Seasonal Affective Disorder: 5 Ways to Biohack Your Mental Health
Are you someone that doesn’t feel so good in the winter months?
Do you dread the shorter days of autumn and winter every year as you know that the dark days affect your mood?
It is not uncommon for people to experience seasonal fluctuation in moods. You may have noticed how a grey, rainy day makes you feel gloomy and tired, while a sunny day can leave you feeling cheerful and energised?
The longer, sunnier days of summer fill us with positivity and better moods, while the shorter, darker days that begin in autumn often leave us feeling low and depressed.
Many of us will feel different in the winter with symptoms of feeling slightly tired, sleeping a bit more and perhaps gaining some weight. It is a bit like hibernation in animals. But if your symptoms are bad enough to interfere with your day-to-day life, you may well have SAD.
In the UK, about 3 people in every 100 have significant winter depressions.
This is what we call Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)
What is SAD?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a mood disorder that is characterised by symptoms that occur at the same time each year, usually during the darker, shorter days of autumn and winter.
Symptoms can include depression, fatigue, and social withdrawal. While this condition usually resolves within a few months, it can have a serious impact on how a person feels and functions.
SAD has a lot in common with depression.
The main symptoms of SAD are similar to those of depression, but occur cyclically with a return of symptoms each year during the winter months.
These symptoms tend to be the typical symptoms of depression, but only happen in the winter:
- low mood
- lack of interest and enjoyment in life
- low energy
- feeling less sociable
- being more anxious + irritable
Common symptoms of SAD which are different from those in most depression are:
- Increased sleep
- Increased appetite and carbohydrate cravings
- Weight gain
If you have SAD, every autumn you may find it gets more difficult to wake up on a winter's morning, you have low energy, often feel sleepy during the day. You may crave sugar, chocolate and high carbohydrate foods. You might find you put weight on.
Then as the days get lighter in the spring your symptoms ease, your mood lifts and you feel more energetic than usual during the spring and summer.
What causes SAD?
SAD is believed to be caused by a disturbance in the normal circadian rhythm of the body.
Sunlight is the battery for our biological clocks (our Chronobiology). Our circadian (daily) rhythm is affected by early morning daylight that triggers us to produce serotonin in the day, helping us to feel alert, and to produce melatonin when it gets dark which helps us to sleep.
We have special sensors in our eyes that feed back the intensity of light to our brains to regulate our biological, chemical and hormonal levels which impact our immunity, our energy, our alertness and our mood.
Just a few of the other effects… it triggers how we store fat, how much sleep we need, how much we eat, our cortisol levels and how much serotonin we make.
Insufficient exposure to sunlight has been associated with low levels of melatonin and serotonin.
An increase in serotonin has an incredible cascade of benefits for us as it is believed to influence most of our brain cells both directly and indirectly.
Studies have found links between serotonin levels and mood, anxiety and happiness, digestion + bowel function, appetite, sleep, bone metabolism, breast milk production, liver regeneration, and cell division so don’t underestimate the impact of having good levels of chemicals in your brain!
With the ultraviolet radiation in sunlight absorbed through our eyes and skin we make vitamin D - which is also a vital ingredient in serotonin production. And it also has a fundamental role in our immune system.
Cloudy days, office job, staying in all result in deficient levels of Vitamin D in most of us in the Northern Hemisphere so we all need a little replacement sunshine supplement in our daily ritual to help us keep the doctor away.
How to treat SAD?
SAD can be treated with certain medications (antidepressants) that increase serotonin levels in the brain.
But would you like to look at some other, natural ways to help with your SAD?
There are some really effective biohacks that boost your serotonin levels naturally so I thought I would put together my top 5.
Top 5 biohacks for SAD:
Put some D into your Day
Putting some Vitamin D into your day is a wonderful benefit for our health, immunity and psychological well-being. So before a long, wet winter it’s a great idea to pre-load with high levels of Vitamin D3 (much more effective than D2).
Look for Cholecalciferol on the ingredients for a high quality, effective + vegan form of D3 like this
Don’t wait for your levels to get low - start taking extra supplements throughout the year.
The first thing to do is to try to reset your day-night rhythm by boosting your levels of light.
Try getting outside first thing in the morning. For as long as you can, but even 5 minutes will make a difference. Look towards the sun and boost your brain with light.
Consistency is the key: to change the chemistry of your brain this needs to become your daily routine.
Work near a window, try a daylight lamp, have lunch in the park, always try to exercise outside, take your sunglasses off.
Lower the blue
Next thing to do is to work out how to reduce any blue light you are getting from your screens in the afternoon. Melatonin production is triggered by darkness - so turn down your light in the evenings.
Boost your tryptophan levels
Then add some foods that help produce serotonin naturally.
These need to have tryptophan in them.
- pumpkin + sesame seeds
- tofu + soy
In order for tryptophan to be converted into serotonin, your body also needs to have enough B vitamins, especially vitamin B6.
- Whole grains
- Protein (red meat, poultry, fish)
- Eggs + dairy products
- Beans + lentils
- Seeds and nuts (sunflower seeds, almonds)
- Dark, leafy vegetables (broccoli, spinach, kale)
- Fruits (citrus fruits, avocados, bananas)
That traditional hot milky drink in the evening if great for tryptophan - and a little helping of carbs helps too.
Take a supplement that has amino acids to help produce serotonin (tryptophan + 5HTP)
Check that you are taking an active, easily absorbed form of Vitamin B (methylated) - especially B6 (Pyridoxal 5’-Phosphate) like this one here.
And add a really good probiotic as 90% of serotonin is made in our gut.
Happy Me has 50mg of 5HTP together with tryptophan, B vitamins, probiotics AND 400% of your daily Vitamin D3 to help keep away this years winter blues.
I don’t know about you but I find it so reassuring that a supplement and a daily walk outside is quietly boosting our immune system and our mental health - without us having to think about it or do anything else.
Our bodies and nature are taking care of us.