While the extra sleep you get from setting your clocks back an hour might be nice, there are a few reasons that this time of year may not agree with everyone. You might find yourself a bit irritated at having to wake up on cold, dark mornings, while the few hours of sunlight are only out when you’re trapped inside at work. Up to 20 percent of people across the globe suffer annually from some form of seasonal affective disorder — better known by the acronym SAD — during the fall and winter months. Fortunately, feeling down during these seasons is for the most part manageable. Here are a few ways to stay upbeat until spring.
1. Get a good night’s sleep
This one may seem obvious, but this can go a long way in keeping SAD away. When we sleep we produce a brain chemical called melatonin, a hormone which is critical in maintaining a normal daily routine. Try to be consistently going to sleep at the same time every night — losing just 38 minutes of sleep can make a big difference in the way your body produces melatonin.
2. Rearrange your lighting
Researchers suspect that those with SAD may be less light sensitive than most people — reacting to artificial light in a different way than to sunlight, and their bodies don’t perceive the day changes during winter. You might want to rearrange your furniture or even bed to have it in closer proximity of the available sunlight, so that you can take in greater amounts of light when the sun rises and sets.
3. Eat more fish
Those most vulnerable to seasonal changes tend to live further away from the equator — with Alaska and Canada reporting high numbers of SAD. However, fish rich in omega-3 amino acids could make a difference. Researchers noted that northern countries, where fish are a dietary staple — such as Japan and Iceland — had significantly lower rates of seasonal depression than expected.
4. Exercise can make a difference
While you may feel less motivation for working out, make sure you get plenty of exercise through the darker months — beyond the inevitable raking of leaves or snow shoveling. It’s ideal to get your exercise outdoors and to keep moving, as workouts allow the brain to produce dopamine as a reward chemical. If it’s too cold, the gym might be more desirable — but try to stay near an open window with plenty of light.
5. Maintain a schedule
In addition to keeping regular bedtime hours, try to organize as much of your day as possible, to help reduce anxiety, which will help keep you as productive as possible throughout the day. Also, keep track of your mealtimes, as many people with seasonal depression tend to eat more carbohydrates and gain weight during the winter months.
This seems like a tall order — but seasonal depression may be an evolutionary leftover from the days when humans were always on the move. Even a change of scenery for a short time can make a difference when battling winter-onset depression. If you need to, try to hold onto a few vacation days from work for some quick traveling or sightseeing at a sunnier location during the cold months.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2015 issue of Brain World Magazine.