5 Strategies for Preventing and Managing SAD

Sometimes I wonder if people expect depression to have a look, the way some, whether consciously or unconsciously, expect those with anorexia nervosa to appear skeletal or somehow underweight. There was a period of time in high school — most of it, actually — where I wondered whether I’d ever feel well again, like myself, as I spent religion class writing angst-ridden poetry and shallow fiction. I spent all of my free time reading and listening exclusively to Tori Amos on low alone in my bedroom, which later became in a car with a friend of mine, the windows rolled down, both of us somehow in it together.

The song selection expanded to include Bob Dylan and Martina Sorbara, years before she went on to form Dragonette, back when she was all about slow and syrupy Sunday morning instrumentals. Eggs over easy, bottomless coffee. I was on shitty meds and amazingly bored, and subsisted in a world where nothing mattered much save for writing class and set design. I can’t say, even now, that you ever forget.

 

Depression is the guy with the dreds and the thrift store t-shirt who wants to talk Marx and the virtues of vegetaranism; the fantasy-writing blonde girl with pigtails who is dating a man ten years her senior, a man she will eventually marry and subsequently divorce; the shy kid in the corner who excels at both English and math. She’s eighty and he’s fourteen, wickedly brilliant and magically artistic, slow and steady or harsh and demeaning.

There is no look, only feelings, or the lack thereof, a space inhabited by the uncertain and the hurt and the fearless and the worthy, the kind and the nasty and the outrageous. And because there was no one around at that time to tell me much of anything except that things would most certainly get better as a guidance counselor recited Simon & Garfunkel quotes to me, I am a rock, I am an island, I’d like to tell you this: there are things you can do to ease the burden of depression, particularly SAD.

Today, here’s five tips for killin’ the fall and winter seasons.

1. EXERCISE

This seems a little obvious bordering on ridiculous, I know, but hear me out. It’s easy to stay active during the warmer months. We want to. We joy in walking around the city. We look forward to to exploring secret hiding places by bike. We’re here and we’re in it. Hitting that 7am yoga class is as good as done. But when the temps dip, excuses take precedence. Bed feels good. Sleeping in feels necessary. But exercise is so critical to mental health.

Exercises like jogging, cycling, swimming, walking, gardening, and dancing (hey-a!) — aerobic exercises, in other words — reduce anxiety and depression. The pros say that these improvements are the result of exercise-induced increases in blood circulation to the brain. Exercise should be moderate and low intensity for 15-30 minutes and performed for a minimum of three times a week for 10 weeks or longer.

Exercise can help depression and SAD for it has been shown to decrease negative mood, improve self-esteem, and boost cognitive function. Social withdrawal can also be assisted. Those with schizophrenia are particularly susceptible to obesity due to the side effects from anti-psychotic treatment and benefit most from exercise.

Mental health patients can expect to experience the following possible benefits from exercise: improved sleep; increased interest in sex; stress relief; improvement in mood; increased energy and stamina; reduced tiredness; increased alertness; weight reduction; increased cardiovascular fitness. Sizzlin’.

2. SLEEP

Sleep is always important, but especially so during the colder months to prevent SAD and any time you’re under increased stress. You swear you can get by with five or six hours? I beg to differ.

“Traditionally, clinicians treating patients with psychiatric disorders have viewed insomnia and other sleep disorders as symptoms. But studies in both adults and children suggest that sleep problems may raise risk for, and even directly contribute to, the development of some psychiatric disorders. This research has clinical application, because treating a sleep disorder may also help alleviate symptoms of a co-occurring mental health problem.

The brain basis of a mutual relationship between sleep and mental health is not yet completely understood. But neuroimaging and neurochemistry studies suggest that a good night’s sleep helps foster both mental and emotional resilience, while chronic sleep disruptions set the stage for negative thinking and emotional vulnerability. “

What we do know? Sleep slows down our thought processes, impairs our judgement, impairs our memory, makes learning new things difficult, slows our reaction tired (it’s more dangerous to drive exhausted than drunk), makes us irritable and angry, and puts us at greater risk for major depression. 7-8 hours a night is ideal for most of us, though some of us need less (6 hours) or more (10 hours).

There’s still a lot we need to learn between sleep and mental health. If you find getting or staying to sleep challenging, try developing an evening routine.

Improve your sleep hygiene and prevent SAD with these actionable tips:

  • Turn off all electronics; keep your bedroom free of white noise at all times if possible
  • Wear a sleep mask or invest in blackout curtains
  • Dim the lights at least two hours before bed
  • Avoid watching scary or violent films or television shows before bed, since this type of entertainment raises cortisol and dysregulates your hormones
  • Spend your evening relaxing with a book, unwinding with yin yoga, or catching up with a loved one
  • Avoid drinking alcohol at night, which can spike insulin and prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep
  • Consume carbohydrates with dinner to support melatonin production
  • Supplement with magnesium citrate or glycinate (use as directed or speak with a qualified practitioner)

3. EAT CHOLESTEROL-RICH FOODS

Most Canadians are not deficient in Vitamin D — required for optimal brain health and preventing SAD — but very few of us have optimal levels of D, which are further compromised during the low light winter months. We’re capable of synthesizing Vitamin D from UV rays. But we can also get it through foods like fish, eggs, and dairy (if tolerated), all high in Vitamin D, as well as from cholesterol.

Since cholesterol is manufactured from saturated fat, it’s important you don’t skimp on this during the cold months. October is not the time for lean meats and plain, steamed asparagus (ok, it’s never the time for this.) It’s the time for eggs, pastured fatty cuts, pastured butter, unsweetened coconut milk. Yes. Boost your immunity and improve your Vitamin D levels to keep yourself healthy and your brain well.

Since changing my diet several years ago and incorporating more fats into my diet, I’ve stopped suffering from seasonal depression and mood issues, which were previously out of control.

Food suggestions for preventing and managing SAD:

  • Enjoy a smoothie for breakfast with a coconut milk base (full-fat from a can; Native Forest is BPA-free)
  • Start your day with an omelette
  • Make pulled pork in a crock pot
  • Add ham bones to soups and stews
  • Enjoy a pot roast with your family this Sunday
  • Slather butter or coconut oil on your vegetables
  • Have a hard-boiled egg as a snack
  • Make or drink bone broth

4. SUPPLEMENT WITH A QUALITY VITAMIN D (D3 FOR OMNIVORES, D2 FOR PLANT-BASED)

Optimal Vitamin D supplementation is associated with improved cognition, immunity, bone health, and overall well-being. Supplementation has been shown to reduce risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and multiple sclerosis. It may also increase testosterone production, super important for men as well as women. It’s important to take supplements with food, especially fat, since healthy fats act a transport for D (taking your D at the same time as a fish or krill oil is beauty.)

Herman Gill, contributor to Examine.com whose PhD is forthcoming in 2016, states the following: “If there’s only one supplement you’re taking for your health and your diet is decent, it should probably be Vitamin D. I highly recommend taking Vitamin D instead of a multivitamin most of the time.” Wowzas. 

Omnivores should look for a liquid Vitamin D3 (most bioavailable) while veggies and vegans should supplement with D2. Some preliminary studies suggest supplementation and kickin’ deficiencies to the curb may aid in fat loss in overweight individuals, so if you struggle with both mood issues and weight, this may be something to look into.  D levels can be checked with a simple blood test ordered by your GP, and in my humble opinion, should be checked at every physical given the importance of this critical vitamin.

5. AVOID ALCOHOL AND THE ABUSE OF OTHER STIMULANTS

I’ll keep this one short and sweet: alcohol has been known to increase levels of anxiety on its best days, so taking it during the winter months, when you’re especially vulnerable, is asking for trouble. To prevent SAD and improve mood, lay off the booze and other stimulants (especially white sugar), which are known depressants. Trade the swig of whiskey for a glass of kombucha, a naturally fermented tea rich in B vitamins, enzymes, and probiotics, which may improve the gut and support the brain. Make sure to seek out low-sugar versions such as GTs (2-4g per serving).

What issues, apart from SAD, do you struggle with during the colder months? Do you have trouble exercising or sticking to a fitness routine? What about eating whole and good foods? Leave a note in the comments below letting me know and I may address it in a future blog post!

Sarah Berneche

Sarah Berneche, 14 Denison Square, Toronto, ON, M5T 1K8