Tis The Season of Beautiful Fall Colors, Pumpkin Spice and . . . Seasonal Affective Disorder
It’s that time of year again. Everyone is admiring the beautiful colored trees, carving pumpkins, getting out their sweater collection, and drinking pumpkin chai. But there is a darker side to this time of year for people who experience depression and other symptoms associated with the decrease in light in fall and winter. It often starts out as feeling a little more anxious, irritable, or tired. It can creep up slowly until suddenly it’s December and realize you are in the thick of it.
Seasonal affective disorder is the official label given but I like to think of it as being very sensitive to the effects of evolution. Your brain is just intelligently going into hibernation to try and prevent you from going outside and freezing to death in the winter. No matter how you describe it it’s best to avoid it because it can be debilitating and prevention is easier than treatment. Here are some evidence based recommendations.
LIGHT— and lots of it.
If you get the ok from your doctor, sit in front of a high quality 10,000 lux white light therapy box EVERY DAY. Get the highest quality one you can afford. Amazon has some good options. You will have to play around with the length of time and it will depend on how powerful the light box is that you purchased but in general this is going to be 15-45 minutes. I know it is hard to sit in front of a light box every day but it sure beats going into a winter coma. Sit in front of the light first thing in the morning to reduce the risk of insomnia. If you feel nauseous or dizzy from this therapy, reduce the dose. I recommend setting up your light box so you can do other activities at the same time. This will increase the likelihood that you can fit it into your routine. You can do some computer work or read in front of it, eat breakfast, stretch or lift weights. You just have to make sure you follow in the instructions and keep it at the correct distance and angle. Warning: Do not use light as therapy if you have a history of manic episodes, bipolar disorder, or macular degeneration. Light therapy should not be used in conjunction with photo sensitizing medications such as lithium, melatonin, phenothiazine antipsychotics, and certain antibiotics.
Even if you are using a light box also strive for getting at least 15 minutes of natural light every day. Do an outdoor activity like walking, skiing, snowshoe, biking or even just bundling up and sitting on your front steps. If you live in the north it can be too cold and icy some days to get outside which is why a light box is great to have too. If you have a lifestyle where you can be outside in bright, natural light for at least 45 minutes every day you may be able to skip a light box entirely but this is not realistic for most people.
EXERCISE— and lots of it.
Exercise is never more important than in the fall and winter to prevent depression associated with shorter, darker, days. Like I mentioned above, exercise outside as much as possible if you can do so safely. Write out your schedule and get your routine down. This could include some activities in your home or at a gym or local studio. Rally up some buddies for accountability. Most people find it harder to exercise in the winter but it is so important! Aim for at least 25 minutes 5x per week.
Vitamin D—and just the right amount
A review of the research concluded low Vitamin D levels contribute to depression. The risk of low Vitamin D levels is much greater in the winter due to lack of sunshine. Many people become Vitamin D deficient in the winter if they do not supplement so it’s a good idea to get tested by your doctor and then dose Vitamin D based on the lab result.
Find a therapist who has experience and success working with people who have seasonal affective disorder
Other options that may also be helpful include practicing mediation/mindfulness, eating a whole foods based, anti-inflammatory diet, supplements to support neurotransmitter health, and medications to support neurotransmitter health.