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What is seasonal affective disorder? A complete guide to the Winter blues

The Winter blues, more commonly known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) or seasonal depression, is a real thing.

While the exact cause of seasonal depression is unknown, there are factors that might contribute to it, including the levels of your happy hormones: serotonin and dopamine, as well as adrenaline.

The good news is that there are natural ways you can boost these happy hormones through the Winter months. 

Happy Hormones: What are they? 

  • Serotonin: Serotonin is your ‘feel good’ hormone, in charge of keeping you happy, confident and calm. It plays a huge role in your mood, sleep, appetite and body temperature.

  • Dopamine: Dopamine is your reward chemical, also known as the ‘motivation molecule’ that boosts your drive, focus and concentration.

  • Adrenaline: While the hormone adrenaline is not one of your ‘happy hormones’, it’s important because it is associated with energy and stress. If you have too much or too little adrenaline, it can lead to anxiety and nervousness, which impacts your mood. The key is having just the right amount.

SAD treatment 

Foods for Seasonal Affective Disorder

  • Protein: Serotonin production depends on the precursor tryptophan, which is an essential amino acid. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and proteins are the building blocks for hormones. Tyrosine is another important amino acid that's needed for producing dopamine. Foods high in tryptophan and tyrosine are meat, fish, eggs, seeds, nuts, oats, chickpeas, bananas and chocolate (ideally 70% cocoa or above).

  • Nutrients: You can get vitamin D from food sources like oily fish, liver, eggs, mushrooms and raw dairy. Omega 3 fatty acids can be found in foods like eggs, nuts, raw milk, leafy green vegetables and oily fish such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, cod. Vitamin C can also be found in foods like papaya, bell peppers, guava, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, oranges, strawberries, kiwi, pineapple and cantaloupe melon.

  • Gut-friendly foods: Include gut-friendly foods that are high in prebioticsprobiotics and fibre in your diet. These include live yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso, legumes, onions, garlic, and a variety of fruit and vegetables.

Due to things like cooking, storing and also production methods and pesticides, the quality and amount of vitamins and nutrients in food can be reduced. 

Supplements for Seasonal Affective Disorder

  • Vitamin D: Vitamin D plays a role in serotonin and dopamine production. While you can get vitamin D from sunshine, this is difficult in the winter months if you live in a country with colder weather, like the UK. Vitamin D absorption is also affected by sunscreen (which is important!) and spending lots of time indoors. In addition, if you’re vegan, it can be very difficult to get vitamin D from food. 

  • Omega 3: Omega 3 fatty acids are also essential for serotonin production.

  • Vitamin C: In times of chronic stress or illness, taking vitamin C can help to support immunity and recovery. Vitamin C also supports energy production, therefore preventing fatigue which can lead to improved moods. 

  • Gut-supporting supplements: The majority of serotonin and about half of your dopamine is made in your gut. This means that the health of your gut microbiome influences the levels of your serotonin and dopamine production. 

Due to things like cooking, storing and also production methods and pesticides, the quality and amount of vitamins and nutrients in food can be reduced. Taking supplements is a good way to make sure you’re getting enough of certain nutrients.

Seasonal depression and lifestyle

Exercise to release natural endorphins 

Exercise has so many benefits and one of them is improved mood. This is because when you exercise, you release natural endorphins which leave you feeling great! At least 20 minutes of any-intensity exercise daily will give you the endorphins needed to help support your mood and motivation. 

Get outside

Getting some fresh air and being with nature is a great way to boost your mood. Make the most of the lightest part of the day and take a stroll in your local park. Take a flask of warm tea to sip on to keep you warm and hydrated, and invest in some warm clothes and waterproofs to help you brave the weather and make it feel less daunting to get outside. 

Maintain good quality sleep and sleep patterns

When your serotonin levels decrease, this can impact your sleep quality. When you aren’t sleeping well and your circadian rhythm is disrupted, it's more likely that your mood will be affected. Keeping in natural rhythm with daylight hours will help boost your serotonin levels, so try to stick to a consistent sleep and wake pattern, and expose yourself to natural daylight in the morning and during the day. Also, set yourself a nourishing bedtime routine to support good sleep quality, including switching off devices at least one hour before bed, doing some journaling, reading, meditation or running a bath. 

Practice gratitude, set goals and stimulate your brain

When you achieve a goal, accomplish a task or hit a target, you receive a pleasurable hit of dopamine in your brain, telling you you’ve done a good job. Set yourself some daily goals and targets, and engage your brain in some intellectually stimulating activities like puzzles, crosswords or quizzes. You can also get a natural dose of dopamine when you perform acts of compassion toward others. 

Adopt a positive Winter mindset

Adopting a positive Winter mindset could help you cope with seasonal depression. Firstly, accept that its Winter and that it will be cold, wet, and grey sometimes. Find fun activities that you can do indoors and outdoors to fill your days, like tackling some of those personal projects that you've always wanted to, reading more, studying, writing, calling friends and family, baking, etc.  

Summary

Staying positive during the cold months of winter isn’t always easy, but shifting your mindset and thinking of it as an opportunity to re-energise, restore and indulge in some self-care can make it feel a lot more enjoyable and comforting. Don’t let the prospect of winter fill you with dread and discomfort, rather, embrace winter for what it's worth, do what makes you happy and enjoy the season. 

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