Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of mood disorder that usually coincides with certain times of the year. People who experience SAD usually feel low during the fall and winter months of the year, and symptoms tend to subside towards the spring and summer.

Nobody truly knows what SAD is caused by, but it is thought to be associated with the reduced sunlight in the fall and winter months and decreased levels of serotonin in the brain. Shorter days in the fall and winter mean fewer hours of sunlight, which can throw off the body’s circadian rhythm, which then can disrupt the production of serotonin (the happy hormone) and melatonin (sleep hormone).

Common symptoms of SAD are low energy, losing interest in social activities or hobbies, experiencing changes in weight and appetite (especially craving high-carb foods), and feeling a brain fog that impairs concentration and cognitive function.

While SAD can be treated with medications until the seasons change again, there are numerous foods and lifestyle tips that may help ease the symptoms. The most common therapy for SAD is light therapy, which consists of exposure to bright white lights that your brain thinks is sunlight. Studies have shown that light therapy has a direct relationship with serotonin in multiple parts of the brain. In fact, a study found that light therapy can be as effective as some antidepressant medications in treating SAD.

The brightness and duration needed depends on the individual, and you should always check with your doctor before implementing any lifestyle changes and using a light box. It is said to be most effective when exposure starts in the morning and continues for approximately 30 mins to several hours throughout each day, depending on the lux (illuminance) of the light.

Two great light therapy lamps that have good reputations are the Verilux HappyLight and the Circadian Optics Luxy Light Therapy Lamp, though I’ve not personally tried them to verify their quality. 

Diet may be able to play a role in managing symptoms of SAD, specifically by eating foods with the essential amino acid tryptophan, which is a precursor for serotonin and is necessary for the production of serotonin in the brain. Your body is not able to glean serotonin directly from food, but the breakdown of tryptophan-containing foods allows the building blocks for serotonin to be transported into the brain and readily available to form the mood hormone.

Research has supported that consumption of tryptophan benefits emotional processing and feelings of happiness. Animal products such as chicken, turkey, eggs, cheese, and fish, especially salmon, contain high levels of tryptophan. Great plant-based foods containing tryptophan include soy products like tofu and soybeans, nuts, seeds, mushrooms, and green vegetables such as leafy greens, broccoli, watercress, and green peas.

Eating these foods with carbohydrates allows for better absorption into the brain and likely a greater subsequent boost in serotonin levels. Other nutrients that are associated with mood are omega-3, as deficiency can contribute to symptoms of low mood or mood disorders, and vitamin D.

Increasing consumption of these nutrients may be helpful. If you’re looking to spice up your meals while still reaping the benefits of elevated mood, saffron and turmeric may become your new go-tos.

Saffron has been shown to help significantly reduce depressive symptoms compared to a placebo, and perform comparably to several antidepressant drugs in several studies. Turmeric and its principal component curcumin may also help with mood. Even combining saffron and turmeric can be effective!

Another lifestyle tip is engaging in regular exercise, because even a single exercise session can improve your mood. Evidence suggests that muscle tone and motor activity increase the activity of serotonergic neurons, and the best exercises proven to increase mood are aerobic activities, such as running, biking, swimming, and hiking.

After your alone time during exercise, it may be helpful to seek extra social support and connection by setting up regular calls, either using Zoom or over the phone, with family and friends. Social support has been shown to not only be negatively associated with depressio but also potentially moderate the effects of stress on depressive symptoms.

Engaging in these lifestyle changes has helped elevate my mood during the gloomy fall and winter months, and maybe they can help you, too!