factor, too.
Locally, darkness fell at its earliest last week, at 4:51 p.m., as we creep toward the shortest day of the year—9 hours and 37 minutes in length—on Dec. 21. (Compare to 4:07 hours in Reykjavik, Iceland, and 5:41 hours in Helsinki.)
On top of the estimated 14.8 million Americans living with depression, another 10 million are estimated to experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, a physiologically rooted depression associated with lower light levels and appropriately acronymed SAD. Most common among adults ages 18-30, and affecting women more than men, SAD’s varying symptoms include fatigue, irritability, difficulty concentrating, weight gain, and social isolation.
Here’s a crowd-sourced list of ideas for staying healthy and happy during the year’s darkest days:
1. Eat Like It’s Summer: Sweets and carbs are everywhere during the winter months, especially during the holidays. While that sugar cookie will supply a temporary rush of dopamine, it will also weaken your immune system (and virtually every system in your body) and leave you craving more. In the long term, sugar depletes dopamine levels, as well as vitamins and minerals. Feed your body with high-vibration foods—fruits, vegetables and complete proteins—and consider a vitamin D supplement as well as an omega-3 fatty acid supplement for optimum brain health.
2. Get Your Vitamin D: “I believe the main cause of SAD is not directly lack of light but the lack of vitamin D that occurs due to the sun being lower in the sky,” says Dr. Randy Baker of Soquel. Vitamin D supplements work for many people, as do high-vitamin-D foods like bone-in fish, cod liver oil, eggs, Greek yogurt, and many plant-based milks. That’s only half of the equation though: Health professionals recommend 10 to 15 minutes of unblocked sun on the hands, feet or back at least twice a week for prime vitamin D absorption—and longer for those with a darker complexion.
3. Get Out: Have you ever been hiking in the rain? Add it to this winter’s bucket list—you should have lots of opportunities. Storm watching also looks like a promising activity this winter, as does mushroom hunting—because, “when it rains, it spores,” according to the Fungus Federation of Santa Cruz. Look for mushrooms about 48 hours after rain, and visit their awesome website, ffsc.us, for info, local workshops and events.
4. Get a Helper’s High: The research is in: prosocial behavior—voluntary acts intended to benefit another person—boosts happiness. Volunteer work is associated with less depression and greater happiness, according to a 2001 study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, among other studies, and doing five random acts of kindness a day for six weeks, can have the same positive effect on mental state, according to the American Psychological Association.
5. Freeze Facebook: Time spent on Facebook has been linked with negative emotions, according to a 2014 Austrian behavioral research study. Replace screen time with real-life social interaction or a good book.
6. Light Therapy: “Happy Lights” are now relatively inexpensive. The full-spectrum light is said to affect brain chemicals, including the hormone melatonin, which regulates the body’s mood, sleep, and appetite cycles. Several friends say light boxes have made a notable difference in their energy levels and mood during the winter months.
7. Shake your Booty: A no-brainer, really. The exercise-mental health connection is well-documented, especially in reducing depression and anxiety. So, even if all of the cells in your body want to curl up with a good book, give yourself at least 30 minutes of exercise a day. Dance, do yoga while watching clips from SNL’s golden years, or get out for a walk—even if it’s dark. For the ultimate introduction to Santa Cruz’s exercise opportunities, sign up for the Santa Cruz Challenge, which starts Jan. 23, and incorporates some 22 local fitness studios and counting. Go to santacruzchallenge.com for more info.
HELLO DARKNESS Decreased levels of sunlight during the winter is the likely culprit for Seasonal Affective Disorder. But at least you don’t live in Antarctica.