Feeling SAD? Here are 7 Ways to Make It to Spring

Spring may be just around the corner, but first we have to live through the rest of winter. Many Minnesotans try to cut it short by escaping to a warm-weather destination. But if the bad economy means that you’ll have to skip your annual trip to the beach this year, then there’s no way around it: you’re stuck here, and you’ll have to tough it out.

If you suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD) during the winter (like I do), these last months can be tough. Everyone is prancing around chirping about spring. Seed catalogs taunt cruelly from the mailbox. But it’s still cold and dark at night, and you still can barely drag yourself out of bed when the alarm clock rings in the morning. The end of the day still finds you cranky, with barely enough energy to fix a bowl of cold cereal for dinner. You still want to spend every evening on the sofa drowning your sorrows in a pint of ice cream.

Here’s the unfair truth: SAD is a hamster wheel. If you succumb to the fatigue, carbohydrate cravings, and low mood that mark the disorder, it is likely to worsen. But take heart! There are simple things you can do to break the cycles.

1. Ditch refined carbs. The dark and cold may have you craving chips, cookies, and Chinese takeout. But giving in to these urges will only make them intensify as the sugar and simple starches spike, and then crash, your blood sugar. This roller-coaster ride is no fun for your waistline, either.

Diet alone cannot cure SAD or any other kind of depression, but proper nutrition can take the edge off. Now is the time to make sure you’re eating plenty of organic fruits and vegetables. You can start as simply as having an apple for an afternoon snack. It’s also easy to add a green salad or some local root vegetables to every dinner. There’s some evidence that adding omega-3 fatty acids (commonly found in fish) to your diet may help, too.

2. Cut back on the caffeine. It seems counterintuitive, but a pot of coffee in the morning is not helping you get up or stay awake. But drinking more than two cups a day can mess with how much, and how well, you sleep at night. And using alcohol to make yourself drowsy is similarly counterproductive in the long run. If you drink three or more cups of coffee a day, try this: Replace your least important cup with a cup of green or herbal tea. You will still have a hot and distractingly tasty beverage. You will have the comforting little ritual of brewing the tea. You will have 100 fewer milligrams of caffeine.

3. Fake a sunrise. Much research points to the benefits of light therapy for seasonal depression. It involves staring at a bright light for 15 to 30 minutes every day, first thing in the morning. I’ve used light therapy and it works when I can stick to the regimen. Another light treatment option is a “dawn simulator” — usually packaged as an alarm clock with a light. The light slowly brightens until it is time to wake up. I use one of these, and it has literally changed my life. I can get up in the dead of winter as easily as in midsummer because although it’s dark outside, inside my bedroom the sun has risen just three feet away from my head.

4. Fake a suntan. I'm not saying to spray it on, I'm saying there's new evidence that connects SAD with wintertime vitamin D deficiencies. When we spend more time inside, we miss the sun exposure that boosts our vitamin D levels. And it’s difficult to eat enough vitamin-D-rich foods to make up the difference. That’s why more and more doctors recommend adding a supplement of about 1,000 IU daily. A simple blood test will tell you exactly how much you need.

5. Exercise, if only for a minute. Exercise improves mood in the short term and overall health in the long term, which improves mood… see? It’s like a vicious cycle, but without the viciousness. When you are exhausted and crabby, it’s hard to face an hour in the gym. So go for just ten minutes. Or just walk around the block. Start somewhere. Give yourself something to build on.

6. Call on a friend. If you’re tired and glum, maybe you’re not in the mood to see anyone. And if you don’t see anyone, you will be ever more tired and glum. Just call one person for a few minutes. If you are so bored that you can’t think of anything to talk about, then just say, “I was thinking of you. How are you doing?” Maybe your friend is blue, too. You can commiserate together.

7. Cut yourself some slack. Like any form of depression, SAD makes it hard to get big things done — and it warps your perspective on what’s important. Remind yourself that having SAD is like having a mental head cold: It might be best to wait until you’re feeling better to take on an energetic new project. Don’t chide yourself for taking only little steps. Even little steps are forward steps.

Fellow survivor of winter, a list of seven things can seem daunting. But just pick the easiest one and try it. You could start feeling better in as little as a few days to a week. And by the time Daylight Savings begins on March 14, you will have some healthy habits, too.

Amy Boland is a Twin Cities writer and food enthusiast. You can read more of her food musings on her blog Cook 'Em if You Got 'Em.