“Dim the lights” works for lots of occasions: When you want a romantic dinner, when it’s show time at a theater, when you’re trying to hide from your nosy neighbors.
The one time I don’t like the lowering of lights? As the seasons change. The days get shorter, the nights get longer, and it seems like sunshine lasts about as long as a single Tik Tok.
I’ve always felt this shift in seasons—when my mood changes and my energy levels tend to drop. I didn’t feel it as much when I lived in Arizona, but I really noticed it when I lived in Vancouver and now in Utah. It’s not so much the cold that bothers me as we move into fall and winter; it’s that I feel like there’s virtually no time to see, feel, and bathe in the nourishing power of the sun. It’s the time, not the temps.
For me—and for the 10 to 20 percent of people globally who suffer from seasonal affective disorder (aptly named SAD)—it’s a tangible thing marked by a biochemical imbalance in the brain. In the summer, I’ve got power-plant levels of energy. As we transition out of it, I don’t have as much gusto as I usually do.
So what’s the big deal little seasonal blues? That is, so what if you feel more a little less like a jackrabbit and more like a sleeping slug?
Health-wise, mood ranks right up there as a major health issue. When you’re down or unmotivated, you’re more at risk of slipping into all sorts of things that can cascade into chronic conditions—like overeating, increasing stress levels, poor sleep hygiene, and deeper depression. (Certainly, any serious mood and depression issues need to be addressed by a professional immediately, and if you know of someone suffering, I urge you to get them help.)
These seasonal mood disorders can affect so many of us, especially those who work in offices all day (or even gamers, who tend to be holed up in dark rooms for extended periods).
To combat the effects, I make sure to have good quality lighting in my home and office that can mimic daylight and help simulate that exposure to the sun; those lights do a very good job of essentially tricking the body into thinking it’s being exposed to sunlight.
After all—for myself and the people I care about—I do want to keep my mood as sunny as it can be, even if what’s happening on the outside is the exact opposite.
A few SAD facts: This disorder is four times more common in women than men, but generally you’re less prone to developing it as you age. Besides trying to trick my system into thinking it’s light out, there are other things I do to help address it:
- Loading up on veggies. When you’re feeling bluer than Caribbean waters, you may be drawn to carbs. I know that when I feel down, I gravitate toward pancakes, bread, and pasta as if they’re laced with tongue magnets. That’s because those simple carbohydrates can help trigger the release of the feel-good serotonin. Unfortunately, that hit doesn’t last long, and consuming carbs can actually make your moods bounce around even more. I like to concentrate on eating lots of veggies and lean proteins, which have a positive and longer-lasting effect on my mood.
- Sticking to morning workouts. They’re not for everyone, of course, but if you can get your exercise routine in earlier in the day, you have a good chance of establishing good mood levels for the day (plus, it’s just hard to get motivated to move when the days are short and the temps are icy). Even if you can’t crawl from the covers in the morning, exercising at any time is a good remedy. The endorphins you get from a good sweat session seem to counteract the effects of SAD.
- Adding more Vitamin D. There’s a well-known correlation between short days and low vitamin D levels, so increasing your Vitamin D intake can help your body think it’s getting more sun exposure.
How Do You Know If You’re SAD?
One of the problems with mood issues is that you might not know exactly what’s causing them. Are you down because you’re having relationship troubles? Or you’re cranky because of an ongoing work issue? Monetarily bummed because you missed out on Taylor Swift tickets?
For me, I know right away if something is off when it coincides with seasonal changes, but you may now always know what doesn’t feel right.
You can help determine if seasonal changes are triggering mood changes if some of these signs coincide with the calendar:
- Decreases in sleep or energy
- Changes in weight and cravings
- Loss of interest in social activities
In addition to the tips above, another way to help your mood is to initiate some social events with folks in your community. There’s nothing quite like hanging out with friends or family to help brighten your shades of blue.