It’s that time of the year again, where the weather is changing, it’s colder and the sun in shinning less frequently. For some the weather is not the only thing that is changing during this time of the year, some people also experience a dramatic change in their mood. If you notice that you feel sadness, depression, lethargy and a loss in interest in fun activities during a particular time of the year, every year, you may be dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder aka SAD aka “Winter Blues”. According to the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, SAD is a type of depression that comes and goes based on the seasons. It is very common in the United States, there are more than 3 million occurrences per year. The specific causes of SAD is unknown but some factors that may come into play include:
- Biological clock/Circadian Rhythm– The reduced level of sunlight in the fall and winter may disrupt your body’s internal clock and lead to feelings of depression.
- Serotonin levels– a drop in serotonin (a brain chemical/neurotransmitter that affects mood) can happen when there is a drop in sunlight exposure.
- Melatonin levels– the change in season can disrupt the balance of the body’s level of melatonin, which plays a vital role in sleep patterns and mood.
- Sex/Gender– SAD is diagnosed more often in women than in men, but men may have more severe symptoms.
- Age– young people have a higher risk of SAD and it occurs less likely in older adults.
- Family history– SAD or another form of depression may run in families.
- Environment– living farther from the equator or in places with less sunlight can contribute to the onset of SAD.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder usually begin October or November and subside in March or April. Majority of SAD occurs in the Winter months when there is less light, but there are also occurrences of Summer SAD, which has some different symptoms. Here are some of the symptoms of SAD. Please review this list and check those that apply to you.
- Notice of a change in mood during a certain time of the year
- Feeling Depressed most of the day, nearly everyday
- Feeling hopeless or worthless
- Having low energy
- Losing interest in activities you once enjoyed
- Having problems sleeping
- Experiencing changes in your appetite or weight
- Feeling sluggish or agitated
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Having frequent thoughts of death or suicide
Here is a brief comparison of the differences in symptoms between Fall/Winter & Spring/Summer SAD:
Tiredness or low energy
Problems getting along with other people
Hypersensitivity to rejection
Appetite changes, especially a craving for foods high in carbohydrates
Trouble Sleeping (insomnia)
It’s normal to have some days when you feel down, but if you check more than 3 symptoms and experience them for more than 2 weeks, then you may be dealing with Seasonal Affective Disorder. Don’t be afraid or get overwhelmed, there is help. Below are some options for you to develop a treatment plan and take control of your SAD.
1. See your doctor (either you PCP or mental health specialist)- the doctor can test your hormone levels and run other test to check to see if your issue is more serious. Here are some questions you can ask your doctor:
- What treatment is best for me?
- What changes can I make at home to help myself?
- Should/How can I make any changes to my diet?
2. Cognitive Behavioral/Talk therapy (CBT)– CBT has shown to be effective on the immediate and long-term effects of SAD. CBT focuses on helping the client to develop skills to improve coping with seasonal changes and moods. The therapist works with the patient to foster behavioral (doing) skills and cognitive (thinking) skills, which help to be proactive before the onset of SAD.
3. Alternative medicine/supplements (always consult a physician/herbalist/naturopath before moving forward with these remedies because some may not be appropriate for your individual situation (i.e. if you are taking medication, pregnant/breastfeeding, or have any other medical issues).
- Vitamin D3- one of the causes of SAD may be a lack of Vitamin D3, which is produced in the skin in response to sunlight. Taking 2000IU of Vitamin D3 daily can make significant improvements in seasonal depression.
- B-complex vitamins (B2, B6, B12 & folic acid)- vitamin B complex deficiencies can lead to mood disorders and depression and if you are not getting adequate amount of B vitamins from your diet, a B-complex supplement will help. The best way to get these vitamins is through foods like fish, beans, dark green leafy vegetables, and fortified cereals, but if you can’t get an adequate amount of these food then a supplement is recommended.
- Omega-3 fatty acid (fish oil)– a supplement that is plentiful in fish oils not only reduce the risk of heart attacks and ease the pain of arthritis, it is also shown to help with mood swings.
- 5-HTP- an amino acid that works in the brain and central nervous system by increasing the production of the chemical serotonin. Numerous studies have shown that 5-HTP to be as or more effective than many prescription antidepressants. (this should not be taken in conjunction with a SSRI drug)
- Lemon Balm- an herb that has a positive effect on the brain, helping to ease sadness and depression, calm mania and hysteria, enhance sleep and aid memory and concentration.
- Eleuthero (Siberian ginseng)- an adaptogenic herb that helps to balance the body and support energy. It helps the body cope better with stress; it also increases stamina and endurance and stimulates the brain to improve concentration.
- St. John’s wort– a herb that aids in alleviating depression, anxiety, tiredness, loss of appetite and trouble sleeping.
- SAMe-is a chemical that is found naturally in the body and can also be made in the laboratory; it can be beneficial in helping with alleviating the symptoms of depression, anxiety, PMS, Osteoarthritis and other conditions.
- Melatonin– a natural hormone made by the body’s pineal gland; it regulates your sleep patterns by sending signals to your body to sleep. You can take Melatonin, if your body is not producing enough and you are suffering from insomnia, it will help you sleep.
4. Mind/body therapies– acupuncture, yoga, meditation, guided imagery, massage therapy
5. Light Therapy– According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the most widely used treatment for SAD is light therapy, which is daily exposure to bright artificial light. Though light therapy devices are readily available for purchase without a prescription, it is advised to participate in the process under the supervision of your doctor/mental health provider.
6. Lifestyle Changes– changing what you eat and incorporating exercise into your daily routine can have a significant impact on your mood. Eating meals with lots of natural fruits and vegetables and healthy proteins and fats helps your body function properly. Also, walking or even doing 10-30 minute mild exercise like yoga, cardio, dancing, cleaning, etc can help your body detox, metabolize and produce feel good hormones.
7. Surround yourself with good energy– when you feel the SAD symptoms coming on, be proactive and surround yourself by the family members and friends that make you laugh. When you start feeling SAD you may want to be alone, challenge yourself to do the opposite by being social.
In light of all the information above, if you or someone you know has SAD please be proactive in creating a treatment plan that caters to your needs. My hope is that this article reaches and helps someone who either is suffering from SAD or knows someone who might be. Mental Health is vital, and too often people dismiss it because they see it as not important or that having a mental disorder/illness/issue as a weakness. We have to change how we think about mental health and start being more proactive to alleviate the plague of mental disorders in our community. Seeking help is not a weakness, it shows strength and that you care about yourself! So, love yourself enough to heal yourself!