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Do the dark days of fall and winter make you want to hibernate indoors and pig out on comfort foods until spring? You may have seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that occurs at the same time every year, usually in winter. Other symptoms include fatigue, lack of interest, inability to concentrate, and irritability. "Some people describe it as only 'living' during the sunny months and the rest of the time they feel shut down, idle, waiting for spring, enduring life in general," says Norman Rosenthal, MD, a psychiatrist who first described SAD and author of Winter Blues. The disorder is four times more common in women than in men, and people in their twenties and forties appear most susceptible, he notes. Luckily, there are easy lifestyle solutions that can give you a lift. Try one of these the next time you start feeling blue.
Get outside every day, even if it's just for short walk in the morning or at lunch. Take a vacation to a sunny spot to break up the dark winter months. And Dr. Rosenthal suggests light therapy -- using a light box that mimics natural daylight to help you feel more energetic and cheerful. Look for one ranging from 2,500 to 10,000 LUX (a measure of human brightness perception) of full spectrum light and follow your doctor's instruction on how to use it (sitting a couple of feet away for 30 minutes in the morning is common). "Most everyone can benefit from light therapy," Dr. Rosenthal says. Avoid it if you take a medication that makes you sensitive to light and ask your doc about other treatments like talk therapy and antidepressants instead.
Regular aerobic exercise is a known mood booster. And research shows that an hour of pedaling on an indoor bike can be as effective as 2,500 LUX of light therapy for 2 hours when it comes to treating SAD, Dr. Rosenthal says. Do your workout in the morning for best results and take it outside to get natural light for double happiness.
Take your workout outside with these guides:
SAD sufferers crave carb-rich fare as an instant feel-good fix. A steady diet of cold-weather comfort foods can add up to a layer of winter blubber, though. So be sure to get a balance of protein, fiber, and healthy fats. "Consider protein-rich alternatives such as eggs and fish, as well as fruits and vegetables," says Dr. Rosenthal. Munch on unsalted walnuts or almonds between meals for a healthy snack. And consider fish oil extracts (omega-3 fatty acid supplements), which may be beneficial for the heart as well as your mood, he says.
If your energy is totally zapped, avoid taking on major projects like moving, starting a new job, or committing to a major spring deadline. "Enlist the help of others or pay for certain services to reduce stress in the winter," suggests Dr. Rosenthal. And don't feel lazy about it! "You are proactively managing your stress level to cope during times of challenging energy and motivation levels," he points out.
Even if you feel super sluggish, it's a bad idea to sleep in late. Research has shown that forcing yourself to wake up at seven or eight in the morning instead of at 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. may boost your mood and energy level, says Dr. Rosenthal. A dawn simulator may help you wake up earlier more easily, and light therapy often reduces the need for extra zzz's, he notes.
Originally published on FitnessMagazine.com, January 2012.