Strategies to avoid being SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)

It’s a cold day in Northern Ontario today (-1 degree Celsius this morning!) and as the warmth and summer weather retreats until the spring, the prolonged daylight goes with it.  Shorter, colder days mean much less time spent outside, as well as less time exposed to direct sunlight.  What does this mean for us?

It means we aren’t connecting with nature as often as we would in the summer (raking leaves just doesn’t have the same allure as laying on the dock by the lake, does it?), which can have a profound effect on our mood.  There’s just something that incites a peaceful feeling about spending time outside.

Not being outside also means we aren’t exposed to the suns rays as much (as well as the changed angle of the sun entering the earth), which means our bodies don’t synthesize as much Vitamin D in the fall and winter as they would in the spring and summer.  Vitamin D is STILL a “hot” vitamin/hormone being studied for numerous connections to both mood and health in general.

The colder weather and lack of sunshine can mean some simple but meaningful changes in our lives.  More time spent indoors.  More time spent looking at screens (TVs, Cell phones, computers, etc.).  Less motivation to get out and move (outside or at the gym).  Less time spent connecting with friends and family.  Like everything in life, these things add up.  The problem is, they add up in a bad way.

Seasonal Affective Disorder exists on a gradient (like most psychological/affect diagnoses), and can affect different people in different ways.  Most people simply report they don’t feel as great in the winter as they do in the summer.  Others succumb to outright depression.  The lack of motivation, fatigue and general malaise that plagues SAD sufferers can be improved upon and sometimes alleviated all together.  The desire to change must be there, which is often the hardest part, but it can be upended by starting small.

I’ll outline a number of ways to approach improving your mood and your life – I suggest you pick and choose which ones work best for you, then, when possible, add in another – until you’ve gone through the whole list.  I don’t suggest trying to do them all at once, unless you already do most of them.

1. Move away from digital screens and fluorescent lighting at night

  • The blue light present in these bulbs and screens send a signal to our bodies through our eyes and skin that it’s “daytime”.  When it isn’t daytime and we’re exposed to blue light our bodies don’t unwind properly and our quality of sleep is affected.  No, it doesn’t matter if you can fall asleep immediately – the quality of your sleep is still affected.
  • Read a (paper) book or spend sometime journaling about 30-60 minutes before bed to the light of some candles, or an incandescent bulb.  Or find some other activity to do in the dark before bed, we’re just looking to reduce your exposure to light here.
  • Turn your clock/phone around/away and get some good quality blinds/drapes
  • These will help to reduce the amount of light you’re being exposed to while sleeping, which will improve the quality of your sleep

2. Get to bed at a decent hour and get enough sleep

  • Getting more sleep in the colder months makes sense, as the sun isn’t up as long.  Ever been camping?  Didn’t you feel pooched earlier than you’d expect while sitting around the campfire?  It’s because you’ve only been exposed to natural light since sunset.  Aim for 8 to 10 hours each night.  I know it’s a lot for a busy person but play around with as much as you can get and gauge how you look, feel and perform

3. Wake up grateful

  • Wake up and try to start your day with gratitude.  Be thankful you’re waking up in a bed, in a room, in a house.  That it’s warm.  That you have at least some food available to you for breakfast.  Many aren’t nearly as lucky/wealthy and are simply thankful to wake up in the morning.

4. Eat breakfast

  • It doesn’t need to be a lot, but have something for breakfast.  Start with something fresh, like some fruit, or veggies in an omelet.  If you’ve got veggies already cut up from last nights dinner, throw them in the pan with some eggs and voila, omelet!
  • Have some grapefruit with your coffee to help the caffeine burn a little extra fat.

5. Take your wellness essentials

  • Vitamin D, Fish oil and probiotics are necessary for everyone, everyday.  I wish this weren’t true, but it is.  We’ve affected both the environment, and our food chain to such a degree that it’s made these supplements necessary in everyday life.  You don’t need a lot, a few droplets of Vitamin D, a teaspoon of fish oil (or a few capsules), and a single small capsule of probiotics will set you up for success.
  • The vitamin D is like a shot of sunshine, the fish oil helps to balance out your mood, mental clarity and level of inflammation, and the probiotics will keep your gut populated with friendlies, reducing the chances of an infectious bacteria to set up shop.

6. Get some exercise

  • Get outside for a walk, do some squats and push-ups, some sit-ups and lunges.  Play sports you enjoy.  Come out to CrossFit and join a group of your peers trying their best to accomplish the same things.  Lie out or pack your gym/exercise clothes the night before.  Have everything you need ready – don’t give yourself the opportunity to make an excuse at the time of decision.
  • Movement through your joints and an elevated heart rate will help with your ability to cope with stress.

7. Have fun with friends

  • Get out to socialize, have a beverage, go skiing, whatever.  Just do something you enjoy, preferably with some people you like.  Vent about what’s bothering you, boast about your successes and laugh.  If there’s anyone you can be completely candid with, it’s friends and family.

8. Spend quiet time

  • Read, watch a movie, listen to music or an audiobook, go for a walk.  As a society we rarely take the time to do these things as it’s often viewed as “wasting time”.  If it helps you unwind and slow down your day a bit, then wasting time is something you need to make time to do, at least once a day.  It can be as little as 5 minutes, but is better off being in the 30-60 minute range.  Journaling and introspection I would put higher on the list than watching “The Avengers” for the 6th time.

9. Get Adjusted

  • Chiropractors and other manual therapists (Physio, massage, etc.) help to create, and maintain your full range of motion at the joints in your body.  The communication from your joints and surrounding tissues to your brain stimulates the movement-pleasure pathway, making you feel good.  More importantly, regular adjustments set you up with access to a full range of motion, so you can use it regularly on your own.  Using your full range of motion on a regular basis will help to maintain that range, and therefore keep you feeling great (and necessitate less frequent visits to your manual therapists – don’t worry we don’t mind so long as you’re being healthy!)

Use all, or some of the above suggestions and you should notice a difference with your mood, mental focus, physical health and even boost your immune system.  Our bodies are like an organic vehicle or house, and we want to maintain that vehicle with the best parts and ingredients as possible.  Take good care of your body; you only get one!

Stay healthy, Friends!

Dr. Adam Ball