By Natasha Kubis
In the Northern Hemisphere, we experience the winter solstice at the end of December, marking the shortest day and longest night of the year. The origin of the word “solstice” is derived from the Latin word sõlstitium, which translates to “the standing still of the sun”. Cultures around the world have long held feasts and celebrated holidays around the winter solstice as the beginning of the return of the sun, and darkness turning into light.
Most people do not realize that natural light is essential to our well-being just like water, air, and food. Our bodies use bright, full spectrum light to regulate our mood, sleep, and energy levels. When the temperature starts to cool and the sun’s path drops lower in the sky, our bodies take notice.
It is natural for our state of mind to wax and wane at the beginning or end of a season. This is especially true during the winter when the days get shorter and our exposure to natural light is limited.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) symptoms typically appear during late fall or early winter and go away during the sunnier days of spring and summer. Some symptoms of SAD may include feeling depressed on a daily basis, losing interest in activities you once enjoyed, low energy, sleep problems (typically oversleeping), changes in appetite or weight (usually overeating and weight gain), difficulty concentrating, and feeling hopeless.
Some factors that may contribute to SAD include:
1. Your biological clock (circadian rhythm)
The reduced level of sunlight in fall and winter may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to changes in sleep patterns.
2. Serotonin levels
A drop in serotonin, a brain chemical (neurotransmitter) that affects mood, might play a role in SAD. Reduced sunlight can cause a drop in serotonin that may trigger depression.
3. Melatonin levels
The change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a role in sleep patterns and mood.
4. Family history
People with SAD may be more likely to have blood relatives with SAD or another form of depression.
5. Having major depression or bipolar disorder
Symptoms of depression may worsen seasonally if you have one of these conditions.
6. Living far from the equator
SAD appears to be more common among people who live far north or south of the equator. This may be due to decreased sunlight during the winter.
It is normal to have some days when you feel down but if you feel down for days at a time and you can’t get motivated to do activities you normally enjoy, see your doctor. This is especially important if your sleep patterns and appetite have changed, you turn to substances like alcohol for comfort, or you find yourself withdrawing from friends, loved ones, and social situations.
Some ways to combat SAD:
1. Get moving
Regular exercise can boost serotonin, endorphins, and other feel-good brain chemicals as a way to combat depression. Try and get 30-60 minutes of exercise three to five times a week. It is best if you are able to exercise outside in natural daylight. If not, choose a treadmill, stationary bike, or elliptical at home or at a gym. Consider yoga classes and other group classes or develop a daily routine on your own.
2. Let the sunshine in
Get outside as much as you can during the day to take advantage of the sunlight. If you live where it’s cold, be sure to bundle up, but take a stroll around the block at noon or soon after — that’s when the sun is brightest. Sunlight, even in the small doses that winter allows, can help boost serotonin levels and improve your mood. When you are indoors keep your blinds open to let as much natural light in as you can. Try to sit near windows when eating meals or doing your daily tasks. Some people find that painting walls in lighter colors or using daylight simulation bulbs helps to combat winter SAD.
3. Stick to your schedule
Keeping a regular schedule will also expose you to light at consistent and predictable times. Eating at regular intervals can help you watch your diet and not overeat. Maintain a regular sleep cycle by going to bed and waking up at the same time.
4. Take a vacation
Taking a winter vacation to warmer climates can help people who have seasonal affective disorder. Even a few days in a sunny place can be helpful with winter depression.
5. Reach out to friends and family
Close relationships are vital in reducing isolation and helping you manage SAD. It may feel more comfortable to retreat into solitude, but being around other people will boost your mood. Make the effort to reconnect with family and friends.
6. Connect with a counselor or join a support group
Sometimes just talking about what you are going through can help you feel better. A support group allows you to connect with others who are facing the same problems. This can help reduce your sense of isolation and provide inspiration to make positive changes. Counseling, such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), can be highly beneficial for people with seasonal depression. The right therapist can help you curb negative thoughts, attitudes, behaviors, and help you manage symptoms.
7. Find your purpose by helping others
Volunteering your time to help others can help shift your mindset and perspective to a more positive place.
8. Eat the right diet
Eating small, well-balanced meals throughout the day, with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, will help you keep your energy up and minimize mood swings. While the symptoms of SAD can make you crave sugary foods and simple carbohydrates, such as pasta and white bread, complex carbohydrates are a better choice. Foods such as oatmeal, whole grain bread, brown rice, and bananas can boost your feel-good serotonin levels without the subsequent sugar crash.
9. Take steps to deal with stress
Stress can exacerbate or even trigger depression. This becomes obvious during the holiday season when there is heightened stress from family and an increase in financial pressures.
Practicing daily relaxation techniques can help you manage stress, reduce negative emotions such as anger and fear, and boost feelings of joy and well-being. Try yoga, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation.
10. Find your bliss
Do something you enjoy every single day. Make time for leisure activities that bring you joy, whether it be painting, playing the piano, working on your car, having coffee with a friend, taking a class, joining a club, or enrolling in a special interest group that meets on a regular basis. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s something that’s fun
Natasha Kubis is a licensed acupuncturist and certified yoga teacher. For more information, visit essential-well.com