As many as one in six people suffer from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD—a form of depression that seems to ride in on autumn’s coattails. Health experts have long suspected sun exposure (or lack thereof) has something to do with the phenomenon. And new research from the University of Copenhagen seems to back up those beliefs.
After analyzing blood samples of people with and without SAD, the Danish researchers discovered sufferers tended to have higher levels of one kind of “transporter protein.” This protein lowers the activity of the brain chemical serotonin, which plays a key role in mood regulation.
Put simply, if your serotonin levels drop too low, so will your mood.
Sunlight naturally boosts your levels of this brain chemical, the study authors say. (In fact, many antidepressant drugs work by chemically upping the activity of serotonin.) And while most people maintain adequate levels of serotonin even in fall and winter, that doesn’t seem to be the case for SAD sufferers.
Here are 5 ways to raise your serotonin levels even in the coldest, darkest months:
If a lack of sunlight is the problem, it makes sense that more light could be a solution. And research from UBC Hospital in Vancouver has shown light therapy is effective at combatting seasonal depression. You can buy a light box for your home or office that provides the kind of bright rays that elevate your brain’s serotonin levels, the research concludes.
Exercise Your Demons
Although the connection between exercise and depression is still debatable, there’s evidence physical activity—especially aerobic exercise—not only boosts your brain’s levels of serotonin but also keeps those levels elevated for hours after your workout, shows a paper from Princeton University. (No time to get to the gym? You can still benefit from these 25 ways to sneak in 10 minutes of exercise.)
Laugh A Little
While low serotonin kneecaps your mood, there’s some evidence that this mood-serotonin link is a two-way street. What does that mean? Laughing with friends, watching a funny movie, or doing something that briefly improves your mood may stoke your brain’s levels of serotonin, shows a study from the University of Montreal.
Even on cloudy fall days, the strength of outdoor sunlight is still many times brighter than anything you’ll experience indoors, shows a paper from McGill University in Canada. By spending at least 30 minutes a day outdoors even during the cold winter months, you may offset the seasonal drops in serotonin. More research shows walking in nature—especially with other people—is also an effective way to beat back depression.
Rub It Away
Massage appears to increase your brain and body’s levels of serotonin, according to a review study from the University of Miami School of Medicine. A separate study from Taiwan found this soothing experience significantly knocked down symptoms of the blues. (Massage not in the budget? Here’s how to give yourself an awesome massage.)