Seasonal Affective Disorder - How To Tackle The Winter Blues?

by Metreye

Serotonin is a mood regulating chemical, also known as "happy" hormone. Low levels of this neurotransmitter have a major role in causing depression in dark cold winters.

Seasonal Affective Disorder, better known as "winter blues" consists of repititive episodes of depression, year after year that tend to occur specifically in winter season. at times, the pre existing depression further aggravates during the cold dark season. Women are the main sufferers. Depression tends to occur in the same months every year. This is believed to be due to reduction in length of the day and less light exposure.

Episodes of Depression occur in winter season, year after year

Women are more at risk
Women are more at risk

What is Seasonal Affect disorder (SAD)?

Depression that occurs typically during winter season every year is believed to be due to reduction in hours of light exposure and its effects on hypothalamus of the brain, a specialized center that regulates our emotions. The person suffering from this condition gets tired easily, feels sleepy and hungry, eats a lot and consequently gains weight, and has a craving for carbohydrate rich foods. This condition becomes more common as the distance from equator increases. 


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Cause of Winter Blues

The reason for this characteristic seasonal onset of depression in cold winter months is low levels of serotonin hormone that also cause anxiety and increased aggression. Lower levels of serotonin are caused by seasonal fluctuations in levels of a protein called a-serotonin or 5-HT transporter (5-Hydroxy Tryptamine Transporter) that affects serotonin levels of our brain. 

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Other effects Of Serotonin

Serotonin has profound effects on mood, metabolism, pain perception, appetite, sleep and memory. It is also essential for proper functioning of digestive system. This chemical messenger reduces load on the heart and makes it more efficient in pumping blood through our body. It also aids in bone formation, muscle contraction and other processes. In the brain, it is produced by specialized cells in the median raphe of brain stem, and from there, it gets distributed throughout the nervous system. It is secreted by nerve cells in the gaps between two neurons. It transmits messages in the form of nerve impulses that in turn affect functions like mood, appetite, and pain. 

Increase in serotonin in certain parts of the brain (anterior cingulated cortex) help regulate mood, blood pressure and heart rate and promote overall well being.This neurotransmitter also helps in generation of new nerve cells (that is otherwise a very slow process). A reduction in serotonin levels in the cerebral cortex leads to irritability, headache, stomachache, feeling sad and depressed. The various ways in which serotonin levels of brain cortex can be maintained within a normal range include the following :


Soak in the early morning sun for at least half an hour, if possible

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1. Phototherapy

If possible, soak in the early morning sun for at least half an hour everyday during winter season. In absence of sufficient sunlight, exposure to full spectrum white light can also offer benefits. Bright light works by stimulating cells of retina of the eye that connect to the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that controls day night rhythms. Activating hypothalamus at a certain time everyday can restore the normal circadian rhythm and reduce symptoms of depression. In this procedure, you need to sit close to a special light box for around half an hour every morning. You can read a newspaper or a book. You need not look directly at the light. The box provides light at an intensity of 10,000 Lux that is around 1000 times higher than normal indoor light, but much much less than the intense afternoon sunlight of summer. People who suffer from diabetes, eye disorders, or take medicines that can cause sensitivity to light should not use light therapy without first consulting a doctor. Other innovative approaches are a dawn stimulator that gradually increases light intensity in the room and simulates the effects of rising sun early in the morning; and a blue light box that delivers blue light instead of normal white light. Blue light is believed to be more efficient in stimulating the brain.

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2. Balanced Diet

Eat a low fat diet that is rich in proteins and carbohydrates. Amino acid tryptophan found in plenty in protein rich foods undergoes various chemical reactions to form serotonin. Carbohydrates improve the availability of tryptophan to the brain so that more of it can be produced. A few servings of cold water fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines and tuna can help relieve depression by increasing the amount of of serotonin. Eggs contain phospholipids that nourish the brain. Citrus fruits and leafy greens, especially spinach are good natural sources of folates. Nuts are rich sources of selenium that is vital for mental health. Having a handful of almonds, walnuts, pistachios along with flax and hemp seeds everyday can help improve the mood.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are loaded with B-complex vitamins that improve serotonin levels of brain

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3. Load on B-complex vitamins

Vitamins such as B6, folic acid and B12 help boost serotonin levels. Vitamin-B6 or pyridoxine facilitates conversion of tryptophan amino acid into serotonin. It is found in abundance in fortified cereals, oatmeal, bananas, poultry, meat, fish and beans. Folic acid is found in abundance in citrus fruits and leafy greens. Vitamin-B12 is found in fortified milk, yogurt, cheese, eggs, poultry and fish.

Regular exercise boosts serotonin levels

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4. Exercise regularly

Regular physical exercise for at least half an hour 5 days in a week boosts serotonin levels of brain, and also helps in growth and repair of nerve cells. When we exercise,our brain releases certain natural pain relievers called endorphins that trigger a positive feeling. Regular exercise reduces mental stress, wards off anxiety and improves sleep. Certain exercises such as dance, gardening, golf, jogging, low impact aerobics, walking, biking, swimming and yoga are especially beneficial. Doing regular house work such as sweeping, mopping and vacuuming can also be a good exercise. Exercising in groups is better, as it keeps you motivated.

Updated: 02/06/2015, Metreye
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DerdriuMarriner on 05/18/2017

Metreye, Gardening combines just about everything, with being outdoors, engaging in exercise, fitting in breaks and having access to healthy edibles (since junk food doesn't grow on trees).

Mira on 09/09/2015

Good suggestions :) I enjoyed your article :)

Metreye on 02/06/2015

Thanks for your feedback Sparkster.

Sparkster on 02/06/2015

Great article, I've been wanting to learn more about this. I thought I had combatted my depression entirely but I'm starting to think this may be a problem.

Metreye on 02/06/2015

Thanks for the kind words frankbeswick. Excessive sun exposure, especially mid day sun is actually very damaging, but a few minutes of early morning sunlight can actually be very refreshing.

frankbeswick on 02/06/2015

The photography here is beautiful, and that's motivation enough for walking. You need to build walking into your lifestyle to make the most of the exercise and exposure to sunlight Sometimes I walk to business appointments, if they are local enough to make walking feasible, and I timetable some appointments with walking in mind. Thursdays and Fridays are days when my clients are local enough for me to walk to them.

I would say,though, that when you are taking in sun you need to think of your eyes, so sometimes you may need shades. Don't follow my example of being out in the open without sun protection for years and then being told that ultra-violet damage has begun to reveal the very early signs of cataract. I now have to wear protective, refraction lenses in sunlight.

Metreye on 02/05/2015

Going out for a walk everyday in winters is really appreciable. Walking is the best exercise. It keeps us active all day long. Have a wonderful day cazort.

cazort on 02/04/2015

I sometimes struggle with depression in winter. I can see a lot of factors adding up. Like, besides just low light, the cold weather can make it harder to get out and about as much. I find I have to push myself to be more active in winter. But I definitely feel best when I get outside. I try to go on walks every day, no matter how cold or crappy the weather, and I find it makes a big difference in how I feel...not sure if it's the exercise, the sunlight, or the change of setting -- it may be a combination of all of these things!

Metreye on 01/31/2015

Wishing you good health and loads of happiness and fun katiem2

katiem2 on 01/31/2015

I must admit I suffer from this disorder to some degree, to which I am unsure, I am simply not myself in the winter. I really should move from Ohio. I have grown to dislike the cold dark winter months very much, I admittedly get a bit depressed BUT I am a weirdo writer who has been writing novels over the past six month, hiding away writing takes you to a different place. I typically hideaway and write big projects during the winter pick myself up and dust myself off and do the happy dance come spring. Great Article.

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