Utilizing the 4 Pillars of Wellness When Experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder
With the New Year underway, many are starting 2024 with the intention of making changes to their diets, habits, and overall lifestyle. Wellness becomes a topic of particular focus in January due to the end of the holiday season and desired shifts toward improving our health. The beginning of the year can also be challenging for some, whether due to the pressure to keep up with New Year’s resolutions, a need to recover from the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, or the difficulties of seasonal affective disorder reaching a peak.
Approximately 10 million people in the United States experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), also known as seasonal depression, throughout the fall and winter months. Putting away holiday decorations, managing increased holiday expenses, and returning to a normal routine can put added pressure on our already busy lives. In addition, the weather is cold, the days are short, and people may start to feel the impact of spending most of their time indoors. It’s important to check in with your mental health during this time of the year and to take steps to protect and optimize it.
At Summerfield, we like to think of our wellbeing as a structure that needs 4 key elements to be well supported. We know these as the 4 Pillars of Wellness: sleep, nutrition, activity, and stress. Managing these pillars intentionally can assist us in preventing an imbalance or recovering more effectively when one occurs. The pillars are interconnected, all playing a part in establishing a stable foundation for our health. So, if one starts to crumble, it puts more weight on the other three, thus compromising the integrity of our health foundation. While this is something we can withstand for a short period of time, if prolonged, we start to see the negative effects of this imbalance.
Let’s look more closely at each pillar and how we can best support it to optimize our balance at a time when many of us feel an increased need.
Sleep is an essential activity for the mind and body to undergo necessary rest and recovery processes. When we sleep, our body removes toxins, repairs cellular damage, releases hormones, and creates energy for the next day. For an average adult, it is recommended to get 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Keeping a steady sleep schedule boosts mood and increases energy, so inconsistencies with sleep habits and schedules can have a negative impact. A few tips to optimize our habits and environment for quality sleep include:
- Limiting blue light exposure an hour before bedtime
- Cutting off caffeine by noon
- Sleeping in a cool, dark, and quiet space
- Going to bed and waking up within an hour of the same time each day
Nutrition is also an important pillar for both our mental and physical health. When meals are missed or inconsistent, we see greater shifts in blood sugar levels, which can lead to low energy, an altered mood, and feelings of intense hunger. Eating on a regular schedule and selecting balanced food combinations are useful strategies to prevent these symptoms from occurring. Balanced eating incorporates a mixture of macronutrients – carbohydrates, proteins, fats–and micronutrients – vitamins and minerals. According to the Plate Method, a tool we use at Summerfield for crafting healthy meals with ease, protein sources such as beans, meat, nuts, seeds, and fish should make up roughly ¼ of our plate. Starches or carbohydrates should comprise another ¼ and could include grains, starchy vegetables, or fruits. The remaining half of the plate consists of colorful non-starchy vegetables, such as greens, carrots, tomatoes, broccoli, and peppers.
This concept also makes it easier to minimize the reliance on foods that are highly processed, high in salt or sugar and low in vitamins and minerals, ensuring the foods we select most often promote health and prevent disease. Making intentional decisions about what you are eating may be an adjustment at first, but prioritizing one small shift each day can help improve your mood and may encourage you to continue building in more mindful decisions in other areas of your life.
Exercise can help improve our mood and energy levels as we get our body moving and blood flowing. Data shows that physical activity is an effective tool for managing depression. Exercise boosts the production of endorphins, chemical messengers in the body that promote a good mood. Exercise also helps with regulating blood sugar because when we exercise, blood sugar is used by our muscle cells without a need for insulin to transport the sugar into the cells. So much so that exercise is considered a useful strategy in the management of diabetes, as well as other chronic health conditions.
Exercise does not just mean going to the gym to workout; there are many ways to fit exercise in throughout the day without needing a gym membership! Cleaning your house, going for a 15-minute walk after lunch, or doing a 20-minute workout video at the end of your workday. As long as it’s an activity you enjoy doing, it is likely to have an energizing and mood-boosting effect.
Stress is a very broad term because what one person perceives as stressful may just be a minor concern to someone else. Stress most often relates to events or situations in life that put pressure on our time, energy, or mental capacity. These might occur in the areas of our home, work, or social lives.
In persistent or more extreme cases, the nervous system state that is programed to protect us goes into overdrive or remains active longer than it should, causing us to feel the effects of stress beyond the event or situation. Our best tool at times like these is to engage in activities that send a signal of safety to our mind and body, allowing our nervous system to shift into a calmer state.
Common strategies for managing stress include meditation, deep breathing, moving our bodies, talking to someone, engaging in a hobby, reading a book or cooking a favorite dish to eat mindfully. Even when we are busy and stressed, carving out time to prioritize one of these activities will support us on a deeper level, often lessening the felt experience of stress.
Each new day is a chance to integrate mindful changes for your mental and physical well-being. If you believe you experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, consideration to prioritize sleep, balanced nutrition, regular activity, and stress management may be useful in managing the associated symptoms. Summerfield Custom Wellness has many dietitians who support individuals working towards improving their health in various areas and we’d be happy to assist you on your journey.