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How to Reverse the Effects of SAD Before They Start (Hurry!)

Winter is coming. As the days get shorter, the effects of seasonal affective disorder — also known as SAD — are approaching. Light is a key variable in regulating our bodily systems — from waking us up in the morning to affecting chemical messengers in the brain that control mood regulation, appetite and energy, explains Dr. John Greden, M.D., executive director of the University of Michigan Depression Center. SAD can affect as much as 20 percent of the population, especially in regions that receive less sunlight than others, and symptoms may include lethargy, lack of appetite and a melancholy mood. But just because the days are getting darker quicker doesn’t mean your physical or mental health has to suffer. Here are 10 ways to help prevent potential SAD side effects and stay in good spirits during what should be the most spirited season.

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1. Walk With the Sun

Since light has such a strong impact in helping the body function optimally, the best way to combat SAD is to use the sun to your advantage. While you may not see the sun as often as you do in the summer, get in the habit of soaking it in as much as you can in the winter. Better yet, go for a walk when the sun is rising, suggests Kelly Rohan, Ph.D., professor of psychological science at the University of Vermont. “A study in the ’80s showed that getting light and getting exercise both have good antidepressant effects, so it’s ‘two birds, one stone’ to get both light and exercise first thing,” she says.

2. Exercise Regularly

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Dr. Greden likewise emphasizes how important exercise is for those dealing with SAD, especially since it’s so integral to a good night’s sleep and, consequently, establishing healthy circadian rhythms. Sticking to a consistent sleep schedule is also critical for overall well-being and mood, especially during the winter months. Research suggests that 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise each week — the amount recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine — can improve sleep quality by as much as 65 percent.

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3. Opt for Red

Continuing on the vital topic of sleep, keep sleep disruptions to a minimum. For those who require extra help in getting to sleep or getting back to sleep after using the bathroom or tending to a baby, the best solution is to switch out the lights you require at night with red or orange bulbs. “If you get up at night and turn on a bright light, it tends to instantly shut down melatonin and start stimulating serotonin, which causes people to wake up and have difficulty going back to sleep,” says Dr. Greden. “Red or orange lights do not suppress melatonin and instead stimulate serotonin to help you get back to sleep.”

4. Prolong the Summer

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There’s no reason why colder temperatures or shorter days should force you to forgo the type of activities you enjoy in the summer, says Rohan. In fact, keeping up with the same routine you had in the summer is bound to ward off any mental or emotional malaise. “People tend to go into hibernation mode and dramatically change their habits when it gets colder,” Rohan says. “But keeping a usual routine keeps a good mood.” She recommends taking a hard look at your summer schedule and aiming to keep it going into the cold months. For example, if you were part of a beach volleyball league, find a local indoor league to join.

5. Eat a Well-Balanced Diet

There’s nothing like a blustery winter evening to induce those cravings for grilled cheese, macaroni and cheese and pretty much anything that involves bread or pasta and cheese. But Dr. Greden stresses the importance of maintaining a well-balanced diet in fall and winter that includes protein, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. His reasoning is that when people load up on carbs, any subsequent weight gain could derail their exercise motivation, which will only worsen SAD symptoms. Particularly for women, a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that refined carbohydrates put them at risk for depression even if they have no previous history of it. If comfort food is your go-to strategy for coping with winter, begin stockpiling recipes that offer comfort without the refined carbs. For example, make broth-based soups that are rich in antioxidant veggies like butternut squash, sweet potatoes or tomatoes. Reserve a few extra servings to freeze so you’ll always have a backup meal available, which will thwart the temptation to whip up that box of mac and cheese (with its packet of yucky yellow powder).

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6. In Good Company

Staying social is a natural antidepressant, but only if you’re surrounding yourself with people who are uplifting, notes Rohan. Regularly making time for coffee, having brunch or meeting for happy hour with friends or family who are happy, positive and provide a boon to your mood is another good way to reverse the effects of SAD. “If you’re cutting yourself off from seeing people you enjoy being around, you’re cutting yourself off from antidepressants,” says Rohan.

7. Observe Your Thoughts

In Rohan’s research, there are two techniques that have had the most success with those battling SAD. One is to do more of what makes you feel better. The other is to be aware of your thoughts, especially any brooding and “gloom and doom,” she says. “If you’re thinking, ‘Winter is going to be awful. I hate winter. It’s such a hassle,’ I guarantee you’ll feel worse.” If you truly detest winter, you don’t necessarily have to convince yourself something you don’t believe, such as telling yourself how much you love it. Instead, simply recognize it — and then do something enjoyable that will distract from the brooding, such as calling a friend or watching a movie.

8. Brighten Up Your Space

Though not formally researched, Rohan has observed how personal aesthetics can counteract SAD. For example, clearing heavy drapes or shades from your windows to let in more sunshine or lightening up your room or workspace with a cheerful yellow hue (or with your favorite color) can certainly have an impact on your mood. Similarly, being surrounded by life can be helpful too, if it’s in line with your personal tastes, she notes. Add a few low-light household plants (English ivy, ferns or spider plants) and maybe even some herbs that grow well indoors (parsley, chervil or thyme).

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9. Get a Diagnosis

If you suspect that a bout with seasonal affective disorder may be bordering on full-fledged depression, get a professional’s input sooner than later. “There’s no need to suffer, and prevention is a lot easier than treatment,” Rohan says. While it may be tempting to buy a light-therapy device sold at Costco, Rohan also cautions against using them before consulting a professional. “Light therapy should be done under supervision of someone who has familiarity because it can have side effects and shift sleep patterns,” she says. “Someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing could cause disruption to sleep or even insomnia.”

10. Vacation Game Plan

Planning a trip to a warm, tropical destination may seem like a logical way to slip SAD’s grip. And that’s fine. But keep in mind that it’s only a short-term solution, says Rohan. A vacation will certainly boost your mood while you’re anticipating it and enjoy it, but it’s important to be prepared for how you’ll feel once you have to return home to three feet of snow. If you’re going to take a trip, plan it in advance with set dates, suggests Rohan. Equally important is to have a plan for your post-vacation “re-entry.” Be extra diligent about exercise, sleep, eating well and scheduling get-togethers with friends the week you return to make the transition easier.

What Do YOU Think?

Do you get SAD? What do you do to combat it? Will you be practicing any of these strategies? Let us know in the comments section!

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