Simple steps to avoid prenatal depression during the dark, cold months.
In Milton, Ontario, Canada, where Janice Smith lives, a February day might reach 5 degrees and darkness sets in well before the workday ends—conditions that trigger Smith's yearly bout with seasonal affective disorder, aka SAD or winter depression. "In winter, I can barely get out of bed in the morning, and I typically retreat from my friends," she says.
So Smith's surprise third pregnancy, which landed in winter, could have spelled big trouble. Instead, she attacked the season head-on. She set a goal of walking or running about 310 miles during her pregnancy. Using her Nike+ GPS app to log her distance, she decided to participate in the Mamavation fitness community for motivation. "The community and support I received made me feel happier and more energetic than I had in years," says Smith, who ran and walked outdoors on her lunch hour to reap the mood-brightening benefits of sunlight—and exceeded her goal by 31 miles.
Being active through her pregnancy benefited her afterward as well. "When my daughter was 6 months old, I weighed 10 pounds less than my prepregnancy weight and completed a half marathon," Smith says.
33 Reasons to Exercise Now: The benefits of exercising during pregnancy begin immediately and will last your whole life.
Whether you suffer from SAD or simply are prone to feeling down in the winter, working to keep your mood elevated is a must. Prenatal depression, which affects 15 percent to 23 percent of moms-to-be, can surface at any time and is associated with preterm delivery, low birth weight and postpartum depression. "Normal symptoms of pregnancy, such as mood swings or fatigue, can be similar to symptoms of depression, so it's easy to dismiss them," says clinical psychologist Shoshana Bennett, Ph.D., co-author of Beyond the Blues: Understanding and Treating Prenatal and Postpartum Depression & Anxiety (Moodswings Press). "It starts out feeling like a comfort thing, like 'I just want to be by myself and curl up with a magazine and a blanket,' which sounds nurturing. But if you find yourself not returning friends' calls and seeking comfort all the time, especially with food, that's a warning sign."
Go to the light: Serotonin, a brain chemical linked to mood, energy and feelings of fullness, drops in winter because of the prolonged darkness, says Norman Rosenthal, M.D., a clinical professor of psychology at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and author of Winter Blues (Guilford Press). Exposure to light, natural or artificial, may shoot serotonin levels back up. Rosenthal recommends using a dawn simulator, a lamp that mimics a gradual sunrise, sending light into your eyes through closed lids. He also suggests sitting—or, better yet, exercising—in front of a light box for 15 to 30 minutes a day. "Both the light and exercise will reduce appetite, especially for sweets and starches," Rosenthal says.
Let nature lift your spirits: "Noticing the change in the leaves from one week to the next helps you make a positive, healthy connection between time passing and your baby developing," Rosenthal notes.
Avoid isolation: "When you feel supported, your serotonin levels increase," Bennett says. "Even virtual hugs help." If you can't meet up with a friend, use FaceTime or Skype or join an online support group for prenatal exercisers or other moms-to-be.
Get your DHA: This omega-3 fatty acid may reduce depression risk. Good sources include fish-oil capsules or 12 ounces a week of low-mercury fatty fish such as wild salmon, anchovies, scallops, shrimp and trout.