Seasonal depression or “Seasonal affective disorder” is a mood disorder subset where people generally have normal mental health and are uncharacteristically depressed during winter months or anxious during the summer months. Common symptoms in the winter are generally being more depressed and sad, overeating, having less energy and sleeping more than usual. We might also feel unmotivated, bored, apathetic and irritable. Vice versa, during the summer, people often experience heightened anxiety due to the increase in activity, both personally and witnessed throughout the environment. It mostly effects people during the winter months and this is attested by recorded data on people that experience “S.A.D.” in colder and darker geographical regions of the world such as Alaska and generally anywhere the farther you get from the equator. The peak of this seasonal disorder is generally in January and February in the northern hemisphere and July and August in the southern hemisphere.
Of course, naturally, it’s not just humans that experience changes during the various seasons, but animals, trees and insects do as well. In general, activity is diminished across the board and we all, out of necessity, go into various states of hibernation. It’s nature’s way of signaling us to slow down, rest and take time to recharge. The darkness all but forces us indoors, inwards, both physically, mentally and emotionally. By nature’s design, when it gets dark in general but especially when it occurs earlier in the day, our body starts producing more melatonin which signals us to go to sleep. Additionally, the hormones responsible for keeping us happy and awake, namely, serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine often decrease. Whether it’s the lack of vitamin D or the extra time to sit around and ruminate, it’s easy to see why experiencing sadness during the winter months is very normal.
What are some natural ways to beat seasonal depression or anxiety?
Listen to Our Body and Cues From Nature
We should each take the time we need to rest. This means not feeling guilty about using winter as a time to relax and not worry about projects or to do lists for a while. That looks different for every person.
Open up the shades as often as possible. Get outside as often as possible during daylight hours to soak up the sun! If neither is possible, we could look into using light therapy and indoor light lamps.
Negative Ion Machine
Negative ions are odorless, tasteless, and invisible molecules that we inhale in abundance in certain environments. They are especially available in abundance around mountains, waterfalls, beaches, during rain or thunderstorms and even in our showers. Negative Ions are molecules that have gained or lost an electron. They are created in nature as air molecules break apart due to sunlight, radiation, and moving air and water. Once they reach our bloodstream, negative ions are believed to produce biochemical reactions that increase levels of the mood chemical serotonin, helping to alleviate depression, relieve stress, and boost our daytime energy. Negative Ion machines are available but vary to great degree, price and quality so it’s important to research which one is best for our needs.
Vitamin D Supplement
Vitamin D is critical to humans and so critical in fact that it’s the only vitamin that the body produces by itself in any relevant capacity. Using cholesterol and UVB rays from the sun, the body is able to produce as much as 10,000 IU to 20,000 IU of vitamin D3 in just 30 minutes of natural sun exposure. Warming ourselves by a window on a cold winter day may feel good, and even help elevate our mood, but it’s not going to help you with your vitamin D production specifically because UVB rays don’t penetrate glass. A deficit in vitamin D has been linked to everything from depression and heart disease to an increased risk for autism, cancer and osteoporosis. It’s very hard to overdose on Vitamin D but megadoses, and taking 60,000 international units (IU) a day of vitamin D for several months has been shown to cause toxicity in adults. Vitamin D supplements are especially important for infants and children through age 4. Everyone should consider a Vitamin D supplement but especially those that are pregnant, nursing or don’t get outside a lot. Many scientists theorize that the general rise in anxiety, depression and mood/brain disorders in children could be linked to people getting outside less due to technology (smart phones, increased internet use) and not receiving their recommended daily value of vitamin D.
Fish Oil Supplement
New research published in The FASEB Journal argues that vitamin D along with marine omega-3 fatty acids, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are important for serotonin synthesis, release, and function in the brain. The study suggests that together, both vitamin D and fish oil work in a synchronistic fashion to improve cognitive function and mental health.
Eat a Serotonin Boosting Diet
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter released by the pineal gland of the brain. It is most well-known for its positive effect on mood, but it also helps to regulate digestion and body temperature. For this reason, many people with depression often but not always have gastrointestinal or sleep issues. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that helps the body produce serotonin so it should stand that eating more foods with tryptophan could help regulate or even increase serotonin levels. These are going to be foods such as chicken, turkey, salmon, dairy products, eggs, spinach, seeds/nuts, beans (especially soybeans), oats, kiwi, avocados, grapes, elderberries, oranges, peaches, pineapples and dark chocolate. Of course, there are many other foods that contain tryptophan and overall, it’s simply important to eat a balanced diet.
Listen to Upbeat Music or Dance
This one is fairly straight forward but the power of music and dance is often such an underrated tool to increase our general wellbeing. For me personally, there are few things that increase my mood as much as music and dancing.
Exercise and Walking
Research consistently shows that exercise is nature’s natural anti-depressant. This is because it increases serotonin and endorphins which both strongly effect our moods. Walking in particular is low impact and something that nearly everyone can do. Walking somewhere in a natural setting and enjoying the sights that nature has to offer would be even more beneficial.
Looking at Natural Settings and Nature
Speaking of nature, looking at natural settings, animals and nature has proven benefits of uplifting our mood. Even when watching nature shows, or viewing pictures of natural scenes, our brains exhibit similar anti-anxiety and anti-depressive effects as if we were actually there.
Meditation, Pilates, Stretching or Yoga
Using meditation, pilates, stretching or yoga in our daily or weekly routines has proven time and time again to be potent stress relievers. They are also somewhat stationary activities that can be adapted and implemented for a wide variety of age groups and abilities.
Spending More Quality Time With Family and Friends
We can try to spend more quality time with family and friends. The important phrase there is quality and technology often unfortunately gets in the way of this. While this is important throughout the year, doing activities like playing board games or just having dinner more often in the winter months can go a long way to elevating our moods when we need it the most!
The value of laughter can’t be overstated! Laughter releases endorphins which have been proven to elevate our mood, relieve stress and even improve our immune system. It’s important to reach out and surround ourselves with people who just “get” us and have the ability to make us readily laugh. If this isn’t possible in the immediate moment or situation, we can seek out comedians or internet clips that we find comical. As mentioned in a previous article, quality is important when it comes to internet use and screen time. The internet, like any tool can be used for good when we use it in moderation.
Recognizing the Subtle Power of Touch
We shouldn’t forget about the subtle power of touch, it’s positive effects on our mood and general wellbeing and the very real power of a simple hug.
In summary, make sure to eat a balanced diet, get enough vitamin D, surround yourself with good people and just get moving and outside in as many ways possible! All of these suggestions of course can be used to naturally heal depression and anxiety all year long and not just during the winter or summer months!