If you live in a place where winter brings long, dark days, you may have experienced at one time or another Seasonal Affective Disorder or better known as the SAD’s. No amount of pumpkin spice lattes can help combat the dark, rainy, gloomy and dreary days where you don’t see the sun again until March. That’s 6 long months without any sun. And, without any distinction between 7am and 2pm, it can be a little painful.
Because of lack of sunlight, people living around the Northern areas of the Americas experience something very real called Seasonal Affective Disorder. The non-medical lingo version of this is you are melancholy, unmotivated, unimpressed, and borderline depressed for no apparent reason. When the sun does come out, you are overjoyed and act semi-crazy; running around in the streets expressing love and gratitude towards all. This is sunlight-driven joy and not a real medical term, yet.
There are two neurotransmitters at play when it comes to day and night and the feelings associated with these two different times of the day. Serotonin is released during the day and is associated with happiness, calmness, and a calm yet focused outlook. Think of it as “sunny serotonin”. As the day progresses, the release of serotonin slows down and melatonin increases. Melatonin is associated with helping is to slow down for the day and get ready for bed. Think of this as “midnight melatonin”. Each of these neurotransmitters is triggered by exposure to and lack of sunlight (Mead, 2008).
Sunlight → Serotonin → Happiness & Joy
Sunlight → Vitamin D → Happiness, Joy, & Strong Bones
We all need sunlight, in moderation, for more than a mere tan, but to help us live. Sunlight helps to regulate our melatonin which affects our sleep patterns, moods, insomnia, and even PMS (Mead, 2008). Obviously, when you don’t get enough exposure to sunlight, your body thinks it’s night time, so it’s transmitting “midnight melatonin” all day long leading SADS.
No one is immune to this. Even the happiest chap on the block will eventually get hit with the SADS. It’s not genetic, it’s not that you’re a bad human being, it’s literally and purely the lack of sunlight that’s causing so many sad faces. I can tell you I’ve been there and struggled two seasons of this until my husband changed all the lights in the house to super bright LED bulbs that mimic sunlight. But, before these lights, I thought I was losing my mind living in Seattle coming from sunny Southern California. Turns out, I was losing my mind because I lost one major element of life that I grew up with: the sun.
Disclaimer: This dark feeling should away when the doom and gloom weather ends. If you experience this feeling for much longer than just during fall and winter (e.g., even during naturally sunny months), please consult your physician as you may be experiencing a medical emergency.
This may be a hard one to do if you are naturally an introvert. I’m not suggesting a full-on Vegas style party. Also, any socializing that requires wi-fi does not count. Socializing requires picking 1 friend who you kind of like, who you can touch in a nonoffensive way, and see if they kind of would like to eat lunch, dinner, or grab coffee/drinks with you. The worst thing to do is to isolate yourself when the weather is already so conducive to you wanting to stay in your jammies all day. Setting up a date will force you to do something different in your routine which helps to get your brain and blood moving. The adrenaline of meeting your friend will awaken your senses and dreary soul. If you hate people, then try to socialize with your pets and take them out for a walk!
I don’t care what kind of exercise you do, but it needs to be something that gets your heart rate up for at least 30 minutes a day. Running, walking, jogging, skating, jumping around, dancing, yoga, or chasing the mailman for your delivery, any of that will get your happy hormones flowing and this is the most natural way to beat the SADS. Your brain will release oxytocin and “sunny serotonin”, both of which help regulate your mood, prevent depression, and make you feel happy as a clam without popping pills.
Dr. Russel Reiter of the University of Texas Health Science Center, a melatonin research expert, urges people who work indoors to get outside periodically, every day, for as long as possible. Even 10 minutes of exposure to natural daylight has a major impact on melatonin release that can lead to improvements in mood, sleep quality, and energy.
Thus, this is why Target exists. It’s for the SADS. It’s when you don’t want to actually socialize but you want to get out. You don’t have to buy anything, but just getting out of the house when you are experiencing SADS can do wonders. It’s not that your home is making you depressed, it’s just the scenery needs to be changed to get your brain fired up again. When it’s dark outside, you are in a perpetual state of sleepiness. So, unless you can find something to do that will excite your brain, you will physically need to remove yourself from the place that is making you sleepy. If Target doesn’t excite you, then I can’t help you.
Before we get into whether supplements work and why we don’t want to wear SPF (which is ludicrous by the way), Vitamin D is what you naturally get when you exposed to the sun, safely, for no more than 15 minutes without sunscreen. But when you don’t have any sun, you need some source of Vitamin D.
A study by Gloth, Allam, & Hollis (1999) looked at a group of 15 people who were experiencing SADS. Half received photo light therapy and the other got 100,000 I.U. of Vitamin D supplement treatment. They had their Vitamin D levels measured 1 week before and 1 week after treatment. They found those who were taking Vitamin D scored lower on both depression and SADS while those using phototherapy showed no significant change.
However, there was also a recent study showing that Vitamin D supplementation did not help SADS at all. Both studies had very low sample sizes and typically, you want to do a study with 500+ people so that you can generalize your findings to the population at large. Either way, the lesson is you can find anything to support any case you are trying to make.
All I can tell you here is from personal experience, my primary care physician and OB-GYN have prescribed at least 5,000 I.U. of Vitamin D to help with everything from bone health, calcium absorption, postpartum depression prevention, energy, and mood health.
If getting outside to see Target or that one friend you kinda like doesn’t work to lift your SADs, then another natural alternative next to vitamin D would be Sam-E. Here at TERIMIYAHIRA.COM, we really love it. You can read all the scientific jargon here, here, here, and here. But, what it basically does it takes off the edge of whatever undesirable feeling you are having. Be it anger, sadness, frustration, weepiness, or depression, it helps to soothe your nerves and helps to increase positive moods. However, please note that the research states that this may NOT be an advisable product for anyone experiencing a manic episode associated with bipolar disorder or manic depression. Before taking this or any other supplement, please consult with your primary care physician.
Lavender is probably not the best aroma to be sniffing during this time. You need zest, enlivenment, and motivation. There has been a handful of research showing that aromatherapy may help with SADS. Certain fragrances like citrus (Jafarzadeh et al 2013), bergamot (Watanabe et al., 2014), clary sage (Lee et al., 2014), and rose (Haze et al., 2002) have been shown to have calming effects. Other oils help to stimulate the senses and clear that brain fog that’s associated with SADS like grapefruit (Haze et al., 2002), lemon (Komori et al., 2006), and rosemary (Martinez & Gonzalez-Trujano, 2013).
When all of the above fails, simply embrace this time as possibly a positive event. Acknowledge that what you are feeling is temporary and due to your feelings mirroring the dark weather outside, and embrace the gloom by counteracting it with intentional warmth. Consider lighting extra candles all around the house, more hot tea all day long in a cute mug, extra big comfy sweaters, fuzzy socks, a good nonfiction book, a glass of wine, or even put on some Josh Groban throughout the house to really set the Fall time mood. Make this time of year evoke feelings of relaxation and slowing down, resting more in the afternoons and evenings if you can. Turn your house into a sanctuary so you actually enjoy being indoors.
Frandsen, T.B., Pareek, M., Hansen, J.P., & Nielsen, C.T. (2014). Vitamin D supplementation for treatment of seasonal affective symptoms in healthcare professionals: a double-blind randomised placebo-controlled trial. BMC Research Notes, 147, 528.
Gloth FM 3rd1, Alam W, & Hollis B. (1999). Vitamin D vs broad spectrum phototherapy in the treatment of seasonal affective disorder. Journal of Nutr Health Aging.; 3,5-7.
Haze, S., Sakai, K., & Gozu, Y. (2002). Effects of fragrance inhalation on sympathetic activity in normal adults. The Japanese Journal of Pharmacology, 90(3), 247–253.
Jafarzadeh, M., Arman, S., & Pour, F. (2013). Effect of aromatherapy with orange essential oil on salivary cortisol and pulse rate in children during dental treatment: A randomized controlled clinical trial. Advanced Biomedical Research, 2, 1–10.
Komori, T., Fujiwara, R., & Tanida, M. (1995). Effects of citrus fragrance on immune function and depressive states. Neuroimmunomodulation, 2, 174–180.
Lee, K.B., Cho, E., & Kang, Y.S. (2014). Changes in 5-hydroxytryptamine and cortisol plasma levels in menopausal women after inhalation of clary sage oil. Phytotherapy Research, 28(11), 1599–1605.
Martinez, A., & Gonzalez-Trujano, M. (2013). Antinociceptive effect and GC/MS analysis of Rosmarinus officinalis L. essential oil from its aerial parts. Planta Medica, 75, 508–511.
Mead, N.M. (2008). Benefits of Sunlight: A Bright Spot for Human Health, Environ Health Perspect, 116, A160–A167.