By now, many of us (and mental health professionals, too) acknowledge that seasonal depression is a very real thing. And although it feels like we’ve had more warm than cool days in certain parts of the country this year, cold weather and an end to Daylight Saving Time are imminent. Shorter, sunless days and freezing temps can make anybody feel down in the dumps, but people who are affected by seasonal depression, also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), can experience symptoms beyond just the regular ol’ winter blues.
SAD is essentially prolonged depressive episodes that occur on a seasonal loop, and for many people affected by it, their depression begins in the fall and lasts throughout the winter months. According to Psychology Today, some 10 million Americans are affected by this type of depression, and about 10% to 20% of individuals experience mild SAD.
Some symptoms of SAD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, include sleeplessness, weight gain, social “hibernation,” low energy, and loss of interest in your passions.
As someone who has experienced a few or all of these symptoms every fall/winter for the past two years, I can testify to the fact that it can feel alarming to want to do nothing but stay curled up in bed in the fetal position every time the weather turns freezing—and for reasons related to brain function and not the temperature. And while a lot of tips for how to deal with SAD are well-intentioned, advice like “get more light” and “spend time with loved ones” can feel too general to implement. So here are five practical ways to cope with seasonal depression as the weather turns colder.
Get a light.
There’s a reason that most sufferers of seasonal depression begin feeling low in the fall and winter, and it’s caused by more than gross weather. Shorter days and less sunlight in the winter can trigger a biochemical imbalance in the brain.
One possible solution is to buy a light source specifically designed to help treat SAD. Licensed clinical social worker and therapist Ashley Smith, who has been treating adults and teens with SAD and other mood disorders for 10 years, recommends the Verilux HappyLight Liberty 5K Natural Spectrum Energy Lamp. The Mayo Clinic suggests using light therapy first thing in the morning for about 20 to 30 minutes without looking directly at the light source; doing so may help improve mood and focus that’s been lessened by SAD.
Adaptogenic herbs and compounds found naturally in good-for-you foods offer a more holistic approach to treating seasonal depression, according to some experts.
Elizabeth Trattner, a licensed acupuncturist and holistic medicine expert, recommends rhodiola rosea and L theanine. Rhodiola rosea, which is also known as arctic root, grows in mountainous regions of Europe and Asia and comes in pill, tea, and liquid form. It has been shown to reduce stress, and to fight anxiety and fatigue.
Meanwhile, L theanine, an amino acid, has been found to increase serotonin levels in the brain, which are lower during depressive episodes. Green tea and matcha are both sources of L theanine, but, “In my practice I recommend that patients try matcha instead of green tea,” says Trattner. “Matcha has 10 times more antioxidant power than regular green tea…and is the whole tea leaf [it comes in a powder form] versus the [green] tea, which is less potent and steeped in water.”
You may be able to eat your way to a happier mood when it comes to SAD symptoms, which can include carb cravings. When all you want to do is sleep all day, having to figure out what to eat, if you feel like eating at all, can be difficult. But meal prepping ahead of time may help make nutrition an easier feat—and keep you reaching for foods that will nourish your body and boost your mood.
“I have patients eat meals a little higher in fiber and protein to help stave off the carb cravings that come with SAD,” says Trattner. Foods like salmon, unprocessed or minimally-processed vegetables, fruit, and even dark chocolate are good options to keep in rotation when your mood takes a seasonal dip.
Take your vitamins.
It can be difficult, if not near impossible, to get all of your nutrients from food, especially the specific nutrients that may contribute to staving off depression. Magnesium, iron, omega-3 fatty acids, and B vitamins become especially important when dealing with SAD.
Trattner notes that even some of her patients in South Florida (which is particularly sunny) suffer from a vitamin-D deficiency. “Most people in this country are D deficient, especially this time of year, and vitamin D plays a critical role in mood,” she says. “There are so many studies that have demonstrated that vitamin D plays a role with most bodily functions, including mood, with both women and men.”
Our main source of vitamin D is sunlight, but when you can’t absorb the sun’s rays, you can turn to foods like fish, seafood, or enriched non-dairy milks.
If you find that seasonal depression has you feeling burnt out and fatigued, it can be hard to drag yourself to exercise, which is a common recommendation for people who suffer from SAD.
Instead, be compassionate with yourself, even if you have some days where all you manage to do is shower and get back into bed. While you’re resting, consider listening to uplifting podcasts that are going to give you hope and reassurance that other people know what you’re going through, and have found ways to heal and cope.
Check out podcasts like Black Girl In Om, The Friend Zone, or Therapy for Black Girls for health and wellness advice geared towards women of color, or give Happier With Gretchen Rubin a listen for more general advice.