Illuminating SAD

I was walking to the train station this morning to head to work, and I realized my spirits were lifted. I had more energy than I have in a while, even though nothing has changed from yesterday to today…Or so I thought.

There was a change. The sun had come out. It was shining over the whole city, the air was crisp but not too cold, and it created a bounce in my step. It’s amazing how the sun can make so much of a difference.

I live in a very cloudy place. During the winter, it is grey and rainy. We almost never get snow, and when we do, it just freezes or turns to slush. The summer is great, we usually have a lot of sun, but it does get very hot and humid. But this morning, it was perfect.

I find my mood and outlook on life changes pretty drastically during the winter here – because of the lack of sunlight. I am used to being in much sunnier places, where there are 300 days of sunshine per year. I just looked up how many days of sunshine we have here, and the answer was 289. I don’t believe it for a second.

Seasonal Affective Disorder affects between 2-3% of the general population in Canada. Between 4-6% of Americans suffer from it, and 10% of Alaska residents are affected.

I’m definitely one person among the 2-3% of Canadians. My first winter here was extremely rough. Depression, fatigue, dizziness, increased appetite, too much sleep, loss of interest in life. I have had these feelings before as I have battled depression for a very long time, but they seemed to be exacerbated when I moved here, to a rainy, grey, Canadian city.

Seasonal Affective Disorder can disrupt daily life to the point where relationships, career, and family connections are damaged. It is a real problem that should be addressed more often. When I first moved here, it would have been nice to have a workshop or something for people new to the city, and new to the area, who might want to know how to deal with SAD and what to expect. I already knew about SAD, but I had never actually experienced it, at least, to the extent I did when I moved here. Many people don’t know about it, or don’t think it will affect them, or don’t realize what’s happening when suddenly they feel depressed during the winter for no obvious reason. I asked some friends of mine here, who said they never really thought about it, and they didn’t know there was something they could do about it.

So, what can you do about SAD if you are experiencing it?

1. Take vitamin D. If you are male or female between the ages of 19-50, the recommended dosage is 600iu/day (that’s 15mcg), just to maintain good skeletal health. That’s really not much vitamin D, and if you are experiencing SAD, you probably won’t feel a big difference from that. However, if you take amounts closer to the tolerable upper intake level per day, you should feel a difference. If you take more than the daily tolerable upper intake level, you may experience adverse health effects down the road, so that is not recommended. Vitamin D alone won’t make a huge difference in the symptoms of SAD, however, so read on.

2. Get enough sleep…But not too much sleep. Oversleeping can make fatigue and depression worse. How much sleep you should get depends on a few things: your age, your activity level, your lifestyle habits, and your general health. It’s recommended you get 7-9 hours of sleep per night, to keep your immune system strong and to avoid getting sick. But you might be at the low end of the range, or the high range. I personally like 9 hours of sleep – that’s where I feel the most rested when I wake up. But normally, I only get 7.5 hours. And you can get used to the amount of sleep you get per night if it’s consistent. You may hate it, but setting an alarm – even on weekends or days you don’t have work/school – can be a good idea. It really makes a difference, in my experience, if you consistently wake up at around the same time (give or take an hour or so) instead of waking up at different times each day.

3. Exercise. This winter, I have been getting up early in the morning before work and going to the gym a few days per week (but not every day). It sounds horrible and impossible, but it’s not. You get used to it, and you get into a routine. And it has made my energy levels and attitude so much better this winter. And then it’s out of the way for the day! But if you absolutely can’t do it in the morning, get at least 30 minutes of exercise per day. It will really help with your mood, you’ll get your endorphins going, and soon, you’ll notice a difference. Even taking a walk every day is a good idea. Exercising outside is even better – if it’s rainy or cloudy, you will still get some natural light, which is important.

4. See a counselor or psychiatrist. I started doing this when I moved here, and it was so helpful. Depression is a very common symptom of SAD, and having someone unbiased to talk to is a really good idea. This leads me to my next point…

5. Be social. Don’t hibernate too much. Get together with friends, host potlucks, find exercise buddies, join a book club. If you’re around other people, it’s hard to dwell on the negative things in life. And hopefully, you’ll laugh a lot, which is a great cure for depression any time of the year. This has been my personal observation for myself during the winter blues.

6. Use light therapy. For light therapy, you use a special lamp with a very bright light (10,000 lux) that simulates sunlight. It would be best to talk to a doctor about which light to use. Unfortunately, they can be expensive, but I found a decent one on Ebay for about $60. When you’re using the light, make sure it is shining in your direction, but don’t stare into it or look directly into it for a long period of time (glances are ok), as this can cause damage to your eyes (especially with the blue light lamps). It’s best to use it in the early morning for 20-30 minuets. You can also get a dawn simulator, which mimics the sun rising.  You can set it to start gradually lighting your room half an hour before you wake up, and often, you can use the dawn simulator as a general therapy lamp as well, because there are different settings that allow you to keep it on for a longer period of time. They are more expensive, but they are worth it.

7. Take Omega-3 fatty acids. They have helped me throughout the year, but especially during the winter. They can boost heart health, lower triglycerides, and help with depression and brain function. I noticed a very big difference in my mental state when I began taking them. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish oil, and are usually only available in capsule form. You could eat a lot of fish, such as salmon, but this poses other health risks, such as too much mercury in your diet; as well as environmental factors, such as overfishing. Omega-6 fatty acids are more common in the food we eat in our daily lives, but Omega-3s can be hard to come by, so try looking for them at your grocery store. Look for supplements with EPA and DHA, which are the most crucial Omega-3s.

8. Lastly, take melatonin. It helps tremendously with sleep. It is a hormone that is naturally secreted by your pineal gland, but it often is beneficial to take it in a supplement form to regulate your sleep cycles. There’s a good explanation of that here. It’s usually recommended that you only take melatonin for up to 2 months at a time. If you have a sleep disorder that goes on for longer than 2 months, you should really see your doctor.

I’d like to formally state that I am NOT a doctor, and you should always speak to your doctor about ANY medical treatments, whether they are supplements, light therapy, exercise, or anything else. If you have a disorder that makes it harder to exercise, or makes exercise dangerous, you need to know this before you start an exercise program (as just one example). The above statements are just my personal observations when I’ve dealt with SAD.

SAD is hard to live with, but it doesn’t have to ruin your lifestyle. If you follow some simple practices to change your lifestyle, you will see improvements in your life.

Let’s get you from your sleepy SAD self to this!


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