SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) is a common and difficult condition. Many people experience SAD in the winter when it’s cold outside and the sun sets earlier, and it seems like there’s more darkness in the day than light. The holiday season doesn’t always lift spirits for those struggling with SAD, either. Carols, lights, and parties are fun, but you feel sadness, guilt, and disappointment when you’re not experiencing the same holiday cheer as everyone else. If you’re experiencing symptoms of SAD, talk to your doctor to get the help you need. In the meantime, check out these three, natural tips that can bring some relief.
What about anti-depression medications?
The most wonderful time of year can also be the most stressful. No wonder research shows the number of women taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), antidepressant medications that flood the brain with feel-good serotonin, skyrockets this time of year. But a study in Molecular Psychiatry finds that depressed people don’t have lower serotonin levels than their non-depressed peers, suggesting that a chemical imbalance, long thought to be the cause of low moods, may not be wholly to blame.
“Depression is like chest pain — there are lots of potential causes,” says psychiatrist Daniel Amen, MD, author of You: Happier (Buy from Amazon, $18.39). “SSRIs calm activity in the frontal region of the brain to decrease anxiety, but if you already have lower activity there, they can worsen anxiety.” Of course, if you’ve been prescribed SSRIs, don’t stop taking them without consulting your doctor, but do read on for natural ways to improve your mood and feel better.
Consume “Happy” Probiotic Foods
Check with your doctor and make sure fermented foods don’t interact with any of your current medications, because they could have some benefits for your mood. “Fermented foods like kefir and yogurt increase good gut bugs, improving mental health,” says Drew Ramsey, MD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and author of Eat to Beat Depression and Anxiety (Buy from Amazon, $17.69). In a study in Nutrition, people who ate more probiotic-rich fermented foods showed dramatically lower rates of depression. To get a delicious dose of “happy” foods including kefir (a fermented milk that means “feel good” in Turkish), try Dr. Ramsey’s Peanut Butter Cup Smoothie. In a blender, combine ⅓ cup full-fat kefir; ¼ cup water; 1 cup packed fresh spinach; 1 banana (one-inch pieces, frozen); 2 tablespoons cacao powder; 2 tablespoons peanut butter; 2 Brazil nuts and ¼ teaspoon almond extract. Blend 30 seconds and enjoy.
Amplify Dopamine Levels with Saffron
Saffron may have some mental health benefits, but it can also have some side effects. Check with your doctor first before you make it a part of your daily routine. Randomized trials show that saffron tames anxiety and depression as effectively as prescription medications, in part by boosting levels of the feel-good brain chemical dopamine, says Dr. Amen. And a study in the journal Pharmacopsychiatry showed that a majority of the participants who supplemented with saffron saw a decrease in anxiety and depression after six weeks. “The spice also boosts memory and curbs cravings,” says Dr. Amen. He suggests supplementing with 30 miligrams of saffron daily. One to try: NAOMI Saffron Hunger Control (Buy from NaomiW.com, $45). Or aim to consume 13 saffron threads per day. Simply soak the threads in a splash of warm water for 10 minutes and add to rice dishes and soups.
Boost Blood Flow with Movement
There are few better feelings than breaking a sweat. But be careful not to overdo it; too much strenuous exercise can cause more harm than good, so talk to your doctor about what exercise routine is right for you. “Exercise boosts blood flow, giving the brain vital nutrients that ward off depression,” says Jennifer Heisz, PhD, author of Move the Body, Heal the Mind (Buy from Amazon, $17.99). Indeed, aerobic activity decreases depressive symptoms. “Moderate exercise three times a week is a buffer against stress and inflammation — a risk factor for depression,” says Heisz. “And each increase of 10 minutes, up to an hour, yields greater mood benefits.” While walking is often recommended, consider something new, such as pickleball at your local YMCA: “Exercise that requires coordination boosts mood by activating the part of the brain that controls emotion,” says Dr. Amen. And research shows pickleball players have significantly lower rates of depression.
This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.
A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.
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