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Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a form of depression triggered by seasonal changes. The symptoms are cyclical, characterized by remissions during spring and summer months, and exacerbations progressing through the dark, cold, winter months. As a mood disorder, SAD may be mild or debilitating. It may be accompanied by typical signs of depression like sadness and lethargy. Or it may bring on an urge to sleep a lot or overconsume foods, especially sugary carbohydrates.  Because SAD can manifest in wildly different ways for everyone, tracking your personal triggers and what helps you overcome them is an important place to begin.

With the shortest day of the year upon us. Let’s consider some general tips to get through the dark times ahead:

Get daylight when you can. In NYC, where we’re located, the sky darkens around 4:30pm, but on a clear day the sun shines starting at dawn. Daylight resets our body’s internal cues and brings with it a natural source of Vitamin D, which some studies link to better moods. Try shifting to your sleep/wake cycles so that you are up more with when it’s light out and think of ways to increase your time in it. Can you walk part-way to work? Take a midday walkabout when the sun is highest in the sky? Or, better yet, make it a post-lunch habit. Because movement activates cellular glucose receptors, you won’t need as much insulin to get blood sugars to use. If getting daylight at this time of year is out of reach look into chronotherapy to support your circadian rhythm and natural Vitamin D reserves.

Eat whole foods. Most of us know from experience that a lot of sugar all at once may feel good at first, but a crash in energy and a downturn in mood almost always follows. Instead of a typical western diet, try eating a whole-foods one. Avoid ultra-processed foods with added sugars and include all three macronutrients (protein, fat, and carbohydrates) in every meal (and snacks too). In addition research suggests that some nutrients in particular may offer a little extra boost to your mental health. These include foods rich in the amino acid tryptophan, a precursor to the mood-stabilizing neurochemical serotonin, and B-vitamins that help your body harvest energy from the foods you eat.

No one does it alone. When holidays dovetail with episodes of depression it can be challenging to figure out what’s really going on. If you suspect that what you’re dealing with needs more professional attention, seek help. The National Institutes of Health and Mayo Clinic both provide tools for navigating SAD when the simple stuff just doesn’t cut it.