Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Fighting SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) this Winter Season

Seasonal Affective Disorder, now more commonly known as SAD, affects many people in our region. Because of the short summer and long winter months we experience extended periods of limited sunlight, leaving us in a slump when fall rolls around. You may know someone who has experienced SAD or you may have it yourself. It is marked by increased depression, anxiety, mood changes, lethargy, change in sleep patterns, and overeating during the winter months; with these symptoms going into remission during spring and summer. Why wait till summer to feel happy again?! Take action this winter to fight against the SAD winter blues!

Here are 4 do-it-yourself ways to fight SAD this winter:

1. Watch Your Diet
Weight gain is a major side effect of SAD. This is closely linked to an increased craving for simple carbohydrates, both sweets and starches, in those with SAD. A study done at the Minneapolis Veterans Administration Medical Center showed that participants with SAD consumed larger or double servings of sweets during the winter months, while their cravings went back to normal in the spring and summer.

• Cut out refined sugars such as candy, cakes, cookies, white bread, rice, etc. These foods rapidly increase your blood sugar and in turn cause a quick drop, resulting in an energy crash. These foods also tend to be high in unhealthy fats and calories which ultimately result in weight gain. Instead choose complex carbohydrates found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains!

• Eat foods that contain tryptophan such as fish, turkey, chicken, bananas, milk, eggs, nuts, and avocados. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that affects our mood, and when it is low we have feelings of depression. Serotonin is made from the amino acid tryptophan, which is why consuming foods that contain it can help increase our serotonin levels and lift our mood!

• Make sure not to skip meals. Keeping a consistent eating schedule will help you refrain from mindless snacking throughout the day. Also, make these mealtimes enjoyable! Meet a friend for lunch or bring a sack lunch and eat it at your favorite coffee shop.

2. Stay Active
• Exercise can do wonders for your mood! Just 1 hour of exercise 3 times a week can significantly reduce symptoms of depression, and also keep you in great shape.

• Get some fresh air! Go for a 30-minute walk around the bock to get your blood flowing. The more you can get outside during the light of day the better.

3. Get Social
• Make sure to continue on with normal social activities. The less isolated you are the less you will have time to feel down and out.

4. Light Therapy
• If you are experiencing extreme symptoms of SAD please consult your healthcare provider about light therapy. This is a way to help treat SAD without the use of depression medication. It takes about 30 minutes out of your day, but has made a difference for a great deal of people.

Written by
Alison Wilson, Wellness Director & Nutritionist
Seattle Athletic Club Downtown


  1. I have Seasonal Affective Disorder, and its effects on me used to be crippling -- I suffered all the symtoms that Alison describes except for weight loss. Some years it got so bad that I couldn't even stay motivated enough to hold down a job.
    Although I have tried various anti-depressants to deal with it, I dislike the way they make me feel and no longer take them. Instead, I use these techniques that Alison describes, and I take supplementary vitamin D. Alison may have left out vitamin D therapy because there are mixed results from studies that examines its link to SAD, however in my experience it has made even more difference for me than medication.
    If you suffer from SAD, I highly recommend looking into vitamin D supplements.

  2. I did indeed leave out vitamin D therapy because there are mixed results from studies linking it to SAD. We do know that it is an essential vitamin (meaning our bodies do not produce it on their own unless activated by sunlight) used for basic body functioning in addition to attributing greatly to bone health. Because it is vital for basic body functions there is great reason to believe that supplementing this vitamin would result in a change in overall energy and increased mood.

    In either case, vitamin D deficiency is very common among people who struggle with SAD and live in communities (like the Northwest) where SAD is prevalent. This is due to the limited amount of sunlight exposure during the late-autumn to early-spring months. In addition, there are very few foods that contain a significant amount of vitamin D, making it difficult to maintain a healthy level in your body during these months without supplementation.

    My overall point and suggestion is that despite the mixed results of vitamin D therapy on improving SAD, vitamin D deficiency is still likely a deficiency that people with SAD have and should definitely supplement in their diet. Whether or not it cures SAD I am not sure, but what I am sure of is that it will benefit your overall body functioning and provide the opportunity to help improve symptoms of SAD.