The beginning of fall often brings exciting traditions, beautiful landscapes, and comforting treats. But for many people, the shift from summer to fall also brings a change in energy levels and mood that may feel like depression.
According to Women’s Health Expert Dr. Kirtly Parker Jones, “Of those people who are affected with seasonal depression, four out of five are women.” If you think you may be one of those women, here’s an essential guide to understanding seasonal depression, its symptoms, and most importantly, how to cope with its effects so that you can take charge of your health.
Changing Seasons, Changing Mood
Many people experience some form of mood change as seasons shift from summer to fall. When there are fewer daylight hours and it’s cold, it’s harder to get outside and help our bodies naturally regulate our circadian clock using signals from nature. In addition, a lack of sunlight may deplete our Vitamin D stores, leading to lower energy levels and a decrease in our serotonin levels (a brain chemical that helps us regulate our mood). Dr. Jones estimates that “about one in 20 people experience seasonal variation in depression, with fall and winter showing a rise in depression.” If you’ve noticed that you feel sadder, have more trouble sleeping, have low energy, or experience a lack of motivation, you may be experiencing seasonal mood changes.
What is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)?
Whether your seasonal mood changes are dubbed “winter blues” or the more serious Seasonal Affective Disorder is a matter of degree and duration. Your doctor can help you figure out what your specific symptoms mean. In general, winter blues last a shorter period of time and do not interfere with your ability to complete regular daily functions. Kristen Fuller, MD, explains in Very Well Mind that SAD, on the other hand, “is more than the ‘winter blues’ because symptoms of SAD can be severe and even debilitating.” The Mayo Clinic notes that SAD during fall and winter can include weight gain and a craving for carbohydrates specifically, along with other typical seasonal depression symptoms.
Fortunately, those suffering from seasonal depression have many treatment options available, both in consultation with a doctor and on your own at home.
Light Therapy (Natural and Artificial)
One of the most important tools for combating seasonal depression is light; increase your exposure to light, and many of your symptoms may dramatically improve. Dr. Jones shares that “bright light therapy in the mornings…has been shown to be effective in decreasing symptoms in up to 85% of women with [SAD].” If you can, take advantage of the morning hours outside and soak up as much natural light as possible. To supplement, buy a lightbox that’s designed to mimic outdoor light while minimizing UV rays. Using the lightbox for 20-30 minutes in the morning can help restore your body’s natural rhythms and increase serotonin levels.
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Aromatherapy and Meditation
Some women find that essential oils help combat depression. The exact mechanism is not known, but the Mayo Clinic suggests that “aromatherapy is thought to work by stimulating smell receptors in the nose, which then send messages through the nervous system to the limbic system — the part of the brain that controls emotions.” Popular oils that can help target depression include lavender, bergamot, jasmine, and sandalwood. Combine aromatherapy with a meditation routine that’s designed to focus on light, hope, and gratitude.
Add to your list one more reason to exercise: combating seasonal depression. Both Drs. Jones and Fuller share that regular physical activity can help regulate your body’s rhythms and boost your mood by flooding your brain with endorphins. If you’re having trouble committing to a routine, reach out to a friend for an exercise date or join an online class. Even better? Exercise outside so that you’re combining added sunlight with physical activity.
Although eating a balanced diet is important year-round, focusing on your nutrition during bouts of seasonal depression is essential. Although you may crave more carbohydrates, make sure that you’re incorporating enough whole grains and vegetables to keep you feeling full and give you plenty of energy. To help combat lower levels of Vitamin D during these times, choose foods that are high in this nutrient, including fish and fortified grains. If your doctor finds that you still aren’t getting enough Vitamin D from food alone, add a supplement to your routine.
These wellness routines are a great way for women to stay holistically fit during the shift from summer to fall, so whether or not you’ve experienced seasonal depression in the past, try to incorporate these practices into your life today! And, of course, if you’re experiencing symptoms of seasonal depression, make sure to talk with your doctor about the best treatment options available.