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Health & Wellness

5 Natural Ways to Ease Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

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If shorter, cold days have you feeling tired, depressed and irritable you may have Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD.

The 4 to 6 percent of the population affected by SAD usually see their symptoms lift once days get longer and the weather warms up.

In the meantime, SAD symptoms can make day-to-day life miserable. In fact, aside from its seasonal onset, symptoms of SAD don’t vary from other forms of depressions, which also include less ability to concentrate, loss of interest in work or activities, withdrawing from socializing and increased appetite.

"Frustration, irritability and even paranoia may set in, which we also sometimes refer to as 'cabin fever,'" says Elizabeth R. Lombardo, PhD, psychologist and author of Better than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. “Your physical health may also suffer and include issues such as headaches, GI disturbances and insomnia.”

A study from the University of Copenhagen shows that brain changes occur for those with SAD. Specifically, people with SAD show significant seasonal differences in the way they regular serotonin (a brain chemical that affects mood) when compared with the majority of the population. Fortunately, a number of approaches can help you feel better, including the following.

1.    Lighten up

Exposure to light- especially natural light- is a great way to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder, says Lombardo.  “First thing in the morning, get outside, or if that is too tough, at least open the curtains. Light boxes also work.” (Note that light therapy alone may not be effective for nearly half of those with SAD, according to the National Institute of  Mental Health. Psychotherapy and antidepressant medication either alone or in combination with light therapy may be needed.)

2.    Get moving

Moderate exercise can also ease SAD symptoms. Even low levels of exercise such as gardening or walking 20 to 30 minutes a day have been shown to not only alleviate symptoms of depression but can actually prevent depression in the long term, according to a study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

3.    Make fun plans

Get excited about something in your life during the winter months, suggests Lombardo. “Plan a hobby, play a winter sport, or plan vacation that you are going to take. Having fun planned will help you feel happier.”

4.    Help out

Volunteering improves your outlook and mental health and can even help you live longer, says a study by the University of Exeter Medical School. “Look for volunteer opportunities where you can make a difference for a cause about which you are passionate,” says Lombardo. Collect coats for the homeless, conduct a toy drive for foster children, spend time at an animal shelter petting the dogs or find other causes that resonate with you.

5.    Socialize

Meeting with others face-to-face works better than texting, Facebooking and talking on the phone to ease symptoms of depression, according to findings published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. People in the study with the lowest level of depressive symptoms met with family and friends at least three times a week.

“When you're feeling down, it can be hard to be social,” says Lombardo. “Make an effort to connect with people you enjoy being around. They can offer support, a shoulder to cry on or a joke to give you a little boost.”

SAD can sometimes turn into long-term depression. Since no current tests exist to test for SAD, see your health care provider if you’re struggling with depression this time of year for help and to rule out other disorders that may be similar to SAD.

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