For some people, the winter blues reach the level of clinical depression triggered by the change in seasons, a condition called seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Dan Iosifescu, M.D., says SAD results from changes in ambient light.
“A gland in our brain provides a time signal, based on the amount of ambient light, to various parts of the body,” Iosifescu, the director of the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, explains. “Like a metronome, the gland responds to signals from light and uses those cues to orchestrate the day/night cycle.”
Ambient light helps our brains determine when our bodies need to be active mentally and physically and when our bodies need to rest. That cycle is thrown off when the days get shorter and darker, he says.
Iosifescu offers these tips for beating the winter doldrums:
· Lighten up – Make sure you turn on all the lights when you wake up to jumpstart your day. Getting outside and going for a walk on sunny mornings can help. For people with more severe cases of the winter blues, or diagnosed seasonal affective disorder, consider purchasing a light therapy box, a special lamp that simulates outside light. Turn the light on for 30 minutes each day, early in the morning, to flood with light the space you are in (not directly into your eyes).
· Keep moving. – Exercise is critical to mental health as well as physical health. Many studies have shown that exercise has an important antidepressant effect. Incorporate vigorous cardiovascular exercise for at least 30 minutes, three times a week.
· Maintain your regular routine –Don’t let a warm bed lure you into sleeping later than usual. During winter, it’s critical to maintain a regular sleep-wake cycle both during the week and on weekends. Schedule plans with friends and family to try new activities, such as indoor sports or going to a museum you’ve never visited.
· Supplement your diet – Diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids can improve symptoms of depression. Natural remedies such as Sam-e and St. John’s Wort also have antidepressant effects.
· Ask your doctor – It is important to differentiate between mild seasonal blues and clinical depression. If you have more severe symptoms lasting longer than a few weeks, talk to your doctor.