It’s getting dark earlier every day, and you may have noticed your mood staying a little darker, as well. The “winter blues” aren’t just a figment of your imagination. What’s clinically referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, is estimated to affect 10 million Americans, and another 10 to 20 percent could experience mild symptoms. It’s a type of depression that’s tied to the changing of the seasons.
Here are some quick questions to use as a sort of seasonal affective disorder test:
- Do you experience sleeping issues around the time when seasons change?
- Are you constantly tired or feeling low on energy?
- Have you noticed drastic changes in your appetite or weight?
- Do you have a hard time concentrating?
- Are you feeling worthless or helpless?
If you answered “yes” to most or all of those questions, it’s likely you could be feeling the effects of SAD. It’s a good idea to see a doctor if you’re experiencing these symptoms for days at a time.
Now that you know the symptoms, here’s a deeper dive into this condition’s causes, more signs to look for, and how you can prevent or treat it.
What Causes SAD
The exact cause of seasonal affective disorder is a bit of a mystery to scientists. In the broadest sense, the theory is that changes in daylight hours throw off the body’s circadian rhythm, the natural process in your body that regulates the sleep-wake cycle.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) goes into a little more detail. The institute says findings show the winter blues may reduce the activity of serotonin in the brain. That’s the chemical that stabilizes your mood, often referred to as “the happy chemical.” Further research suggests sunlight helps control molecules that regulate those serotonin levels. That regulation doesn’t work correctly for people who suffer from SAD, which leads to decreased serotonin levels in the winter.
Other research shows that those with seasonal affective disorder produce too much melatonin, which results in that feeling of always being tired or sleeping too much. Melatonin production is stimulated by darkness, so the shorter days of winter can naturally make our bodies increase those melatonin levels.
With SAD being tied to the production of those hormones, which themselves are connected to sunlight and darkness, findings show that people who live far north or south of the equator are most affected. Additionally, people who deal with other forms of depression or bi-polar disorder are at a higher risk of SAD.
Signs and Symptoms
As mentioned above, seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression. Due to the nature of the winter blues, people affected will usually experience symptoms for 4 or 5 months out of the year, and those symptoms are very similar to what you would experience with major depression.
The most common type of SAD occurs during the fall and winter. Here are the signs to look out for during that time of the year:
- Feeling sad or depressed for most of every day
- Being uninterested in activities you used to enjoy
- Changes in appetite, such as craving foods high in carbohydrates
- Weight gain
- Feeling tired or having low energy
- Having trouble concentrating
- Feeling worthless or hopeless
- Thoughts of death or suicide
It’s much less common, but some people are affected by spring and summer SAD. The symptoms are similar, but instead of oversleeping, you’re likely to experience insomnia (trouble sleeping) and anxiety along with a poor appetite and weight loss.
Prevention and Treatment
Unfortunately, there’s no way to totally keep yourself from getting the winter blues. The good news is you can do a few things to help lessen the impact.
First, make sure you’re getting plenty of exercise (bonus points if you’re exercising outdoors). Increasing the blood flow to the brain by getting your heart rate up has been proven to reduce anxiety and depression. Getting into a good routine ahead of the fall or winter can set you up to keep any symptoms as mild as possible.
Second, make sure you’re staying social. Keeping in touch with friends and family and getting out to do things can occupy your mind and remind you just how much of a support network you’ve got all around you. It’s all about staying positive.
You can also try starting some of the common SAD treatment a little early to get ahead of the symptoms. There are four categories that those treatments fall into, according to the NIMH.
This is a simple therapy that is pretty straightforward. Here’s how it works: you’ll spend time every day in front of a big lightbox from fall until spring. You’ll spend 30 or 45 minutes every day in front of that light, which is the same color temperature as natural daylight.
The idea here is to give you more exposure to daylight to counteract the loss of sunshine hours in the fall and winter. It’s a simple treatment that works for most. It may not work for you if you’ve got eye conditions or take medications that make you more sensitive to bright light.
Sometimes you just need to talk things out. That’s where cognitive behavioral therapy comes in. It helps people learn to handle difficult situations.
Cognitive behavioral therapy has been adapted to treat those that are dealing with the winter blues. Usually, you’ll go to two weekly group sessions for a period of six weeks. The goal of this method is to take those dark thoughts that are associated with winter and replace them with happy thoughts.
Antidepressant medicines are commonly prescribed to SAD patients since studies show seasonal affective disorder is related to problems with serotonin levels. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are made to increase the levels of serotonin in the brain. The serotonin increase helps keep patients in a good mood.
The downside to this treatment path is that all medications can come along with side effects. It’s important to talk to your doctor about what side effects you could experience. You may have to try several different medications before finding one that agrees with you.
Research shows many people with seasonal affective disorder have a vitamin D deficiency. With that in mind, taking nutritional vitamin D supplements could possibly help reduce symptoms of SAD. This method has been shown to produce mixed results, though. Some studies have found it to be as effective as light therapy while others have found no effect whatsoever.
Don’t Be Afraid to Get Help
You can’t overstate the importance of your mental health. If you think you could be one of the millions of people dealing with SAD, see your doctor as soon as possible.
If you don’t address the issue, you could experience complications like being socially withdrawn, school or work performance impact, substance abuse, other mental health disorders, or even suicidal thoughts. Just take a deep breath and remember we’ll work together to keep you on the road to Better Health.